A Blog Covering D.C. Education [ABCDE]

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Dec 18 2009

Why the Physical Learning Environment Matters

Despite all the (wonderful) talk I hear about 21st-century skills, standards-based education reform, the Teaching and Learning Framework, one major conversation that I think we ignore is the one centered on the physical environment in which our students learn.  No matter how good a school is at staying on top of the latest pedagogical best practices, the physical state of the school and classroom will ultimately shape the way students learn.

It didn’t take me 5 months to realize this, but I can honestly say that, today, the scene in my classroom drove this idea home.  At 7:50am, I entered my classroom and saw a corner of my room flooded with water that had apparently leaked through an exposed pipe in the ceiling.  I obviously knew about the exposed pipe for quite some time now.  My students have, since the beginning, refused to sit anywhere near the pipe.  These two photos (one of the exposed pipe and the other of the disgusting stain the water that flooded from the pipe left on my carpeted floor) show why the situation is impossible to miss and why my students shun that area of the classroom:

The ceiling:

The floor:

As you can see, like some of the other schools in the district that have serious maintenance issues, my school is in “deep disrepair.”  I walked into a fellow English teacher’s classroom, and she has a hole in the ceiling that is 3 tiles big.  Apparently, at the beginning of the year, the exposed pipe leaked water everyday until, 6 weeks later, maintenance finally came and replaced the pipe.

Some students don’t use the bathroom because it is too gross; I have students who bravely hold it in the entire school day.  Some students don’t eat in the cafeteria because the food is so nasty; I know one junior who hasn’t set foot in the cafeteria since the first week of her freshman year, when she discovered how bad the food was (she doesn’t eat all day).

All of this proves my point, which is that student interactions with the physical space of the school shape, in a deep way, how and whether students learn.  If a student is aching from hunger, how can she learn?  If a student is constantly thinking about using the bathroom, how can she learn? If a student is worried that the pipe overhead is going to drip brown water, how can she learn?  Finally, if a student thinks “Ethel,” the mouse in our classroom (who reminds me of this mouse from Institute), is going to nibble her toes, how can she learn?


I recently learned that, at the beginning of the year, my principal told the teachers that our school is next on the DCPS list to be renovated (reminds me of the situation with my residential college at Yale, which will be renovated in 2010).  If this is true, next year I will be teaching in a trailer in the parking lot.  Though I am glad that my school will receive the update that it needs, teaching in a trailer could be an awkward experience.

I wonder, too, if we really are next to be redone.  I recently learned that an intra-quadrant school already had its groundbreaking.  Does DCPS do more than one major renovation at a time?  How come our principal hasn’t talked about the renovation in a few months?

Whatever the case, I am convinced that attitudes towards the physical state of our school bleed into attitudes towards school itself.  Students ascribe almost jail-like attributes to school (yes, I’ve heard many students refer to our school as “jail”).  Thye take little pride in our school as a focal point for the local community.  Furthermore, students feel undervalued because the “community” (whatever that may be) implicitly is disrespecting our school by failing to maintain it properly.  In fact, I think our school is proof of the broken windows theory; a culture exists in which students have stopped caring about keeping our school clean or pursuing excellence exactly because both have been neglected for so long.  The “little things” that occurred at our school many years ago have snowballed into one giant mess.


I’m really curious to know more about the history of the DC Public School system.  I hear that my school was once one of the best schools in the district.  Given what I’ve experienced so far at my school, that thought blows my mind.  I’m eager to do some research this summer and understand how it came to be that my school is the way it is.  It couldn’t have happened overnight, and there must have been a legitimate reason for the decline that seems to have taken place.

I also think more and more about the physical learning environment that I can control, in my classroom.  The arrangement of the desks, the flow of the room, the placement of the library–all of these things directly impact the way in which my students learn or, at the very least, the way in which they are set up to learn.  My first modification? Starting in January, I am switching from 3-desk clusters to a 2-row U-shaped layout.  The 3-desk clusters didn’t work for me.

I will stay ever-conscious of the physical environment at my school.  I’ll patch any “broken window pane” I see by picking up the litter that one finds strewn across every horizontal surface in the building.

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5 Responses

  1. Thank you for writing this observation!! It is such an obvious idea, but few people actually notice it. When we study Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we learn that higher order functions cannot be executed when the basic needs are not fulfilled. Our students need to feel safe and happy in their physical environment in order to perform!

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Really, "A Blog Covering Dilemmas in Education": A (former) English teacher's reflections…

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