What is Your Classroom Saying?

classroomWhat messages is your classroom sending? Is it telling students they—and their creativity—are welcomed?

Being creative often entails risk. The kinds of creative risks we want to encourage in schools don’t entail jumping from great heights or other physical risks (at least I hope not!), but they can still be frightening. As the commercial said so well, “Ideas are scary.” New ideas are even scarier. And sharing a new and different idea with peers can be the scariest of all.

A classroom in which creativity can thrive must be a place in which all students feel welcomed and safe. Easy, right? Maybe not. Sometimes small things can make the difference between students feeling this classroom is a home for them, or it really belongs to others.

geekroomIn an interesting research study by Sapna Cheryan and colleagues, investigators measured the impact of the “stuff” of computer science classrooms on male and female college students. In one case, the classroom was full of items identified with stereotypical computer science majors—Star Trek posters, comics, junk food, soda cans and computer games. In that room, males expressed much more interest in computer science. In the other scenario, a few small changes were made. The Star Trek posters were replaced with nature scenes, and other less stereotypical items—magazines, water bottles, healthy snacks–were added to the room. Those changes alone were enough to raise female students’ interest to the same level as men. Further investigation demonstrated that rooms with stereotypically male items, women felt less sense of belonging and less interest in pursuing activities—even with teams of women.

This study really made me think. What are the things in your room that send messages about who does and doesn’t belong there? Just about everything, it seems. And if students do not feel they belong, how will they feel safe taking creative risks?

So take a look around. Think about gender—but also think about culture, race, age, or any other variables that might be relevant in your environment. Does your room send messages that everyone belongs? If not, what small changes might make a difference? Today is a good idea to think about it.


Cheryan, S., Plaut, V. C., Davies, P. & Steele, C. M. (2009). Ambient belonging: How stereotypical cues impact gender participation in computer science. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97(6), , 1045-1060.. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0016239


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