Obsession with the Learning Environment

In many ways, teaching in England was a great experience and in other ways not so much. On the one hand, new freedoms (pseudo-freedoms really) given to schools have sparked widespread debate and a proliferation of new ideas. On the other hand, I was introduced to some of the weirdest educational practice I did not even know existed. This is largely due to English Ed’s obsession with the newest trendy idea. English primary teachers can attest to this: a new idea is born and all of a sudden schools are in a full-blown arms race to develop the BIGGEST and BEST new version of the very trendy in-thing – that new practice that’s going to change everything and ensure super-duper good progress. This leads to some weird behaviour indeed.

The working wall is probably the most straight forward example. When I first got to the UK, I thought colleagues were joking when they told me every wall needed to be a ‘learning wall’ and needed to be changed every six weeks. This lead to some really weird stuff like having students engage in pseudo-learning just to put stuff on the wall and slaving away until 6:30 in the evening to make it all look pretty. By the time I’d gotten everything up it was soon all coming down again anyway. Madness. Worse still, I was engaged in somewhat of an arms race with all the other teachers in the school. No hiding either: during staff meetings, we would walk around to observe working walls in other classrooms and give two stars and a wish to each other.

Schools can hardly be blamed for engaging in such weird practice. Ofsted is largely to blame for promoting it – as if they believe the walls are somehow going to teach the students:

Stunning displays throughout the school stimulate and support pupils and show their engagement in their learning. Displays illustrate the richness of the curriculum and show that all groups of learners have equal access to learning. 

Displays celebrate pupils’ achievements as well as work on literacy, numeracy, art, geography and cultures from around the world. These help to reinforce learning and extend pupils’ knowledge and understanding of multicultural Britain.*

Now I’m not opposed to focussing on the learning environment per se, but I do take an issue with the rationale currently used to emphasise it. I seriously doubt the learning environment has any great impact on student learning. In fact, the exact opposite may be true. Even if it did have an impact, it is dwarfed by that of good teaching. So instead of obsessing over the learning environment spending hours and hours making it all look so nice and pretty, can we get back to just teaching, please? All those hours wasted could be much better spent getting better at teaching. Sure, keep the classroom neat and tidy and use it when need calls, but perhaps we should stop obsessing over it – there really is no justification for it.

Australia isn’t immune to an obsession with the learning environment either, it just manifests itself in different weird ways. The new trend is flexible learning spaces – bean bags and all. These spaces are often open plan, contain more than one class and are sectioned off into ‘zones’. Here’s a poster explaining the Zones and how they can be used:

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Again, I don’t have any qualms about flexible spaces per se, but I do question how they are used and perceived to improve student learning – just like working walls. Having students working in separate zones, presumably away from a teacher, is not likely to be very effective. Social loafing aside, students are quite poor at measuring their own capabilities. If a teacher is not there to help them because they are not in the Teacher Zone, then progress is likely to be limited and misconceptions are likely to occur. I think presuming a change in the layout of a classroom will have an impact on student performance is a bit of a stretch. It’s certainly not supported by evidence. So instead of figuring out how to rearrange the furniture, can we just get back to the teaching, please?


* If you would like the Ofsted report references, then please ask and I will provide.


1 thought on “Obsession with the Learning Environment”

  1. Dude! You have put into words something that has been quietly, but constantly, annoying me my entire time teaching primary. I have no problem using walls to display useful information ( for example I am making a big push with tier 2 vocabulary and it is useful to have the words displayed) but there is a time/cost that needs to be considered. Time spent on displays could be spent on planning, marking (don’t get me started), assessing, working on my practice, improving my subject knowledge. Or maybe once in a while finishing work on time, not taking work home and spending some quality time with my partner.


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