The Third Teacher

by Katherine Al, Communications Specialist and Andrea Thomson, Director of Development and Alumni Relations

Loris Malaguzzi, an acclaimed early childhood educator from Italy, said, “There are three teachers of children: adults, other children and their physical environment.” 

The Third Teacher, a concept developed by Malaguzzi, insists that the environment in which children learn must be conducive to learning, therefore acting as a third teacher. The environment must be flexible, this could mean modifications by the teacher, but ideally, it would involve student input. The classroom should remain malleable and responsive to the needs of the children it teaches. By allowing students to give input on the space, they become excited, happy, and proud to learn within it. This empowers them and increases motivation to reach their full potential. 

Private schools across Canada are taking steps towards designing learning spaces that are purposeful and custom-built for learning. By creating space for The Third Teacher, students and staff are encouraged to build a sense of community, discover the ways they learn best, and greatly enrich their learning. 

When Elmwood was founded 109 years ago, the architectural structure of the school and its classrooms were built in a “traditional” way where emphasis was placed on lecturing and less on collaborative learning and an understanding of various learning styles. Research shows that the more enclosed a space, the more cortisol (the stress hormone) the brain releases (Persaud, 2014). Students need to be more comfortable, be that with seating, plenty of natural light, fresh air, or acoustics. Think of it this way: if you are sat in an uncomfortable chair or distracted by poor lighting, you will be focused on the discomfort rather than the learning taking place. 

A 1999 study by Lisa Heschong examined the link between natural light and achievement. The study found that the higher the natural light, or lighting that mimicked daylight, the higher the attendance, achievement, and overall performance and health of the students that were part of the study. 

Students and staff at independent schools across the country notice the impact of the environment on learning, with Daphne Perugini, Head of School for Walden International School, reporting that having ample natural light and cozy acoustics creates a sense of calm the moment one enters the building (Globe and Mail, 2023).

Some ways to improve the learning environment and allow space for the Third Teacher include large windows that face out onto natural scenes rather than dull parking lots or roads. Opening windows to allow for fresh air and increasing access to natural light in the mornings was found to be especially effective in increasing student success (Persaud, 2014). Some schools encourage collaboration in learning spaces by having code-accessed projectors and floor-to-ceiling whiteboards. Also, placing STEM and Arts classes within proximity to each other encourages collaboration between the two disciplines (Globe and Mail, 2023).

Taking the idea of the Third Teacher to heart and made possible with the support of generous donors through the Elmwood Fund and strategic building campaigns, Elmwood has been able to reimagine its existing spaces to be more flexible, transdisciplinary and collaborative. Perfect examples of these include the Science & Innovation Wing, with phase one opened in 2019 and phase two completed in 2022. The Biology, Physics and Chemistry labs have large windows that fill the rooms with light, flexible furniture that allows for collaborative work, and fixtures thoughtfully arranged so that the spaces can be used by students of all ages from our Junior School through our Seniors.  Elmwood’s Nature Nook, our outdoor classroom and gathering space, was funded by a group of donors who believed that a multi-function outdoor space would benefit student learning tremendously. Their vision of Junior School reading classes, Middle School drama class performances and gatherings of senior students have all come to be. The redesigned Bistro space and Visual Arts Studio were also custom-built with student experience and success in mind.

Next up on the list of Third Teacher spaces at Elmwood is a Learning Commons, which will see the renovation of the Middle/Senior Library. The space is envisioned to be a hub for all ages and grades dedicated to academic success through learning support, university guidance, and library learning. The space will include interactive and relaxed learning zones, spaces for collaboration and support, reflection areas, flexible furniture, purposeful lighting and multimedia infrastructure connected to best practices in learning. The 2023-24 Elmwood Fund is aimed at making this best-in-class space a reality. 

To learn more about the Learning Commons and how a gift of any amount to the Elmwood Fund can make an impact, click here


Globe and Mail. (2023, October 6). Building Blocks of Education: Physical Spaces That Are Made to Enrich Learning. 

Persaud, R. (2014, September 8). Why learning space matters. Edutopia.