Component #4

A responsive classroom environment improves students’ learning skills and work habits.

When students choose workspace within the responsive design, they are more confident, focused, motivated and engaged.

When students have choice of learning partner within the responsive design, they demonstrate improved initiative on a task.

The examples I have documented represent three experiences of students in the primary and junior grades responding to choice in a responsive classroom environment. The representative examples are indicative of many successes students experienced within a responsive design during a variety of subject areas. In all cases, when there are opportunities for student choice (workspace, seating or learning partner), a responsive classroom environment improves students’ learning skills and work habits.

*In the following examples, all student names have been changed.

Evidence ----- Experience #1 Choice of seating

The process of change in transforming the physical classroom environment in this grade two class, evolved from a pivotal moment as experienced by the SWST. The video footage and transcript below, is a beginning indicator that helped develop our understanding of student choice in the classroom.

During a SWST interview with a grade two study student, Taryn, begins articulating details about how she learns. Instantaneously, she leads the SWST to a small backroom, attached to her own classroom, to reveal further details about where she learns. Intrigued by Taryn’s behaviour, the SWST follows her in an effort to capture her insights.


SWST: So, where in the backroom, if you can show me, where in the backroom-

Taryn: Um…

SWST: -do you need to be to learn?

Taryn: there (points to a table and chair in the backroom) but mostly here (sits on an exercise ball

and smiles) because this-is-my thinking ball.

SWST: What is a thinking ball?

Taryn: Well, for me, my thinking ball- a thinking ball for me is, um…something- a ball that you sit on when

you have to get ideas to write about. And then this gives, this ball gives me ideas what to write


SWST: How does it give you ideas?

Taryn: Well, it gives me ideas because since, it gives me ideas because I keep bouncing and I

keep thinking. I bounce and think so it’s my thinking ball. Maybe not to others but...that’s

really what my thinking ball does. Maybe not to others but for me it does.

I was amazed at how Taryn spoke with honest conviction about how and where she learned when given choice. Interestingly enough, when given the opportunity to share her thinking, it was fascinating to observe how she physically guided me to experience ‘in situ’ the learning ‘space’ with which she had encountered success. What really impacted my learning was how Taryn demonstrated initiative (looks for and acts on new opportunities for learning) and evidence of self-regulation (identify learning opportunities that meet personal needs) by choosing to work at a non-traditional workspace (a table in the backroom) with an unconventional chair, which she self-identifies as her ‘thinking ball.’ I began to wonder if choice had an impact to improve student confidence and metacognition, as Taryn clearly assesses and reflects critically on her own strengths and needs, “Maybe not to others but...that’s really what my thinking ball does. Maybe not to others but for me it does.”

Taryn’s confidence in articulating her rationale for choosing the ‘thinking ball,’ allowed me to locate a ‘learning epiphany.’ Her justification was well beyond the typical anticipated response of, “It’s fun,” or even the biased assumption that it would only be a barrier in her learning because she’s going to “play” with it. Perhaps, when Taryn had ‘choice’ in the classroom, this enabled her to self-discover her learning style. I wondered if she used the ‘thinking ball’ to serve as a way to improve her focus in class? (“…I keeping bouncing and I keep thinking”). Would she continue to make appropriate choices based on her strength as a kinesthetic learner within a responsive classroom environment? When students have choice of workspace and choice of seating within a responsive design, would they be more confident, focused, motivated and engaged? Curiosity ensued within me. I was convinced that this pivotal experience was the onset of many more to follow.

The following video provides footage of the original layout in Taryn’s grade two classroom at the beginning of the study. Notice how the configuration of student desks offers a different approach in comparison to Taryn’s choice of workspace when completing independent work.


On a subsequent visit in this grade two classroom, students began working on a writing task. While the remainder of the class settled in to their desks, I observed Taryn stand up, gather her materials and approached the SWST, nonchalantly whispering, “Today I’m going sit in the backroom again.” Intrigued, I followed her again to her self-selected workspace, observing her roll the ‘thinking ball’ over to a small table where she sits down and engages in the task promptly. Notably, there was a pattern of behaviour evolving and I was compelled to dig deeper about her thinking. Upon completion of the task, I engaged in conversation with Taryn to gain further insight about the types of conditions that supported her learning.

The video clip and transcript below is the conversation that occurred between Taryn and the SWST:


SWST: What have you learned about yourself?

Taryn: [bouncing continuously on the thinking ball] Myself?

SWST: Yeah.

