Small changes to the learning environment can have a big impact on students' learning

Posted on 28 October 2016 by Caitlin Burman

A young girl and boy concentrate on their school work outside on a sunny day. Differentiated Learning tells us that small change

Recently, the primary school team at MacKillop Education Services in Geelong have been working a lot with the concept of differentiated learning (also known as differentiation) and planning for it within the Australian curriculum and classroom practices.

Differentiated learning is an approach to teaching which considers the different strengths and challenges faced by each student and creates individualised learning experiences based on these attributes.

Differentiated learning allows us as teachers to focus on the most essential and powerful components of the curriculum, while meeting the learning needs of students with diverse abilities. This is especially important in primary schools due to it being the stage at which young people form critical attitudes towards learning and where their foundational skills are developed.

As teachers we double as magicians, constantly pulling rabbits out of hats or lessons out of jacket pockets. Sometimes this on-the-spot reactiveness is important, but one aspect of differentiated learning that can easily be pre-planned is the learning environment.

We know that the environment surrounding us has a huge impact on our lives. Yet, if we picture a classroom often a stereotypical image comes to mind: an un-inspiring room in large grey building with rows of chairs facing towards the front. This, of course, does not need to be the reality. As teachers we have the power to ask ourselves questions such as, what environment is the most conducive to teaching this lesson? Or what tools can I employ to make this environment more inclusive for my students?

A learning environment is so much more than just the classroom. It is the buildings and gardens surrounding us, as well as the community surrounding the school. Differentiated learning environments are inclusive. To plan proactively for differentiated learning environments, we must ensure the environment:

  • stimulates positive awareness of self and others
  • is physically safe
  • provides meaningful and varying stimuli
  • is both predictable and flexible
  • encourages times of relaxation and privacy (for example mindfulness and brain breaks)
  • enhances connection to people, nature and culture

At MacKillop School in Geelong, we are increasingly able to plan in this way. We have been continually expanding our learning environment from the classrooms out to our play based learning rooms, break out spaces and soon to be completed outdoor play space – even to the community space we share.

An example of differentiated learning having a real benefit is in the case of Mason*. It was noted that Mason seemed to engage more effectively at certain times of the day and in certain classrooms. The staff were able to narrow it down to the fact that he functions best in an environment that is light enough for him to comfortably read, but not too bright (i.e. if the blinds are totally open). By simply changing the classroom to only let in the right amount of light for Mason’s session, we have assisted him to become much more engaged in his learning.

*Name has been changed to protect privacy.