What to Look for in a Classroom

8 09 2009

By Alfie Kohn

An earlier version of this chart was published in the September 1996 issue of Educational Leadership, and reprinted as the title essay in the anthology What to Look for in a Classroom…And Other Essays .

This revised version appeared as Appendix B of The Schools Our Children Deserve




FURNITURE Chairs around tables to facilitate interaction 

Comfortable areas for learning, including multiple “activity centers”

Open space for gathering

Chairs all facing forward or (even worse) desks in rows
ON THE WALLS Covered with students’ projects 

Evidence of student collaboration


Signs, exhibits, or lists obviously created by students rather than by the teacher


Information about, and personal mementos of, the people who spend time together in this classroom


Commercial posters


Students’ assignments displayed, but they are (a) suspiciously flawless, (b) only from “the best” students, or (c) virtually all alike


List of rules created by an adult and/or list of punitive consequences for misbehavior


Sticker (or star) chart — or other evidence that students are rewarded or ranked

STUDENTS’ FACES Eager, engaged Blank, bored
SOUNDS Frequent hum of activity and ideas being exchanged Frequent periods of silence 

The teacher’s voice is the loudest or most often heard


LOCATION OF TEACHER Typically working with students so it takes a few seconds to find her Typically front and center 
TEACHER’S VOICE Respectful, genuine, warm Controlling and imperious 

Condescending and saccharine-sweet

STUDENTS’ REACTION TO VISITOR Welcoming; eager to explain or demonstrate what they’re doing or to use visitor as a resource Either unresponsive or hoping to be distracted from what they’re doing
CLASS DISCUSSION Students often address one another directly 

Emphasis on thoughtful exploration of complicated issues


Students ask questions at least as often as the teacher does

All exchanges involve (or are directed by) the teacher; students wait to be called on 

Emphasis on facts and right answers


Students race to be first to answer teacher’s “Who can tell me…?” queries

STUFF Room overflowing with good books, art supplies, animals and plants, science apparatus; “sense of purposeful clutter” Textbooks, worksheets, and other packaged instructional materials predominate; sense of enforced orderliness
TASKS Different activities often take place simultaneously 

Activities frequently completed by pairs or groups of students

All students usually doing the same thing 

When students aren’t listening to the teacher, they’re working alone

AROUND THE SCHOOL Appealing atmosphere: a place where people would want to spend time 

Students’ projects fill the hallways


Library well-stocked and comfortable


Bathrooms in good condition


Faculty lounge warm and inviting


Office staff welcoming toward visitors and students


Students helping in lunchroom, library, and with other school functions

Stark, institutional feel 

Awards, trophies, and prizes displayed, suggesting an emphasis on triumph rather than community



Copyright © 1996, 1999 by Alfie Kohn. This article may be downloaded, reproduced, and distributed without permission as long as each copy includes this notice along with citation information (i.e., name of the periodical in which it originally appeared, date of publication, and author’s name). Permission must be obtained in order to reprint this article in a published work or in order to offer it for sale in any form. Please write to the address indicated on the Contact Us page.




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