Designing Learning Environments

words and photos Stephen Sun

My name is Stephen Sun and I’m an architect who became a 4th-grade teacher at The Conservatory Lab Charter School. Before being able to share with you some of my personal experiences as an architect in a classroom, I’ll have to give some educational and political context.

Charter vs Public

Many of you have perhaps heard of this term: charter school, and the best way to describe this unique U.S. based system is to think of schools on a spectrum of financing and independence as they are almost the same thing.

On the far right are public schools. The government is in control of these schools and the schools have set curriculum that are driven by state learning standards that teachers and administrators are held accountable.

On the left, you have schools who are completely private thus independent. They have to raise their own money for teacher salary, building maintenance, and keeping the lights on. The trade-off for such freedoms is they can design their own curriculum, schedules, and rules.

Charter schools exist somewhere in between the spectrum where they’re given freedom to experiment with curriculum, teaching techniques, and other factors while also receiving public funding. The caveat is that they must perform to standards set by the district, but the means and methods they use to reach those standards are up for innovation. The original impetus for charter schools was to create mini-experiments to help public schools innovate new ideas on pedagogy. New programs could be tested in small school environments, and once deemed successful, those programs would be implemented across the entire public school network.

Conservatory Lab Charter School

The Conservatory Lab Charter School, where I’m a fourth-grade teacher, is a charter school in Dorchester, Massachusetts that uses this freedom to implement a music-based curriculum called El Sistema.

“El Sistema’s philosophy is based on the idea of music as a vehicle for social change: that the pursuit of musical excellence teaches students to strive for quality in all areas of their lives. The orchestra is the only community that comes together for the sole purpose of agreeing with itself. It is within this ensemble context that students experience the joy of hard work and the beauty of large groups of people creating music together.” [1] Fundamentally educators of our school are suggesting that if students in this impoverished neighborhood can work together in an orchestra setting, then they can co-exist with the greater community and beyond. As an aspiring educator and designer interested in education, I enthusiastically took on the challenge of teaching fourth grade.

Classroom Architecture  

As an architect in a classroom, I was inundated with educational ideas, challenges, questions, and realizations. The challenges of teaching in a school serving an impoverished community is that, as a teacher, one spends the majority of his/her time struggling with the behavior of students. This consists of emotionally distressed kids exposed to violent behaviors at home or in the neighborhood and kids with special needs. One needs to teach students how to properly behave before being able to impart knowledge.

And this is where it becomes fascinating: when it comes to dictating behavior, educators use words, while architects use environments. If a teacher wanted to foster positive behaviors for the school culture, there will inevitably be a poster that becomes lyrics for a chant in the morning, that then becomes ingrained in students’ mind.

Now, if an architect wanted to establish a set behavior, he/she would use the physical environment to do so. For example, if an architect designed a sidewalk that is only three feet wide, it would not allow two people to walk side by side – hence making it difficult for conversations. If instead, the path was twenty feet wide, activities such as jogging, biking, gardening, and sitting could take place. At a width of sixty feet, the sidewalk would become a boulevard that incubates the life one would find in a shopping mall – dining, socializing, performances, resting, and buying and selling. By changing one parameter – in this case, the width of the walkway – a designer can govern the types of activities that occur in the space.

Now let’s put ourselves in the context of my classroom called C3. On the previous page is a drawing of my classroom. It is far too complex to break down every single item, furniture, and object and their effects on the learning environment. However, it is interesting to examine three most common elements of a classroom: the rug, the whiteboard, and the desks.


“And this is where it becomes fascinating: when it comes to dictating behavior, educators use words, while architects use environments.”                 – Stephen Sun


Element 1: The Rug

The rug is a spatial anchor where students and teachers come together for morning circle. What is absolutely fascinating is that this object signals and allows for a specific behavior—its softness both makes it a comfortable sitting place and provides an extra layer of warmth from the otherwise cold linoleum tile floor. Its dark blue hue makes any mess very apparent, which in turn helps students notice and perhaps clean up.

Most importantly is its dimensions. Much like the sidewalk example, the length and width of the rug matters affect student behavior during morning circle.  It is physically impossible to seat twenty-five kids and two adults in a circle on a rectangular rug. This proximity of physical bodies triggers arguments over seating positions allows for chit-chat and conversations, causes furniture to collide, and causes constant disruptions.

