Designing Learning Spaces Where All Children Thrive

K-12 education in Canada has gone through a lot of changes over the last several years. Not only have lesson plans and teaching styles evolved, but so has the way classrooms are designed and the way students approach various assignments.

Are you a teacher who’s eager to experience the benefits of a more modern learning space? Are you unsure of how you should be reshaping your classroom to better serve your students?

In this guide, we’ll explore some of the most common challenges K-12 students (and their teachers) are facing today. We’ll also address the ways that improved classroom design can serve as a solution to these problems, and provide specific examples of how you can design a better learning environment for your K-12 students.

8 Most Common Learning Challenges for K-12 Students

These days, students are bombarded by a wide range of challenges. Some are tales as old as time, whereas others are unique to this modern age and the current state of the world.

Listed below are 8 of the most common learning challenges that K-12 students struggle with inside of the classroom:

1. Limited Resources

K-12 schools throughout Canada are struggling with resource shortages — particularly shortages in teachers and substitute teachers. Teachers and substitute teachers have listed several reasons for leaving their professions, including the following:

  • Rising retirement rates: Many teachers are reaching retirement age or are retiring earlier, and there aren’t enough new teachers to fill their shoes.
  • Reduced school funding: Teachers are working with less than ever before as education budgets continue to get slashed (in some cases by billions of dollars).
  • Reduction in interest: Fewer people are interested in becoming teachers now, partly because a few years ago there was a surplus and people were warned that there wouldn’t be jobs for them when they graduated.
  • Physical health concerns: As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, some teachers are resigning and leaving the profession out of fear for their physical health (and the health of their families).
  • Mental health concerns: Teaching during a pandemic has taken a toll on many teachers’ mental health; as a result, several of them have chosen to resign and pursue a less mentally taxing career path.

All of these issues negatively affect K-12 students, particularly those who require extra learning support and attention from their teachers. As a result, there is less engagement in the classroom and lower achievement across the board.

2. Low Engagement

Speaking of engagement, low classroom engagement is also making it harder for Canada’s K-12 students to retain what they’re taught, earn high grades, and reach the level they need to confidently advance to the next grade.

Low Student Engagement in the classroom

There are plenty of reasons why students are less engaged in the classroom. A lack of support from teachers or frequent teacher changes/absences can make it harder for students to stay focused and motivated. External distractions (including technology) and peer pressure can play key roles, too.

Furthermore, low student engagement is also often the result of learning disabilities. Approximately 3.2 percent of Canada’s children have a diagnosed learning disability. The most commonly reported disabilities include the following:

  • Attention-Deficit Hyperactive Disorder: Difficulty with focus and impulse control
  • Dyslexia: Difficulty with reading and spelling
  • Dysgraphia: Difficulty with writing
  • Dyscalculia: Difficulty with mathematics and calculations

Learning disabilities make it harder for students to comprehend the information being taught to them, especially when teachers do not make an effort to personalize material to each student’s particular needs and struggles. When students continuously struggle to comprehend, they may give up and “check out” altogether.

3. Lack of Personalization

Over the last few years, educators and education researchers have started to acknowledge the fact that not all students learn in the same way.

There are many different learning styles. However, for a long time, teachers have primarily catered to one particular way of learning — generally, those that involve sitting at a desk and being lectured to or reading quietly and committing information to memory.

This type of learning works for some students, but it also leaves a significant chunk of the K-12 population behind.

What happens when teachers make an effort to create more personalized lesson plans and meet students where they are, rather than forcing them into a particular mould? There are more opportunities for all students to succeed, including those who have learning disabilities or unique learning styles.

4. Limited Time

Teachers and students alike only have so much time in a day that they can dedicate to instruction and learning.

When these often unavoidable time limitations are combined with other issues like poor classroom design (more on that in a moment) and a lack of engagement, it’s hard for students to truly retain the information being delivered to them. This, in turn, hinders students’ long-term performance, particularly as they move on to higher grades and have more expectations placed on them.

5. Large Class Sizes

The average Canadian class size is 26.4 students. There’s a large range throughout the country, though, with a low of 22.6 students in Saskatchewan to a high of 30.1 students in Quebec. Some schools in Toronto, in particular, are also sporting classrooms with up to 40 students!

The larger the classroom, the harder it is for students to receive individual attention and personalized learning opportunities. Unfortunately, with the country-wide (and, frankly, worldwide) teacher shortage, more students are being packed into classrooms, and those who can’t keep up easily are being left behind more often than not.

Of course, smaller classrooms do not always automatically lead to better performances. However, it can be a step in the right direction, especially when it’s paired with other positive changes.

