Friday, November 6, 2015

How to Make School Less Like Prison

"This place is like a prison!" a fourth grader exclaimed.  Having worked in a prison, I immediately replied that it wasn't.  Then the day ended, and I reflected more on that statement.  I realized two things: 1) most schools really are like prisons and 2) we can change that.

In short, every part of a student's and prisoner's day is scheduled, organized and supervised.  Then the physical appearance of most classrooms and schools is drab, dreary, and uniform. The walls are gray or beige - very similar to a prison. School furniture is typically desks and typically configured in some way that makes learning a solitary event. The same is true for prisons; each cell has the same furniture and materials, and designed to prohibit collaboration. There is more when you think about how lunch and recess time and space are organized. Or how learning is organized and delivered.

Instead, let's focus on how to make schools less like prisons and more like supportive, engaging,and welcoming environments. Scattered around the country there are teachers, classrooms, schools,a nod districts doing just that. Here are just a few ideas that I have come across in my blog travels.


  • Make your classroom more like Starbucks. I really admire the risk this teacher took with her primary students to meet their developmental needs.  Did you know that if you google this, you'll find a few articles and posts on just this?
  •  Create Flexible Learning Environments.  I love this, because it really focuses on comfort and collaboration. More and more is coming out about this and how you can do it on the fly. You may want to just start with rethinking your own teacher spaces - like the teacher desk and small group / guided reading table.  
  • Provide students with choice.  Give students choice in where they work, who they work with, the materials they use, how they learn and what they learn about.  I've had a lot of success with Academic Choice, a Responsive Classroom practice  


At first, making radical changes to the physical environment can seem time consuming and financially burdensome. Take whatever works for you and see how it impacts your students. I remember the first year I ditched desks and brought tables into the classroom. Just this one change in the physical environment made it a more collaborative classroom with students being more open to sharing resources.