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TNLI: Action Research: Curriculum Implementation: Physical Environment and Student Engagement

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Helping all students achieve higher standards

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Teacher leadership in school change   Helping all students achieve higher standards      

Physical 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.

Research Questions
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 achieve more?

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 spaces

  • 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 learn."

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

Policy Implications
This action research study has the following implications for educational policy:
  • Include the perspectives of students in policy development
  • Design and build schools and furnish classrooms to allow for varied use of space
  • 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

Further Questions
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 of learning?
  • What is the correlation between the self-reported "learning" of students and their performance on classroom and institutional assessments?


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