Research: Past & Present
all students achieve higher standards
Environment and Student Engagement
by Paul Kihn
The issues around the physical environment of
schools have been well-researched. This action
research project approaches the topic of physical
space from the
less-common vantage point of student perspective, exploring children's ideas
about the physical school environment and its correlation with learning.
What are students' perceptions about the connection between physical environment
and learning? Do students perceive the physical environment as influencing
teaching and learning?
My thoughts for this study were inspired by comparing the behavior and
engagement of students within my classroom with the way those same children
creatively used an open park for play. The comparison led me to wonder: Is
there a connection between the environments of schools and student engagement?
Do the learning spaces and their uses impact on student learning? If students
feel more comfortable in a particular space, are they more engaged? Do they
I chose to focus on two seventh-grade Language Arts classes, each with 20 students,
in a New York City public school. The classes are made up of largely African-American
and Hispanic low-income students. These two classes are highly energetic, filling
the small space of the Language Arts classroom with movement and noise.
Summary of Outcomes
In order to understand students' perspectives on physical environments,
I used three methods of data collection and analysis.
1. Survey: Student opinion about comfort and learning
I administered a survey to the students asking them to rank 14 spaces within
the school building (including classrooms, the back stairway and the main office,
for example) on two separate scales: how much they felt they learned and how
comfortable they were in each space.
My analysis of the survey results reveals a high correlation between students' self-reported
comfort within a space and their self-reported learning. In other words, students
report feeling comfortable in the same places where they believe they are learning.
For example, the average comfort score for the Social Studies room was 8.9
(on a 10 point scale), and its average learning score was 9.4. Similarly, students
gave the Language Arts room an average 7.1 for comfort and an average 8.2 for
learning. The few exceptions to this trend - for example, the Math Room received
a 3.9 for comfort and a 6.6 for learning 97 raise important questions for further
study: under what circumstances does this correlation not hold? and do children's
feelings about their teachers influence the correlation?
To better understand the student survey findings, I observed places the students
ranked highly for both comfort and learning and I recorded some characteristics
of those places as follows:
Characteristics of high-learning, high-comfort
- Variety of areas within space
- Variety of student activities within space
- A lot of teacher mobility
- A lot of student mobility
2. Case study: Language Arts room re-arrangement
The second method of data collection involved
students in the re-organization of furniture in
the small Language Arts room. We tried a variety
of arrangements, discussing them and eventually
voting for the one most conducive to learning and
comfort. The final arrangement--angling the tables
45 degrees from the front wall--allowed greater
movement through the room for both the teacher
and the students. By increasing mobility, this
arrangement enhanced the comfort of students and
varied Language Arts activities.
3. Student designs: Ideal learning spaces
The study's third data-collection method involved the students in discussing,
writing about, designing and building "ideal" places of learning. In their
writing, students elaborated interesting ideas about learning and the physical
environment. "The more comfortable we are," wrote Jennifer, "the more we
Building on such ideas, the student designs ranged from a traditional,
square classroom with regimented desks to a circular, underground chamber
to a star-shaped
room with a river running through its center. While many of the external features
of the designs appeared overly-elaborate or whimsical, an analysis of the interior
spaces revealed useful characteristics of students' connections between physical
environment and learning:
- A wide variety of de-centralized areas within the space
- High interest environments
- Priority given to physical movement
- Fun built into the classrooms
- The spaces were mostly centered on student activity, rarely placing the
teacher in a central location
This action research study has the following implications for educational
- Include the perspectives of students in policy development
- Design and build schools and furnish classrooms to allow for varied use
- Prepare teachers to arrange classrooms and use space creatively, including
fostering mobility and varied learning spaces within rooms
- Prepare teachers to engage students in creative, action-oriented projects
This action research project explored student perceptions about the connection
between their comfort and their learning in the physical school environment.
Questions raised by the project which need further exploration include:
- What causes the general correlation between comfort and learning?
- Do children's feelings
about their teachers impact their feelings
of comfort and level
- What is the correlation
between the self-reported "learning" of
students and their performance on classroom
and institutional assessments?