6. Increased Emotional Stress

Teachers are not the only ones who have experienced heightened emotional stress and poor mental health in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fear of infection, fear of family members and loved ones being infected, and frequently changing from remote to in-person learning have all created extra stress for students of all ages.

Even those who are too young to fully comprehend the seriousness of the pandemic have picked up on the stress it causes others in their life. As a result, they may be struggling to pay attention in class and retain the material as it’s taught.

Students of all ages may find that their emotional resilience is lower than it once was because of this added stress, too. They may have a harder time managing stress in healthy ways and may be more prone to bouts of crying, tantrums, or panic attacks.

7. Declining Physical Health

Student physical health has been on the decline for several years now. As physical education becomes less of a priority (only 22 percent of Canadian students receive physical education every day) and students are more frequently relegated to sitting at desks, they’re not reaping the benefits of regular movement and physical activity.

Physical activity plays an important role in academic performance. When students don’t have opportunities to get up, move, and play, they experience reductions in stress and improvements in overall mental health (including specific conditions like depression and anxiety).

Students may also find that it’s easier for them to sit still and focus in class if they’ve had a chance to run around a bit first. Physical activity can improve memory, reduce fatigue, and reduce students’ risk of chronic health problems, too.

8. Poor Classroom Design

Finally, poor classroom design can also limit students’ engagement and performance, impede their mental and physical health, and worsen the impact of some students’ learning disabilities.

The standard classroom design features desks lined up in straight rows facing a whiteboard or blackboard.

For a long time, teachers thought this was the best layout to encourage students to pay attention and retain information. In reality, though, a more collaborative classroom design can actually encourage more information retention and better learning outcomes.

When classrooms don’t encourage natural conversation and don’t allow room for movement, it can be harder for students to work together, commit what they’re learning to memory, and think critically about important topics.

Many students learn better when they aren’t just sitting and listening to lectures or reading silently on their own. They learn better when they’re allowed to talk to their classmates, bounce ideas off one another, and collaborate on projects and assignments.

What Is the Ideal Classroom Design for K-12 Students?

Research shows that when classrooms are intentionally designed to support collaboration, the majority of students and nearly all faculty members report higher levels of engagement, better grades, increased motivation, and increased creativity.

What does the ideal classroom design look like for K-12 students, though?

There’s not one specific classroom layout that is superior to others. However, some key design principles can lead to better learning outcomes and increased engagement.

The following are 8 of the most thoroughly researched principles to keep in mind when designing your classroom:

1. Space to Move and Connect

Classroom Design with open spaces for movement

Some teachers might assume that it’s a bad thing for students to have a lot of room to move around in the classroom. They might think that creating more space to move will lead to more chit chat between students and more wandering when kids are supposed to be working quietly.

For those who make these assumptions, it’s important to take a step back and consider whether or not it’s truly a bad thing for students to move around in the classroom or talk to their classmates.

In the case of students who are kinaesthetic learners, they may commit information to memory more easily when they’re able to get up and easily take a walk around the classroom.

If the space is designed for them to do this in a non-invasive way (i.e., they’re not accidentally crashing their chair into another student’s chair or tripping over a desk leg when they stand up), they’ll be able to learn in a way that works for them without creating distractions for other students. 

2. Different Desk Arrangements

How can teachers create more space to move? By rearranging their students’ desks.

Classrooms can be just as (if not more) functional and productive when desks are arranged in formations other than straight rows.

For example, teachers might consider grouping desks in “pods” of 4-6 desks with lots of space in between each cluster. They could also set up a few pods of desks, a row of desks lined up in front of the whiteboard, and a boardroom-style cluster of 10-12 desks facing each other.

Different desk arrangements, combined with allowing students to choose their seats, allow them to pick a setup that best suits their unique learning style. Those who prefer to sit and listen to the lecture can sit in the row facing the board, while those who prefer a more collaborative learning style can sit in a pod with others who enjoy the same approach.

This is a simple example of personalization in action. It shows that personalization doesn’t always require a huge time or energy commitment from the teacher to create a more customized learning environment.

3. Reduced Teacher Footprint

For teachers who are interested in opening up more space in their already-crowded classrooms, reducing their footprint can make a big difference. In other words, you can create more space for your students by reducing the amount of space you take up yourself.

When you move your desk against the wall, exchange it for a smaller one, or get rid of it altogether, you make it easier for your students to arrange their desks in ways that work for them and support their learning.

Some teachers may hesitate at the idea of giving up their desks or shrinking their own workspace. In many cases, though, the benefits outweigh the costs.

For example, by reducing their footprint in the classroom, teachers have more opportunities to move around and work with students one-on-one or in small groups.

