Healthy Schools

Creating a Classroom Environment that Promotes Student Autonomy

Giving students a choice of how and where they learn keeps them engaged and can even improve behavior and boost attendance

By Dr. Sue Ann Highland

A positive effect of the school closures during the pandemic was that many students took ownership of how and where they learned. Empowered by their teachers, students chose the methods they would use to research a given topic, whether that meant reading a text or watching a documentary. Because they weren’t physically in classrooms, they were also free to do their work where they felt most comfortable. Whether they were sitting on a beanbag chair or on the floor, choosing their own workspace was a way for students to assert their autonomy.

Now that students are back in classrooms, they still want ownership of their learning space. This strong sense of autonomy benefits both students and educators.

When I was a teacher and principal, I saw how increasing student autonomy increases engagement, decreases discipline issues, and can even improve attendance rates. When teachers give students clear boundaries and then trust them to make choices within those expectations, students feel empowered. Instead of going along with a strict daily routine, they take ownership of their learning.

As educators consider how to give students more choices, there are three major ways you can differentiate instruction. You can differentiate the process, the content, or the product. While not every lesson is conducive to offering the same flexibility, students appreciate playing an active part in the learning process.

Making this transition from being the “sage on the stage” to “the guide on the side” is an opportunity for teachers to refresh their approach to planning and classroom management. Instead of picking a worksheet for students to complete, for example, you might prepare a collaborative lesson that teaches students how to distinguish a reliable source on a website. Once class starts, there might be a louder level of talking. When I taught, I used to jokingly say that my classroom was “controlled chaos.” I had lots of buzz going around, but research has shown that a higher level of talking is the sound of students owning their learning.

Schools can support teachers in their role of facilitator through the design of the learning environment. Classrooms that encourage autonomy have a small footprint for teacher furniture. Instead of the six-foot long, metal military desk I had in my first classroom, a teacher might have a task chair that allows them to roll up to a group of students and offer on-the-spot instruction. Instead of the rows of heavy desks that my students sat in when I was a young teacher, classrooms that support student choice provide a mix of formal and informal seating. That might include lightweight, mobile desks that allow students to quickly form discussion groups, as well as soft seating or long community tables where students can come together for more informal, small-group discussions. Instead of one large whiteboard anchored to the front of the room, small, portable whiteboards free teachers to move quickly so that if they overhear students having a spirited debate, they can arrive in time to mediate and share the board for group note-taking. Students can then reconfigure this space once again to present their learning in the way they feel best fits their learning.

In this collaborative atmosphere, some students may need downtime away from the group to self-regulate. I’m seeing more and more schools supporting this form of autonomy by creating sensory spaces or “chill corners” in the back of the room. You can simply designate a quiet place where students can go and read a book or do independent work. Schools with the budget and the need might reconfigure classrooms to include a multi-sensory space where students can sit in rocking chairs, use fidget tools, or benefit from soothing music and aromatherapy. Some schools might even implement a full Snoezelen room for students experiencing sensory integration issues, autism, or behavioral disabilities.

Before undertaking any significant redesign to the learning environment, though, I would recommend taking another opportunity to support student autonomy by asking them what they would like to see in their classrooms. They could offer their input in small focus groups, by trying out different products, or through an activity called “spend a buck” where you post large photos of various classroom options and students put stickers on the furniture they’d most like to use.

Discussions about changing the learning environment should help educators answer three  fundamental questions: 1) What are the goals for this space? 2) What do you want to see and hear when you walk in the door of a classroom? 3) What do you want teaching and learning to look like? If you engage students in these conversations from the beginning, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the useful information they provide about how to make your learning spaces more comfortable, collaborative, and engaging.

Sue Ann Highland, PhD, is the national education strategist forSchool Specialty. She can be reached at [email protected].