The Intangible Third Teacher

When I first started working in the Reggio Way, “environment” was a word that felt hopelessly vague to me.  Time after time, I floundered through discussions centered on “environment as the third teacher” that seemed to incorporate nearly everything.  With only a few years of experience under my belt, I have heard the word used to refer to the size and configuration of furniture, documentation, displays of educational materials, the shape of a room, architectural aspects of a building, choice of lighting, and the use of color in the classroom just to name a few.  To nature educators like myself, the meaning of the word “environment” is even more complex.  I regularly find myself using it as a synonym for the Great Outdoors (e.g. “be mindful of the environment, please make sure not to throw your string cheese wrapper on the ground”).

Despite the confusion, most educators agree that a good environment is essential for the well-being of their students.  What makes an environment “good” is an entirely different and equally exasperating discussion.  To many Reggio-inspired teachers, an excellent learning environment should be inviting, warm, comfortable, personal, fun, beautiful, engaging, and interesting.  It should contain a mixture of familiar and unfamiliar objects.  It should have areas for students to be together and areas for them to be alone.  It should have enough room for them to romp and enough quiet for them to rest.  It should reflect not just what is being learned in the classroom, but who is doing the learning and why they thought it was worth investigating.

I will be the first to admit that learning environments must necessarily be comprised of things like chairs, lights, and loose parts.  Personally, I adore the manipulatives and blocks in our classroom.  In my spare time, I enjoy making new sets for our students to explore.  I love watching them discover a myriad of new and exciting way to implement them.  But I also think there is an immaterial aspect to environment.  There are essential non-human elements of the classroom that cannot be made in a woodshop, moved in the back of a truck, purchased online, or found discounted at a garage sale.

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In my opinion, the most essential aspects of a learning environment are the social contracts that exist between the citizens of a learning space and the objects that comprise it; they are the backbone of negotiated curriculum.  While these social contracts are sometimes informed or inspired by the physical items within the classroom, they exist in an entirely distinct and transcendent context.  Many Reggio-inspired classrooms look strikingly similar to one another.  Truthfully, child-sized chairs are not essential to a effective environment.  They are important because they help students feel a sense of belonging in their learning environment.  Likewise, unfinished wooden blocks in Reggio-inspired classrooms are beneficial to students because they help convey the importance of a connection to the natural world, not because they bear any actual significance of their own.  They are just examples of common classroom items that have been shown to create a context in which students can learn valuable lessons, but they are not the only way these lessons can be learned.

Aesthetics, research trends, and personal preference sometimes obscure an important truth regarding the learning environments we teach in from day to day: if we can’t learn a lesson from it, an object is just an object.  A few sunflower seeds dropped into the hands of a student can do more to make them feel a sense of belonging in their learning environment than any chair ever could.  With the right mindset, a fallen leaf can be just as effective at inspiring a sense of connection to the natural world as a thousand baskets full of tree cookies.  In ten minutes, a single fuzzy caterpillar can teach a group of children all they ever need to know about sharing.  A splinter can tell a child all about the importance of trust, and about the incredible healing power of kindness.

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On a fundamental level, a classroom is a room filled with things for students and teachers to interact with.  But the difference between a classroom and a powerful learning environment is how much time we spend thinking about the deeper significance of the things.  As educators, we owe it to our students and ourselves to regularly consider the lessons each item in the classroom impart upon our students.  We should consider the lessons each item in the classroom impart on us, as well.  A Reggio-inspired environment is so much more than just a checklist of things; it is a fluid set of mutually agreed upon values that infom the way the agents of a classroom explore the objects within.

While these values are sometimes learned from the objects in the classroom, they are in no way tethered to them.  An intrinsic benefit of a powerful learning environment is that it follows students and informs the way they interact with objects outside the classroom. It informs the way they permit objects to act upon them while they explore their local community and the world at large.  Long after they forget the fallen leaf, the sunflower seeds, the caterpillar, and the splinter, they will remember the lessons each of those objects bestowed upon them for years to come.

An unforgettable learning environment is a hopelessly complex fabric of connections between the people learning and the materials they learn through.  It is a carefully molded and endlessly shifting collection of verbal and non-verbal agreements between individuals and inanimate objects.  It is an unwritten code of conduct to help young minds navigate a world of infinite possibilities and diverse interests.  A learning environment is as much a series of shared thoughts, ideas, beliefs, and philosophies as it is a collection of tangible items.

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6 thoughts on “The Intangible Third Teacher

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  1. Hello! So interesting for me to read your thoughts, since this is exactly what I am writing about at the moment: The environment in its many aspects, rather than simply the physical. So, my upcoming book is about environments that support inquiry, including environments that support relationships, that support teachers in ‘risky’ out of the box thinking (as researchers), that share documentation of children’s and teachers’ thinking, that provoke, that invite parents in as fellow contributors….and so on. Would love to have a ‘real time’ conversation with you about all this! Where are you located?
    Sue Stacey

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    1. That sounds fantastic, Sue. I particularly love the bit about creating environments that support teachers in out-of-the-box thinking; I find that to be such an important part of preventing teachers from getting stuck in a rut or burned out.

      I live in Tennessee, and I would love to have a ‘real time’ conversation. You are in Nova Scotia, right? Are you available to video chat over the web?

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      1. We live in Nashville. My wife and I were raised in St. Louis, and find Tennessee to be such a fantastic place to live. The weather is so nice, and the scenery is absolutely breathtaking.

        We can trade Skype information by email if you like. You can contact me at davydovmr@gmail.com. Can’t wait!

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