This helps to encourage more collaboration and allows students to ask questions in a less intimidating way. Raising their hands in class might be difficult for some, but asking the teacher when they’re kneeling right by their desk can feel more manageable.

4. Different Types of Workstations

In addition to giving up your traditional teacher’s desk, you may want to consider swapping out some of your traditional students’ desks for other types of workstations.

For example, changing up your classroom design to incorporate more long tables or comfortable chairs can improve the learning environment. It also makes it feel like a more accommodating and collaborative space.

Providing a variety of places to work can give students more autonomy over their classroom environment. This is particularly true when teachers encourage regular rotation so everyone gets a chance to work in the areas that are most appealing to them (and nobody hogs one workspace for too long).

When students can move around to different locations throughout the day, they are less likely to fidget and lose focus, too. Transitioning to a different workstation every hour or so gives them a chance to get rid of some pent-up energy and reset before they start their next task.

5. Creation Stations

One of the most important workspaces or workstations to set up in your classroom is a creation station. These days, a lot of teachers place a significant emphasis on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) subjects.  not enough emphasis on creative pursuits like arts and crafts.

Balance is important for K-12 students. When they balance their STEM assignments with artistic projects, they become more well-rounded and get a chance to develop other talents that might be neglected otherwise.

It’s important to note, too, that artistic endeavours can carry over to improved performance in other subjects. For example, learning to play an instrument can improve students’ math abilities and memory.

By giving students opportunities to think outside of the box and get creative, teachers can set them up for better academic performance while also helping them reduce stress and improve their mental health.

6. Writable Spaces for Students

Traditionally, teachers have almost complete control over the whiteboard or chalkboard. Students only get to write on it when they’re invited (and even then, they’re writing or diagramming very specific things based on their teacher’s instructions).

The modern, collaborative classroom flips this concept on its head.

By giving students access to writable spaces (whiteboards, chalkboards, whiteboard tables, etc.), teachers encourage them to be more engaged in the learning process. Rather than sitting and listening, they’re able to actively participate during lectures and lessons.

When they have writing surfaces readily available, students will have an easier time taking notes, solving problems, and staying focused in the classroom. They’ll be able to illustrate their ideas and explain what they’re thinking to their peers more easily, too, which allows for more collaboration and more opportunities to strengthen their communication skills. 

7. Quiet Spaces

A collaborative learning space does not have to be a noisy, overwhelming space — at least not all the time.

Some students do not respond well to loud noises and constant communication. They may need opportunities to take breaks, work quietly alone, and decompress before they rejoin the class.

As we mentioned above, K-12 students these days are struggling with high levels of stress and anxiety. By providing quiet spaces where they can put on headphones and listen to calming music or practice breathing exercises, teachers can help them cope with these feelings in healthy, productive ways.

When students have a chance to step away, take a moment, and reduce some stress, they’re able to come back, rejoin the conversation, and stay engaged.

It likely will not hurt a student’s academic performance to have access to a quiet space. In fact, it will probably improve it since they’ll be better able to focus, retain information, and solve problems after they’ve had a few minutes to breathe.

8. Limited Colour Palette/Decor

The average K-12 classroom is flooded with colour, signs, and other types of decor. This is particularly true for classrooms with younger students.

These kinds of decorations are often put up with good intentions. After all, teachers want to make their classrooms seem fun, warm, and inviting.

The problem, though, is that too many decorations and too diverse of a colour palette can actually be distracting and overwhelming to students, especially those who are prone to sensory overload.

When redesigning their classrooms to allow students to thrive, it’s helpful for teachers to narrow down their colour palette. For example, they can pick a neutral base colour, like gray or tan or white, then add two accent colours that stand out and add a sense of fun to the classroom.

This type of colour palette limits visual noise and makes it easier for students to focus. It can also turn the classroom into a more calming environment, which allows for better information retention and reduced stress.

7 Steps to Create an Optimal Learning Environment for K-12 Students

In addition to reconfiguring one’s classroom design, there are plenty of other tactics that educators can use to create an optimal learning environment for their K-12 students.

Yes, making adjustments to desk arrangements and colour palettes can make a big difference in a teacher’s classroom and the impact it has on their students. However, that’s not where the story ends.

Beyond improving your classroom design from a physical standpoint to make it more collaborative, here are some more considerations that will help you to set students up for a more positive experience, increased engagement, and better learning outcomes:

1. Safety and Wellbeing

It doesn’t matter how elegantly designed or thoughtfully planned out a learning space. If students do not feel safe there, they will not thrive and improve.

Every student deserves to feel safe, understood, and included in the classroom. When these basic needs aren’t met, it’s much harder for students to learn and achieve their full potential. They’re also less likely to be open to new experiences and less willing to take on new and challenging projects.