Taryn: Oh, that I’ve been working in this back room a lot. Well not a lot, just two days.

SWST: And do you think you would like to continue to do that?

Taryn: [Nods head to indicate ‘yes’ and smiles] ‘Cause I could... whenever I need to write I could write in here cause this ball [pats the thinking ball] let’s me think.

SWST: So then that’s something new you learned about yourself as a learner.

Taryn: Yeah, I like to sit on this ball.

SWST: So what’s the difference then between sitting at your desk to do your writing and sitting here on the idea ball to do your writing?

Taryn: Well, the difference is that here I think more and outside I don’t really think cause it doesn’t really help me. [Uses arm gestures to emphasize her response] Cause people are noisy and stuff. In here, it’s so quiet and peaceful. And when I bounce, it gives me ideas on this ball. So it’s different.

For Taryn, it appeared that having a responsive classroom that provided ‘choice,’ proved again to be beneficial to her learning style strength. Not only did she require different seating to ‘think,’ but her motivation to focus on her work also required a “quiet and peaceful” environment. This experience revealed an intrapersonal learning style Susan Cain (2012) identifies as ‘introversion.’ Cain (2012) indicates that many of our most important institutions, especially schools, “are designed for those who enjoy group projects and high levels of stimulation. As children, our classroom desks are increasingly arranged in pods, the better to foster group learning…the truth is many schools are designed for extroverts“ (p. 6). Cain (2012) challenged my thinking as I began to question: In what ways can responsive classroom environments invite flexible learning spaces to balance a variety of learning styles, especially an increasing demand for ‘quiet, intrapersonal space? How could we invite ‘quiet spaces’ for our intrapersonal learners in the classroom environment to balance our interpersonal (social) learning spaces? Do notions of where these learning spaces should be created differ between students and teachers? Cain’s (2012) research about introverted and extroverted learners has been very influential in shifting our mindset about how a classroom environment ‘should look’ and spurred our thinking in creating a responsive classroom design. Perhaps we can attribute the need for ‘choice’ within a responsive design based on Cain’s (2012) proposition:

“We also need to create settings in which people are free to circulate in a shifting kaleidoscope of interactions, and to disappear into their private workspaces when they want to focus or simply be alone. It’s also vital to recognize that many people need extra quiet and privacy in order to do their best work” (p.94).

We also shared these ‘pivotal moments’ with other host teachers from the study, prompting many of them to consider a responsive design. In addition, the host teacher and I shared our evidence with the school administrators who were very supportive in the implementation of a responsive classroom environment. As a result of student voice, this grade two classroom underwent major changes. All desks were eliminated and replaced with tables of different shapes and sizes. Students used existing bins and magazine folders for their personal materials and a communal table for supplies and math manipulatives. The only purchase was for the addition of six pilates balls to offer more students choice of seating. The new layout offered a variety of introverted ‘quiet’ areas for independent work, extroverted areas for paired and group workspaces, improved expansion and comfort of the classroom reading ‘nook’ to include a large mat, bean bag chairs, oversized pillows and an additional learning zone to ensure appropriate proximity between teacher and students and clear visibility and access to instructional tools (Elmo).

The following video footage provides a tour of the responsive classroom design in this grade two classroom.


Since this change in layout, we have noticed a difference in Taryn’s ability to focus and engage in a task until completion. She is motivated to start learning tasks and identifies reasons for her choice of seating that meet her personal needs. During instructional lessons, Taryn chooses to sit on her ‘thinking ball’ or drags over a beanbag chair while participating in group discussions. The host teacher continues to experiment with the layout, making changes based on student voice and offering strategies when necessary to facilitate self-regulation in students.

When asked about the impact of the responsive classroom, Taryn’s teacher reflects:

“They are organizing themselves now! They decide for themselves what they need. Overall students are now very independent in the classroom and their work is more complete.”

Evidence-----Experience #2 Choice of workspace

My ability to ‘withhold judgment’ was challenged while visiting a Grade 2/3 classroom. I observed Jayden and Jamie, SWS study students, ‘removed’ from the rest of their classmates while the remainder of the class worked at their desks. Jamie sat beside the teacher’s desk located at the front of the room while Jayden sat in a student desk facing the back of the room. This was not their typical seating arrangement, nor their usual behaviour. Student behaviours often exhibited task delay (e.g., fiddling with objects at desk), increased socialization when seating is arranged in pairs or groups, easily distracted and requires constant prompting from the teacher to refocus in an effort to complete a task.

