Structuring the Environment

As a teacher, I remember often making a decision in the first five minutes of a meeting on whether or not that meeting was going to be successful. Many times that split-second decision had little to do with the content or the facilitator; it was often about what I saw when I walked into the room. One thing I’ve learned as I’ve begun to facilitate and design meetings is that the more intentional one is in aligning the structure of the room with the purpose of the meeting, the more successful the meeting is.

When planning for a meeting or a training, there are many factors to consider for the meeting or training successful. Questions like:

  • How might I elicit a certain type of thinking?
  • What reading protocol should I use with this article?
  • What language would best frame this question in order to include all of the participants?
  • How do I effectively choose a summarizing strategy that will organize and integrate all the information participants have learned?

In considering all these elements and trying to give them appropriate weight, it’s easy to forget the foundational element of structuring the environment. If we forget to structure the environment properly, a meeting can be less than successful – and, often, we’re left scratching our heads and wondering why.

We refer to structuring the environment as ‘designing the surround’, a term we learned in the Adaptive Schools training. Last week my colleague, Jeff Bell, wrote about the importance of developing trust. One primary way we can develop trust is intentionally designing a space to promote psychological safety. This includes strategies like room arrangement and what is posted in the room.

Over the last few years, teachers in our district have begun to explore what structuring the environment might look like for our students. We’ve begun to become intentional about thinking about what effective instruction looks like in the classroom – including how we arrange the desks and what we put up on the walls. Teachers have started asking themselves what kind of learning lends itself to arranging the desks in rows and in what situations it might be more effective to pull desks into a circle. We have become more purposeful in thinking about what we hang on the walls that supports instruction. As we continue to develop as a district, it’s important to apply these same learnings to the ways we structure the environment for adult success.

Structuring the environment begins with being conscious about how the arrangement of the room can best support the planned type of interaction. It’s not a new idea; King Arthur did this when he chose a round table instead of a rectangular one. When he opted to have his knights sit at a table without a head, he sent a message about the kind of discourse he wanted to have – without saying a word. In other words, he knew his intentions and chose the seating arrangement that would best communicate those intentions. In putting all of his knights on an even footing and avoiding the position of power at the head of the table, King Arthur set the expectation that dialogue and discussion would be the norm rather than one leader dictating policy.

How might this translate into school-based meetings and trainings? If the facilitator’s intent is to teach participants a new technique, he or she might choose to position desks or tables facing the facilitator. However, if his/her intent is to function as part of a problem-solving group, he/she might choose to position the desks in a circle, like King Arthur, with no one person given more positional power than the next. There is no one right way to arrange the room; there’s just the idea that the room arrangement should support the kind of conversation one wants to hold.

A second factor when structuring the environment is to position visible reminders of the work that the group will be doing – just like a teacher posting a relevant anchor chart on the wall. What message might the facilitator send when posting the working agreements on slide one of a PowerPoint – then scrolling to the next slide? By contrast, visibly posted charts containing working agreements and norms communicate that these elements are important to the group’s work, even if they’re never referenced during the meeting. They also serve as reminders to reference if the meeting goes off the rails. When the agreed upon working agreement of ‘limit crosstalk’ is visibly posted, the facilitator can easily gesture to the chart as a gentle cue, allowing the chart to be the neutral third point that gets the meeting back on track.

Perhaps the most important consideration the facilitator holds when designing the surround is ‘Does the space create psychological and emotional safety?’. Participants come to meetings carrying their previous experiences with them. When structuring the environment, it’s important to be conscious of what might be carried into the room, even unconsciously. For example, if a teacher is used to conducting guided reading at a kidney bean table, sitting participants on one side of the table and the facilitator on the other creates an unspoken teacher-student dynamic. Or, at the end of a tough week, even meeting in a school building could create a sense of stress; the facilitator may opt to hold a meeting at a neutral location in order to allow participants to let go and relax. An awareness of what the participants might hold onto, and might allow to hold them back, is an important consideration as the facilitator designs the surround.

Many considerations come into play when trying to design a successful meeting or training. One of the most important, and often overlooked, is intentionally structuring the room to align with one’s goals. It’s amazing how much impact choosing the round table rather than the rectangular table can have on a meeting. Consider the next meeting you plan to facilitate. What new choices might you make as you intentionally design the surround for function, safety and success?

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