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Invite students to co-design their learning environment

By Kendra Grant
August 6, 2018
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When you look around your classroom, you may see just the physical aspects: chairs, lights, materials, technology. As we arrange the space, the focus is often on organization of materials, attractiveness of displays or setup of furniture.

When we say the word “classroom,” the physical space comes to mind. However, beyond aesthetics or appearance, how you design this space can impact learning and make your classroom more, or less, inclusive. When you add in the final ingredient  learners  and all their varying needs, interests and backgrounds, the learning environment expands beyond the physical and even the cognitive.

The classroom environment is often called “the third teacher,” and its impact and influence on learning can’t be underestimated. Each physical, social, cognitive and emotional element can have either a positive or negative effect on everyone, including the teacher.

What does your classroom say to learners?

Traditional classroom design — from the teacher’s desk at the front, to rows or groups of desks, to teacher created materials on the walls — sends signals to learners about “how things are done around here.” The placement of resources, materials and seating can support ownership of learning, self-direction and collaboration. They can also hinder it. Research tells us that stress interferes with learning. Stress and the ability to regulate it varies from learner to learner. The design of the classroom, with spaces to “up-regulate or down-regulate,” helps all children stay calm and alert, and learn.

Foster an inclusive culture

We also know that relationships and community are important to connect people and give them a voice and role. The “hidden” aspects of the environment, the social design and emotional underpinnings, can sometimes be lost in the day-to-day functioning of the classroom.

Beyond setting rules and managing movement and transitions, this aspect of the classroom environment is key to creating an inclusive classroom that strives to meet the needs of every learner. The ISTE Standards for Educators emphasize this key component of the learning environment under the Facilitator standard, which states, “Foster a culture where students take ownership of their learning goals and outcomes in both independent and group settings.”

This somewhat unassuming statement in fact represents a seismic shift, where the power of students understanding their role in co-creating culture profoundly changes the limited role students currently play in the classroom environment. This role is more than deciding on classroom rules and jobs, it goes much deeper. The Facilitator standard describes fostering a culture this way: “Create shared valued, social norms and goals around the purpose and approach to learning by, for example, bringing students into the process of establishing and maintaining culture; setting up space and time for students to fail and try again; establishing space and time for student reflection and goal setting; allowing students voice and choice in demonstration and evaluation of competency.”

Inclusive learning environments

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a learning design framework that also supports the hidden aspects of the classroom, helping build an inclusive learning environment. UDL has three layers, moving from the extrinsic to intrinsic, referred to as the access, build and internalize layers:

Access. In the context of learning environments, this layer focuses on ensuring both the resources and learning are accessible to all. This includes access to technology, such as word prediction and text-to-speech tools, not only for special education students but for all students. When we create an accessible classroom environment, it sends the message that variability (everyone), rather than disability (a few), is the focus in the classroom.

Build. In the context of learning environments, this layer focuses on actively building skills to support ownership of learning. As students co-design the physical space, discussions, such as the need for different “environments” around the classroom and the importance of access to digital resources and support, help build their awareness of classroom culture and ways to include everyone in its design.

Internalize. At its deepest level, UDL focuses on helping students internalize skills to become expert learners. These metacognitive skills are often “hidden” within the classroom environment. They are rarely explicitly taught or discussed. Creating a learning environment where students understand how they learn and have strategies in place to support their learning is vital if we want learners to develop self-awareness, self-reflection and self-regulation.

Four lenses for inclusive classrooms

As you design your classroom (with help from students) think beyond the physical space, considering the hidden aspects of the environment. Take this virtual tour to see just some of the ways to create an inclusive classroom. Ask yourself, “What would I add or subtract?” Consider taking a photo of your classroom environment and then examine it using the following four inclusive lenses:

Assumptions and beliefs

Explore your assumptions and beliefs about your learners and the impact the classroom environment has on their social, emotional, cognitive and physical needs. As you scan your classroom consider:

  • Does the classroom reflect your beliefs about learners and learning?
  • Is the learning environment welcoming, inclusive, safe and accepting?
  • How is classroom culture created? Who is represented in this culture?
  • How are students given ownership of their learning? Is this reflected in the classroom design?

Universal Design for Learning

UDL is a heuristic framework to support the creation of an inclusive learning environment. Use UDL’s  layered framework to help you design for accessibility and inclusion.

  • Does the environment acknowledge, support and celebrate learner variability?
  • Are there multiple ways (including technology) for students to access, process, engage with and demonstrate their learning?
  • Does the learning environment reflect the diversity of students, families and communities represented in the school?
  • How will you make internal skills, habits and attitudes explicit? How will students develop metacognition and improve their self-regulation?


Agency is more than doing your own thing: pursuing your own interests and disregarding the interests and needs of others. Ownership is personal and it’s shared. It involves learning to advocate for yourself while respecting the learning needs of others.

To shift ownership of learning to students, invite them in as co-designers of the environment as well as co-designers of their learning. Gradually release responsibility to them as they grow their understanding and take on more responsibility for how things “run” in the classroom. Together create a positive, supportive and celebratory classroom culture.

  • Do all students see themselves reflected in the environment and in the learning? Do all students have a say in the design of the environment? How do you ensure all voices are heard?
  • How are you building learners’ understanding of concepts such as learning environment and classroom culture?
  • Are students able to take responsibility for their learning? What does this look like and sound like?
  • How does the space encourage student ownership of learning? Does the physical design of your classroom reflect open, shared, flexible learning? Are there options for how students use the space, move about the room and gain autonomy?

Growth mindset

Share with students the idea that the classroom environment is like a biome. The inhabitants are interdependent. The actions of one can impact many in both positive and negative ways. As the classroom biome grows and changes, adjustments will need to be made. As the class learns more about themselves and how they work together, take an iterative approach to change to ensure the environment continues to evolve and meet the needs of everyone.

  • How and when will you embed a “360 project review” into your instruction? How will you encourage students to consider the physical, cognitive, social and emotional aspects of the environment’s impact on learning to determine what may have to change to meet new and emerging needs?
  • How will you model your internal processes, strategies and metacognition to highlight the importance of the “hidden” aspects of the environment?
  • How will you encourage self-reflection and/or build in the “human” aspects of learning so students become self-aware of the environment and its impact on them? How will you authentically celebrate the positive, inclusive environment you and your students create?

ISTE members interested in a deeper dive into how to design classrooms to empower all learners can watch the recording of the ISTE Expert Webinar, “Designing Inclusive Learning Spaces.”

The recorded webinar covers: 

  • How to create inclusive learning spaces.
  • Tips for simple classroom design changes that can be immediately implemented.
  • Advice on how to solve a learning design problem.

Kendra Grant has held many roles in education, including teacher, district special education coordinator and assistive technology (AT) specialist in a large school district. She currently works with Quillsoft as director of professional development and learning, and was formerly co-founder and chief education officer for a professional learning company delivering large-scale technology implementation across North America. Grant holds a master’s of educational technology from the University of British Columbia with a focus on professional learning, e-learning (K-20) and the application of UDL to both. She is a past president of ISTE’s Inclusive Learning Network.