Surprisingly, both study students appeared engaged and content. Sensing my confusion, the host teacher enthusiastically walked over to me to share her recent experiences with our study students: “I observed a need for them because they wanted to work in other areas of the room. Jayden and Jamie have identified these two spots as the ‘quiet’ independent work areas in the room. They were always asking me, ‘Can I sit over there? I need a quiet spot.’ Since they’ve been working here, I’ve noticed big changes in their work habits, especially the fact that they have been able to complete their work on time.”

Noting the host teachers’ experiences, I eagerly approached Jayden in his chosen workspace, where he willingly offered his opinion without any prompting.

Jayden: This is a better spot for me! [smiling, referring to an independent desk he was sitting at situated along the back wall of the classroom]

SWST: Why do you think that?

Jayden: Because when I sit over there, I am slower. [referring to his group pod shown in the photo below]

Here, I get my work done faster.

View of the grade 2/3 classroom layout at the beginning of the study.

“Allow students time and space to choose what they want to do- their choices will illuminate their individual strengths.” (Helen Hirsh Spence)

When we felt we had enough evidence rooted in student voice and research, we began the process of change by designing a responsive classroom to facilitate improved learning for all learners in the class. We created an environment where all students were free to choose workspace that was conducive to their learning needs, without consulting the teacher. We believed students could make responsible decisions when given the opportunity. The teacher realized her desk took up a large portion of the classroom that instead, could be used as more workspace for students. With the elimination of her desk, she brought in additional furniture such as tables and a large bench suitable for students to sit on during instructional time in the learning zone or as workspace for students to work at and a large mat to improve comfort and to offer workspace on the floor with clipboards. Notably, when given choice of workspace, students began accessing different areas of the room. The photos below illustrate students’ choice of workspace within the responsive design.

Following the implementation of the responsive design, I visited the Grade 2/3 classroom, to observe how students were responding within this new layout. When assigned a written task, I witnessed Jayden immediately gather his materials and walk over to a large workbench suitable for quiet, independent tasks, as he began to write. Prior to a responsive design, Jayden, a reluctant writer, who lacks confidence and does not take risks, focused on his writing without teacher support and encouragement to persevere through the task. He is very sensitive and has a heightened awareness of his academic abilities, relying on positive praise and teacher feedback to monitor his progress. However, this visit was different. Jayden, who usually requires additional time to complete a task, instead, held up his completed work and inspected it carefully. Then admittedly says out loud, “Wow, I wrote more than usual!” Jayden demonstrated evidence of self-regulation by ‘monitoring his own progress and critically assessing his own strengths and needs’ (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2010 p.11).

To further understand the influence of choice of workspace within a responsive design, the transcript and photo below is a beginning indicator that a responsive classroom environment leads to more confident, focused, motivated and engaged learners.

SWST: [Intrigued by Jayden’s comment, I walked over to him to learn more about his thinking]

I overheard you say you wrote more than usual. Why do you think that? What do you think caused this change?

Jayden: [flips through his duotang to compare his work from the previous day, proving the difference in his completed products] I’ve only sat at my desk once this week. I sat here because it’s smooth to work on, more comfortable and quiet. I can sit here whenever I want.

SWST: How do you feel about that?

Jayden: I like it because I know I will get my work done.

Jayden’s choice of workspace sitting on a large floor mat working on a bench / table. He is often observed sitting in spaces that he has identified as ‘quiet’ in order for him to focus and concentrate in order to complete his work.

This example highlights the importance of student choice of workspace within a responsive design and its impact on students’ learning skills and work habits. Jayden was motivated in making responsible choices that reflected his learning needs (choice of workspace) and is more confident as he continues to experience improvements in his work habits. He shows evidence of independently monitoring his work to complete tasks as he compared his work from the previous day. Opportunities for student choice allowed Jayden to ‘identify learning choices that meet personal needs and achieve goals’ (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2010, p.11). Jayden has made great gains in this type of environment. Although he is very aware of his abilities, a responsive design has enabled him to achieve a level of success where he is more focused, confident and engaged in his work.

When asked to provide feedback regarding the responsive design, Jayden shares his thoughts:

“I like working on the bench because it is comfortable. I like sitting on the carpet and the bench is the right size for me. I like that we can go from one area to another. I can pick here or there- wherever it makes it more comfortable to work at. It makes me do my work better.”

The following is an excerpt of the host teacher’s reflection regarding the impact of the responsive design.

