San Diego County Office of Education

Learning Environment

Differentiating instruction: The learning environment

Key Questions to Consider

What role does the physical learning environment play in student achievement?

What strategies can teachers use to enhance the learning environment in support of differentiated instruction?

In differentiated classroom instruction, teachers take steps to purposefully accommodate the needs of students in order to build upon their individual strengths and remedy their academic skill gaps. Teachers who commit to differentiating instruction in their classrooms believe that all students can learn, understand well that one size does not fit all, and embark on a quest to reach each student.

The classroom environment and structure demand as much attention as the tools of assessment and the selection of instructional materials. Students move both physically and psychologically through their school days. Thus, the classroom environment embodies the physical and affective tone or atmosphere in which teaching and learning take place.  

Learning is valued here

From the moment a student enters a classroom, the teacher is communicating, both overtly and covertly, the value he/she places on learning and the degree of acceptance of students as individuals. The walls and artifacts chosen by the teacher can communicate a warm welcome or dull acceptance of responsibility. According to Carol Ann Tomlinson, “Environment will support or deter the student’s quest for affirmation, contribution, power, purpose, and challenge in the classroom” (2003, p. 37).

The physical environment is no less important as students move through elementary, middle, and high school. Tomlinson recommends a room environment that is flexible with varied kinds of furniture: tables of different shapes and sizes, spots for quiet individual work, areas for collaboration. A rug or a comfortable chair can do much to communicate a personal touch that makes a classroom much more than just another room in the school. The structure should allow students to move from whole group, to small group, pairs, and individual learning experiences and support a variety of ways to engage in learning. Teachers should be sensitive and alert to ways in which the classroom environment supports their ability to interact with students individually, in small groups, and as a whole class.  

Students are valued here

The classroom structure can represent “students valued here,” with the inclusion of posters and other visual effects that recognize student cultures and interests. The walls can be a resource for learning and showing off student work. Carol Rothenberg and Douglas Fisher suggest conducting an interest inventory with students and creating a plan to address those interests (2007, p. 248) within the classroom environment and through instruction. Teachers, too, should use the classroom environment as a means to communicate their own interests and background to engage students and strengthen rapport.  

Rothenberg and Fisher also share "Fifteen Interactions for Teacher Expectations and Student Achievement (TESA)" that highlight key ideas for setting a positive classroom tone to support students in their learning (2007, p. 230). Among the TESA suggestions, the teacher learns:

  • The significance of being physically close to students as they work
  • How to praise the students’ learning performance
  • How to apply active listening techniques with students
  • How to ask questions, give compliments, or make statements related to a student’s personal interest or experience
  • How to stop a student’s misbehavior in a calm and courteous manner

The context of learning is powerful

As humans, we react to the world around us. Children are especially sensitive to the obvious and subtle behaviors of their teachers in the context of the classroom setting. The classroom environment and setting are powerful elements in the hands of the teacher; they cannot be overlooked. Renowned child psychologist Haim Ginott discovered early in his own teaching career just how central a teacher is to the academic and emotional welfare of each child. He summarized his philosophy in these words:

I’ve come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized.

-- Ginott, 1972


Washington and Lee University – Teacher Education Differentiation (outside link)
The website offers a variety of articles on the creation of a child-centered, differentiated classroom.

Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory (outside link)
The publication, Meeting the Needs of Gifted Students, offers an examination of differentiation and the classroom environment that is useful for all students, gifted or not.


Ginott, H. (1972). Teacher and child: A book for parents and teachers. New York: Avon Books.

Rothenberg, C., & Fisher, D. (2007). Teaching English language learners: A differentiated approach. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson, Merrill Prentice Hall.

Tomlinson, C. A. (2003). Fulfilling the promise of the differentiated classroom: Strategies and tools for responsive teaching. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

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