The use of the classroom environment

Bennett and Kell’s 1989 study described poor classroom organization and its effects, which showed in a lack of pupil involvement in the lessons (with some pupils wandering about inanely), interruptions which disrupted the whole class, and a general lack of interest or motivation on the part of the pupils.5 Children played about without the teacher apparently being aware of it. There was little or no teacher control.

The key way in which teacher control can be improved is through the organization of the classroom; this is viewed by many educationalists as the Holy Grail. Currently, educationalists recognize four main types of classroom organization which takes place in primary schools: whole class, individual, paired and group working.

Whole class teaching is where all the pupils undertake the same activity, at the same time, whilst usually being addressed by the teacher positioned at the front of the room. This is successful for starting and ending the day, for giving out administrative instructions, general teaching, extending and reviewing work, and controlling the pupils during unruly periods of the day. The whole class can be organized so that everyone is being taught the same thing at the same time. This type of organization is particularly useful where a lot of discussion is required. Group or individual work often follows this, with children coming together again to discuss and review what they have been doing during individual or smaller group work.

Individual work will often follow a whole class briefing. This process is thought to be particularly useful for developing children’s ability to work independently at their own pace through a structured work scheme. Children may work on individual tasks which may be of their own creation or an interpretation of a group theme suggested by the teacher. Paired as opposed to individual working allows children to collaborate on a task with one other pupil. This not only helps by making different aspects of a problem more explicit through collaboration in a limited and controlled form, but it also helps to develop each child’s language ability.

There are many situations when a class of children needs to be divided in order to undertake particular activities. A powerful argument for grouping is that it encourages collaboration and supports the interactions and discussions through which much learning and socialization develops. It also helps with competency in social and language skills and as a means by which pupils can support, challenge and extend their learning together, through problem solving or working on a joint creative task. Different types of grouping are needed for different activities and children should have the opportunity to be part of a variety of groupings; ideally groupings should be flexible and varied. There are seven types of grouping arrangements: grouping by age, ability grouping, developmental grouping, grouping by learning need, interest groups, social learning groups and friendship groups.6

Learning activities can be thought of as falling into five categories. The activities differ in many respects including variable factors such as the number of pupils involved, the interactions they involve and the nature of the attention they require. However, the key groupings can be summarized as follows: [2] 2

3 In small groups;

4 As a whole class;

5 Or, when not with their teacher, alone or in collaboration.

It is also clear from the literature reviewed that the use of these types of activity differs, with individual work and whole class teaching tending to feature most prominently. While group seating makes sense for two of the five types of learning activity, it is not suited for individual work.7 A balance needs to be struck regarding the time spent on individual work, whole classwork and smaller group work. This must be organized with regard to both pedagogical and practical considerations relating to the space in which it takes place.

Barker (1978) and Bronfenbrenner (1979) have discussed the importance of the quality of the environment and the fact that it can influence behaviour, a view which is commonly stated by teachers.8 Space in classrooms is often limited and must be utilized with great skill to enable the activities, which form essential components of the primary school curriculum, to take place effectively. The organization of space may have a profound effect on learning because pupils tend to feel connected to a school that recognizes their needs through the provision of good architecture and good resources:

When children experience a school obviously designed with their needs in mind, they notice it and demonstrate a more natural disposition towards respectful behaviour and a willingness to contribute to the classroom community.9

It is axiomatic that a beautifully designed school, like any public building, is good for its users. However, there is much anecdotal evidence supporting the view that new ‘landmark school architecture’ does not always satisfy its users functionally. Architects do not get the classroom design right, often as a result of too little consultation. In the primary school classroom the teachers’ task is to ensure that children experience the curriculum, develop and learn and are seen to be making progress. Therefore the presentation of children’s work is most important and should be constantly updated. The primary school classroom should be aesthetically pleasing; stimulate children’s interests; set high standards in display and presentation of children’s work; and be designed in such a way that the room can be easily cleaned and maintained.10

Educational attainment has been shown to correlate with spending levels in each locality, so that in theory the higher the resource provision, the higher the attainment and the greater the educational life chances in that area. Investment in UK schools comes about via a complex combination of school-based decisions, numbers of pupils on the roll and the priority given to education by national and local government at the time. Presently within the UK, the quality of education and the buildings that support it have been widely condemned and with such obviously badly maintained old buildings, pupils and their parents can readily see how little investment there has been in education over the years. This has a great political significance, hence a lot of new capital investment is now beginning to happen within the UK.

In educational terms ‘resources’ are materials and equipment used in the classroom (as opposed to the buildings) and the quality of learning experiences will be directly affected by their provision. Materials include things such as paper and pencils and can be considered as consumables. Equipment is also very significant in primary education because it is usually through the use of appropriate equipment that the pupils get enhanced learning experiences. Both in quality and quantity these resources have an impact on what it is possible to do in classrooms. A good supply of appropriate resources is essential.[3] [4] However, these older research studies referred to here do not consider ICT (information communi­cations technology) in any great depth, a recent and profoundly important dimension which now also needs to be considered as part of the resource structure.

There are three criteria that must be considered when organizing resources:12

2 Availability. What resources are available? What is in the classroom, the school, the community, businesses, libraries, museums, local resource centres? Are there cost, time or transport factors to be considered?

3 Storage. How are classroom resources stored? Which should be under teacher control? Which should be openly available to the children? Are resources clearly labelled and safely stored.

Clearly, an effective classroom needs to be designed ergonomically so that storage is designed into the architecture in an appropriate, safe and accessible form. Close discussion with teachers will enable this to happen.

As previously stated, the way in which time is used in the classroom is very important. Pupil progress is undoubtedly related to the time that is made available for effective ‘curriculum activity’. However, many educationalists believe that the amount of pupil time spent in ‘active learning’ is more important. This is a qualitative criteria not a quantitative one, in that it implies a more positive engaged learning mode for the pupil. In order to maintain active engaged learning, an appropriate variety of activities offered within the classroom is necessary. This has clear spatial implications, for example, the availability of discreet work bays off the main teaching space or separate study areas to support pupils with special needs.

Findings from Pollard’s 1994 study showed considerable variations between the proportion of pupil time spent in different modes and various levels of pupil engagement in passive as opposed to active learning in various classroom situations.13 Mortimore et al. (1988) noted that between 66 and 75 per cent of teachers used a fairly precise timetable to order the activities during each session and noted that the older the children the more organization and lesson planning was required.14 The study found that managerial aspects of a teacher’s job took approximately 10 per cent of the time available within each teaching period.

The establishment of the UK National Curriculum in 1988, the need for public accountability and the subsequent numeracy and literacy strategies developed successfully since then have brought about an even more rigid allocation of time within the classroom environment. A study by Campbell and Neill (1994) illustrated the important concept of ‘time available for teaching’. They show that almost 10 per cent of teaching time is lost as ‘evaporated time’ in the management of classroom activities, which is necessary to create teaching and learning opportunities within the framework of the increasingly proscriptive educational curriculum.15 However, it was not estimated how much time was lost to teaching as a result of poor environmental conditions.