“I cannot believe how a small change can make such a big difference…The students, just like us, want to be comfortable when they learn stemming from an environment that emanates choice. This creates a warm and open work environment where students are free to move to and from different study areas, and where they can choose to work with someone of their choice or on their own. In addition, given I teach a combined grade, I have noticed barriers are broken down between the two grades. Unlike before, there is no division between the twos and threes, but a partnership among peers. They are working to help teach and guide each other. I have noticed students are regularly on task and participate in discussions. This experience has opened my eyes to what students really need in their classroom.”

“Spaces are themselves agents for change. Changed spaces will change practice.” (Oblinger, 2006).

Evidence---------------------------Experience #3 Choice of learning partner

During a visit in a Grade 3/4 class during math, students were given choice of learning partners. These choices included: working independently, in pairs or in a small group, and choosing to either remain in the original chosen formation or exit into a different formation, allowing students to make appropriate decisions based on their learning needs. For example, a student may have initially chosen to work on his own, then later decides he needs a learning partner to ‘work through’ the task. The purpose of such choices was based on student behaviours in an effort to improve students’ self-regulation skills. Typically, when students worked in inherited pairs the host teacher and I observed the following student behaviours when they did not have choice: parallel partners (sitting beside one other, but separate share of the work done), increased teacher support, intervention and management and an apparent disappointment or sudden irritation of the announced inherited partner, resulting in student requests to work alone.

When students had choice of whom to work with, the host teacher shared some salient observations with the SWST. “Initially, there was lots of experimentation with different partners so as to establish a suitable learning partner. Once they found the ‘right’ partner, those pairs worked well together."

The following experience with Nathan indicates that choice of learning partner within a responsive design improves students’ initiative on a task.

Nathan, a study student, walks over to his friend, Timothy, a non-study student, and asks to work with him. Timothy agrees and they both walk over to collect some money coins to solve the following math question:

A skipping rope costs three dollars and seventy-five cents.

How much change will Nathan get back if he has a ten dollar bill?

Show your work. Explain your thinking.

I observed Nathan and Timothy remain focused as they acted out the problem (Nathan as the customer, Timothy as the cashier). Then returned to their workspace to record their thinking. After a few minutes, I watched as Nathan exits from his partnership with Timothy, obtains his own manipulatives and paper and sits at desk at the front of the classroom.

I was curious about why Nathan now chose to work independently, since previous observations note his dependence and comfort in working with a partner from the beginning of a task to completion. For the host teacher and I, this experience was different than previous observations of Nathan. He is easily distracted by his peers, often relies on the ideas and opinions of others, lacks confidence in making his own decisions, and lacks thoughtfulness in his work. Now, after choosing to exit this partnership, he took the initiative to “look for and act on new opportunities for learning” and “a willingness to take risks” (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2010). As a result, he accurately completed the task with independence. He proudly walked over to me to share his work.

The transcript below is the conversation that occurred between Nathan and the SWST regarding student choice of learning partner.

SWST: Why did you decide to work with Timothy today?

Nathan: Because he is my friend. I like working with friends because I know them better.

SWST: At what point did you decide to leave your partnership with Timothy?

Nathan: When he didn’t explain his work. He just put the answer. I wanted to try it by myself.

When given opportunities to choose a learning partner, with a responsive design, Nathan demonstrated improved initiative, a learning skill he needed improvement in. By ‘acted with choice’ this resulted in further learning opportunities that may have contributed to Nathan’s success. Choice of learning partner enabled him to select a friend whom he had built relational trust with, to help him work through part of the task and gain confidence in taking the initiative to complete his work independently. It is also possible that when given opportunities for choice, Nathan to felt empowered. When Nathan chose to work with his friend, Timothy, he experienced what Glasser (1998) identifies as ‘power with,’ the power that is achieved when students work together. He demonstrated initiative when leaving this partnership to successfully complete the task on his own, experiencing ‘power within’ [‘I wanted to try it by myself’] to learn, accomplish goals and achieve competence (Glasser, 1998).

Nathan’s teacher reflects on this experience:

“I feel that it [this experience] is because he now knows himself

better and in a way he felt confident in his own abilities to take

initiative in answering the question successfully on his own. He

used the partnership to collaborate with a peer in order to

understand the problem. I have noticed that there is less teacher

reliance. They look towards their peers now.”

“The truth is that, if we want children to take responsibility for their own behavior, we must first give them responsibility, and plenty of it. The way a child learns how to make decisions is by making decisions, not by following directions.” (Alfie Kohn)