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A new school year: Setting up your teaching space

Dylan Meikle

Dylan Meikle, a PYP workshop leader, an elementary school counselor at the Western Academy of Beijing and prior homeroom teacher

In this article you will find some ideas on setting up your teaching space at the beginning of a new school year.

Busy days rearranging furniture and organizing resources characterize the buildup to a new school year. Mix in a pinch of nervous energy and a whole lot of good intention and teachers can spend dozens of hours preparing their physical space for their new class. But in all this bustle and rush, are we missing opportunities to create classrooms that will maximize teaching and learning?

Reggio EmiliaPrior to the first day of the year with students, most teachers rethink teaching spaces to best suit the anticipated needs of learners, their own style of teaching, and the curriculum that they will be delivering. Many educators, even those whom have not read about modern learning environments, seem to intuitively understand the power of the physical learning environment as a third teacher[1]. This is why there can be such a mad dash to decorate walls and doors, and ‘put something up’ in corridors and on display boards. In contemporary classrooms, the possibility exists for teachers, administrators and students to enhance teaching and learning via a judicious use of space. By carefully considering the opportunities that space grants the users, we can harness the environment to maximize outcomes for students.

Laura Poole (@laurajpoole) 20 January 2015

Laura Poole (@laurajpoole) 20 January 2015

When learning spaces are analyzed, certain opportunities, or affordances (Torquato, & Enrnst, 2013), can be identified. When we speak of opportunities in the built environment we are referring to “any environmental feature, or lack thereof, that grants users the ability to change their environment to best meet their needs when engaged in a particular activity” (Nair, Fielding & Lackney 2013, p. 15). This definition is empowering because it emphasizes the importance of change within our environments. Indeed, classrooms should be flexible and adaptive to the needs of our students and the differing demands of the learning and teaching that takes place. Surely static and inflexible learning spaces are as redundant to 21st century learning as static and inflexible teaching methodology is.

Rebecca Meilak (@TeachLearnConn) 20 January 2015

Rebecca Meilak (@TeachLearnConn) 20 January 2015

Here are three road-tested suggestions for you to maximize the opportunities that exist in your physical environment:

1) Put your pedagogy at the heart of how you arrange and furnish your space

Dylan Meikle - Setting up a classroom

A table designed to promote a pedagogy of collaboration, communication and peer learning.

Although the “prevailing pedagogic approach has swung towards active and collaborative learning” (JISC 2006, p.10), physical spaces in schools, even schools with highly qualified staff and a commitment to progressive teaching methodology, often fail to reflect this. We urge you to think about how you want your students to be working, and look for opportunities to build the types of spaces within your classroom that will enable this. Breakout spaces and small group conferencing spaces within a room are not a new idea, but are frequently overlooked. If classrooms are arranged so that collaboration, communication and small group interaction is implied, teaching methodology will quickly align. For forward-looking educators, arranging a space that facilitates progressive pedagogy can unleash best practice teaching and become a source of daily inspiration and innovation.

2) It’s OK to start with a blank canvas

Teachers often feel pressure (whether real or imagined) from administrators and parents to have their teaching spaces ‘ready to go from day one’. While this is a fine intention, we urge you to reconsider what “being ready for day one” really should look like. In a Reggio Emilia approach to education we might say that it is our students, the children, who bring the color into the classroom. It is very liberating to start a school year with a minimally decorated teaching space. Instead of labeling kids lockers before the first day, ask them to choose their lockers and invite them to design their own name tags. Instead of buying a brightly colored “Class Rules” poster from a teaching store, build those agreements with your class and allow them to socially construct their own learning community (and create their own rules poster if need be). If you have never had the chance to take a ‘less is more’ stance, perhaps this might be your year!

3) Visible thinking can happen anywhere

This third point links back to the notion that we need to start with pedagogy and make decisions about furnishings and resources based on what you want to teach and how you want to teach it. If one of your priorities is to get students showing what they know, and giving life to their thinking through reflection and peer discourse then you do need to arrange space with this in mind. Walls need to be approachable for students to pin their questions and thoughts up (display boards need not be reserved for ‘finished work’ only). Writeable surfaces are everywhere and their potential as collaborative workspaces cannot be overlooked (windows, some desks, and perhaps even the back of your classroom door can become a dry-erase playground).

Take another look at your teaching space. What does it say about the students you teach and how they best learn? Have you put your values on display by seeking opportunities to build a truly modern learning environment? Please feel free to either drop me a line in the comments section below and let us all know how your start of year classroom setup has been for you, or post your class photos on PYP Twitter feed @ibpyp!


Cadwell, L 1997, ‘Bringing Reggio Emilia Home: An Innovative Approach to Early Childhood Education’, Teachers College Press

JISC 2006, ‘Designing spaces for effective learning: A guide to 21st century learning space design’, JISC e-learning programme, retrieved Decemember 16 2014,

Nair P, Fielding R, Lackney, J 2013, ‘the language of school design: design patterns for 21st century schools’, Design Share,

Torquato, J, and Enrnst, J A 2013, ‘Beyond the Walls: Conceptualizing Natural Environments as “Third Educators”’, Journal of Early Childhood Teacher Education, vol. 34, number 2, 191-208

Dylan is currently an elementary school counselor at the Western Academy of Beijing, although prior to counseling he was a homeroom teacher with classroom experience across five grade levels. Dylan is an IB PYP workshop leader and an Apple Distinguished Educator. He is passionate about learning spaces and contributes to a blog on the subject at He welcomes feedback, collaboration and further discussion via twitter (@dylan_meikle).



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3 Responses to A new school year: Setting up your teaching space

  1. Brian Lalor 20 October 2015 at 9:52 am #

    This is some great advice. I have not heard the third teacher term in a long time! It is so important to remember that. I will be at your school for training in Mathematics at the start of November. I would love to connect if you have time.

  2. Dylan Meikle 23 October 2015 at 7:51 am #

    Dear Brian,

    Many thanks for your kind words and it would be a pleasure to connect in November. If you are attending the Role of Mathematics workshop I will be sure to drop by and introduce myself. Safe travels, Dylan

  3. Rawad Al Hakim 10 November 2022 at 7:51 pm #

    In Physical Education, it is quite clear to everyone that setting and arranging a class is happening every single session. I used to have a special bulletin board in every indoor hall, where students can always refer to, during the day and get some healthy, technical and social tips from that would help nurture their knowledge and performance in PE session, of course under the key concept of form and way before I became a PYP PE teacher. What I also consider a third teacher is the design of the PE session. If it is set clearly with enough space, meaningfulness and precision, it will surely make the activity more applicable for students and it will guide their learning as we move on with the sessions, since I believe that sessions should be a sequence of activities and play-forms connected and progressive, that help accomplish the objectives and learning outcomes that we are working on.
    Thank you for sharing your experience, its a pleasure to read and learn from.

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