As a teacher, it’s up to you to think about how you can make sure each of your students knows that you support them, respect them, and value them.

One way to do this is by taking time to get to know each student and their family. Communicating with them about their learning styles, as well as potential learning disabilities, will help you to better personalize their classroom experience and ensure their needs are met.

2. Healthy Risk-Taking and Creativity

Students who feel safe and know that their well-being is a priority to their teacher will have an easier time taking healthy risks and being creative in and out of the classroom.

By taking healthy risks and being creative, challenging themselves, and overcoming obstacles, students can build confidence and feel more empowered as they move through the school system and eventually enter the workforce.

Teachers need to reward students when they take a risk or take a creative approach to solve a problem. Even if their attempt doesn’t work out the first time, the student should still be encouraged and praised for thinking outside of the box. Otherwise, they’ll be less inclined to try again in the future.

3. Reflection and Assessment

Regular assessments are beneficial to teachers and students.

First, they provide teachers with a better idea of how well they’re delivering information. Second, they provide students with an opportunity to reflect on their performance and see how well they’re retaining the information their teachers are delivering.

In a dynamic, modern classroom, assessments don’t have to be stressful tests or quizzes. In fact, the more engaging and creative they are, the better the results they’re likely to deliver. An assessment can take the form of a group discussion, an oral report, or even an online survey that reviews the teacher’s work.

Whichever model you choose, remember that students should be excited to participate in assessments and reflect on their work. They shouldn’t feel that they’re being punished or that they’ll receive a long lecture if they’re not retaining as much as their teacher had hoped.

4. Differentiation

An effective teacher doesn’t expect all of their students to learn the same way or at the same speed. They understand that every student is unique, and they do their best to celebrate those differences.

Differentiation allows children to thrive in the classroom because it shows them that no student is better than another based on the way they learn.

When teachers make an effort to differentiate between students, meet them where they are, and accommodate their distinct needs, students feel empowered. They also are less likely to disengage because they think they’re not smart enough or can’t keep up.

Examples of differentiation include allowing students to take tests in different ways according to their learning style. For example, some students may prefer to take their tests orally, while others would prefer a traditional written exam.

Allowing accommodations for students with learning disabilities (such as unlimited time to take a test) also shows that you value their differences and want to set them up for success.

5. Encouraging Leadership and Adaptability

K-12 students, even the younger ones, can handle more responsibility than a lot of adults think they can. Giving students age-appropriate opportunities to be leaders empowers them and shows them that they are capable of handling more.

Every student needs to have a chance to be a leader at some point during the school year (ideally at multiple points). This teaches adaptability and gives everyone a chance to experience leadership.

It’s also important for teachers to impress upon their students that there are many different types of leadership. They should take opportunities regularly to discuss various leadership styles and help students understand the benefits and drawbacks of each one.

6. Engagement

Excited schoolgirls perform chemistry experiment

Teachers should regularly monitor and measure classroom engagement to ensure students are getting as much out of their lessons as possible. There are lots of ways to measure engagement, including the following:

  • Monitor whole-class participation: During classroom discussions and whole-class lessons, which students are raising their hands and participating most often? Which ones never seem to speak up?
  • Monitor small-group participation: Some students may not feel comfortable speaking up in front of the whole class, but are they participating in small groups and partner discussions? If so, they’re likely still engaged but just might be shier than some of their peers.
  • Talk to students directly: Sometimes, the easiest way to measure engagement is to just ask. Talk to students one-on-one to find out what they’re learning, where they’re struggling, and how you can help.
  • Make it a game: Gamifying participation can also be helpful. Awarding each student points for raising their head, completing assignments, etc. makes it easier for you to score each student and measure progress over time.

7. Self-Directed Learning

Finally, a learning space that supports all students will emphasize self-directed learning. In the same way that students should regularly be trusted with leadership opportunities, they should also be trusted to guide themselves and solve problems on their own, without a teacher telling them what to do every step of the way.

When students have a chance to practice self-directed learning, they become better equipped to solve problems and overcome obstacles that they meet outside of the classroom. They also become more socially aware, confident, and independent. All of these skills will help them to thrive in school as well as after they graduate and enter the workforce. 

Create Classrooms for Optimal Learning Environments

Changing your classroom environment and embracing the power of collaborative learning spaces can set you and your students up for long-term success. More importantly, it also helps them to feel supported and develop a deeper love of learning.

If you’re looking to create a learning space where all children thrive, regardless of their background or learning style, the steps discussed in this guide will make a big difference. Include them in your classroom design strategy so you can start making a positive impact on your K-12 students today.

Contact us to discuss solutions we have to help assist you in your classroom design strategy.