For many parents in Taiwan, English as a foreign language is as serious a subject as math or science. The EFL staff at the private elementary school where I am fortunate to work is twenty-nine strong. It is not surprising then that when investing in a new building five years ago, the school board wanted to provide the best possible learning environment they could. Every EFL classroom in my school is wonderfully equipped with internet, an up-to-date computer and projector, and a SMART board embedded behind a three-paneled sliding chalkboard. There are some built in bookshelves and large windows on two sides, one facing into the hallway (not as distracting as one might think) and the other facing outside for plenty of natural light. I am thankful for these facilities everyday, yet improvements can always be made.
Based on findings described in a 2013 study, published by Barret, Zhang, Moffat, and Kobbacy, certain factors of classroom design have a significant effect on students’ progress. Critiquing my school’s EFL classrooms for example, the light factor scores high with ample natural and electric light, which teachers can manipulate with blinds and separate switches. However, the white paint with only a splash of blue scores low on the color factor. Elementary students respond better to cool bright colors (Barret, et al., 2013, p.688), leading me to try creamy orange and turquoise in the SketchUp model below.
Two more important design factors in the study are choice, regarding the quality and design of class furniture, and flexibility, the ease of configuring different learning zones. For my EFL classroom, both factors require some attention. While homeroom classes number around thirty-five students, each grade is divided by their English ability and the maximum size of an EFL class is nineteen. As terrific as this is, the EFL classrooms reflect this change and are therefore quite small. Space is at a premium and configuring the rooms has proven difficult due to the design of the students’ desks, which are heavy and cumbersome and don’t join seamlessly in pods (notice the gaps between the desks in the pictures above). For an entire department of teachers whose classes are eternally split into teams completing, and usually competing in, communicative exercises, this is less than ideal. Tables are an obvious choice to save space and encourage the kind of student collaboration necessary for successful language learning. I chose hexagons to give the room an individual characteristic with interesting shapes and added the strong colors to aid each team in establishing an identity (Barret, et al., 2013, p.688). The simple wooden chairs are lighter and more organic than our current ones of metal and plastic.
In order to give the room more flexibility, I replaced the enormous teacher’s desk with a combination of a standing desk for the computer, enabling it to fit at the front of the room for easy access, and an adjustable-height single desk for lesson notes, a work-checking station, or podium for student presentations. The center of the room has been left open as a space for performing dialogues and I have designated two other zones for more self-guided learning. By adding some cushions for backrests, I managed to repurpose the built-in bookcase as a reading bench. In the corner by the window, a bookshelf and rug make a good place to store and play board games like Scrabble, Scattegories, or Funglish. Teachers could allot time here to the whole class in shifts or as a reward to teams who stay on task and finish their work quickly (as a group!).
The final addition to the classroom is the large white board on the back wall. This would be the students’ work/answer space, so it is hung quite low for elementary students. Games are a large part of my EFL teaching and having a separate answer board would help to further reorient the class away from teacher centered instruction. The colored dots indicate each team’s designated area and its condition would be left up to them (within reason).
The changes I propose, though not incredibly high tech, would still require a serious investment from the school board. Based on similar models found on BizChair, I estimate the tables to be around $200-300 each and the chairs about $40-70 each. Including the two teacher’s desks, game corner shelves, rugs, and pillows, the total cost could be around $2500 per class. However, the price could be brought down if all twenty EFL classrooms in my school underwent a remodel. Painting could be professionally done or performed by willing teachers, and with materials in hand, the actual execution could be done over a long weekend. Perhaps in another few years, it will be the EFL department’s turn again for an injection of funds and this proposal could be put forth. Waiting in anticipation is one option, but even better would be to try some changes on my own and monitor performance hopefully strengthening my case.
Barrett, P., Zhang, Y., Moffat, J., & Kobbacy, K. (2013). A holistic, multi-level analysis identifying the impact of classroom design on pupils’ learning. Building and Environment, Vol. 59, 678-689. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.buildenv.2012.09.016