The size of the rug is appropriate for students in kindergarten up to third grade, but the growth in the students’ bodies by fourth grade makes the rug physically too small to continue group activities. In a way, it’s ironic that a rug that was intended to facilitate circle discussions and activities can become a constraint due to its size. However, this isn’t so different from a sidewalk that is designed to promote economic activity down a street lined with restaurants but becomes an obstacle because it was built too narrowly.

How I’ve used the rug from a teaching perspective is for whole group instruction. Having the students close together is particularly effective for demonstrating science experiments or running a group discussion on topics that are important for a developing fourth grader. Some topics discussed range from bullying, discipline in controlling our emotions, how to deal with difficult social situations, to the most recent event that has shaken our students: the 2016 election of the U.S. President.

The rug is also important because it can create a sense of democracy in the classroom because it is a large space that is capable of holding all the students, and having everyone, teachers included, sitting in a circle promotes a sense of equality and informality.

Element 2: Whiteboard

Whiteboards are usually thought of as the center of the educational environment. It is where knowledge is broadcasted on a surface for the students to consume. To my surprise, this isn’t how most teachers use the whiteboard.  Instead, the whiteboard takes on the role of visual anchor, and its layout and organization do not change over the semester. There will always be a schedule, morning message, list of homework items, and step by step instructions on the board.

The whiteboard, in this case, acts very much like a blank canvas for artists and graphic designers. Like a web page, there are clear rules of hierarchies and natural tendencies for a user’s eyes to navigate the page. Consider for the first page of a Google search.  

One can expect to always find the menu options, where the search results will be, where to click and look for the next step in the same place. If these graphics elements were dispersed with no clear organization, the viewer would become immediately disoriented and confused.  In the same way, whiteboards, without consistent structure about where the information is laid out would become as chaotic as this imagined webpage. Visual clutter makes it difficult for students to digest information and contributes to the chaotic nature of the classroom.  

I’ve used the whiteboard as a news bulletin board. There is a consistency about where the information is located and what kind of information is presented. The center of the whiteboard is a multipurpose surface used for small group instruction where we learn by, for instance, solving math problems and breaking down sentence structures. The right consists of “Step by Step” instructions to the activity the students are doing so that if a student ever feels lost or loses focus, there’s no need for me to remind him or her. The left side of the whiteboard will always hold resources or guidelines about the topic students are learning about. This might include math websites that are allowed during math class, reminders to use C.O.P.S. (Capitalization, Organization, Punctuation, Sentences) in making a paragraph, or definitions of new vocabulary.

Element 3: Desks

Just as the dimensions of the rug dictates behavior, the dimensions and seating arrangement of tables also direct the way students act. It’s odd that we expect students to be quiet when we place four of them within inches of each other. With their feet constantly colliding with the desks and various body odors from outdoor recess igniting snarky remarks, distractions seem unending. These desk arrangements are good for group work, teaching stations, and lunch, but they’re terrible for the majority of other educational activities including individual work, testing, and other things such as quiet reading.

There is no universal seating arrangement nor best way to layout desks. Each activity requires a specific use and layout desk. Each student has a preferred use of a space for each type of activity. A highly introverted student would much prefer to sit alone on an individual table for quiet reading whereas a highly extroverted student would complain about the table not having enough room for all his or her friends. Referring back to the earlier diagram of the classroom, why then do we assume the same configuration and layout of a space for every classroom?

The way I’ve used desks in the classroom is to constantly re-arrange them to assist in the learning objectives of a lesson. An example would be when there is a need for individual work, I will push the desks to the outmost perimeter of the room so that students are facing the wall/window and aren’t as easily distracted by someone who is perhaps directly across from him/her. While learning about kinetic energy, we made catapults to launch paper balls. For this activity, the tables were used as spatial dividers to create an island where we had objects serving as targets, each worth specific points. Other tables were used to create catapulting stations so we could designate where students are allowed to launch projectiles, thus avoiding chaos in the classroom.



The Charter movement allows for flexibility in curriculum and design of a school. This can include introducing very novel concepts such as the implementation of pedagogies such as El Sistema. Yet the freedom and flexibilities afforded by charters rarely find themselves affecting the design of the space itself.

Is the classroom environment directing children’s learning (intentionally or unintentionally), or is it inviting ownership and creativity? How can a classroom alleviate the burden of student management instead of making the problem worse? What is the environment you do your best learning in and are we creating that kind of environment for our students?

As shown through this article, clearly, there is so much designers can learn from educators and vice versa, and ultimately, we must push ourselves out of own comfort zones and into unfamiliar territories in order to discover new ways of helping our children learn and grow.

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