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Modern Learning Environments – the underlying philosophy to success

Modern Learning Environments (MLE) are all the talk in educational circles right now. Schools, around the world, are knocking out walls and creating bright stimulating classrooms with multi purpose furniture and giving students access to technology. On the surface it looks fantastic, however I am concerned that without a big pedagogy shift, students will be simply just learning the same way many teachers have been teaching – just in bigger classrooms with new furniture.

MLE’s are so much more than the bright new furniture and the technology. What makes an MLE work, and in fact ANY successful classroom is the relationship between the teacher and student and the underlying ethos of learning to learn.

When moving from a structured, and often heavily teacher-dominated classroom, to a less formal student led environment it is paramount students understand their role and responsibilities as the learner and indeed the learning process. It is totally unrealistic to say to students; “Here are your tasks, now go do them.” Teaching students to be independent and self directed learners needs to be at the centre of a successful MLE and this does not happen overnight. It requires scaffolds, stepping-stones and a safe environment.

Here are five considerations that are vital to address for success.

1. Be clear on your underlying philosophy of learning.

In a busy, over crowded curriculum taking time to consider what you and your students believe about learning is important. Here are some questions to consider:

  • Do you believe all students can learn?
  • Do you like learning?
  • Is learning always a simple process?
  • What happens when learning is hard?
  • How do you define learning?
  • How do you know when something has been learned?

These questions and more apply equally to the teachers as well as the students. I believe it is important to understand that learning is finding out what you don’t know. Learning what you don’t know is often hard and I often use the mantra – “Everything is hard before it is easy”. This is a fundamental idea key to successful learning. What do your students do when the task gets hard? How do they handle situations when the answer is not immediately apparent?

An important piece here is to understand and discuss with students the work of Carol Dweck and the role of Mindset. Do you and your students fully understand that intelligence is not fixed and can be developed.

Explain to your students that your job is to cause learning to happen and this will not occur if you give them easy work. However you must also give them the skills to cope with the hard. Can your student persist, think flexibly, be creative, take responsible risks?

I personally like the metaphor of the butterfly emerging from the chrysalis. It is the struggle that makes the wings strong enough to fly and if you help the butterfly emerge from the chrysalis it will die. I belief this is true in the classroom. Allow students to have time to work out their own challenges, rather than jumping in and rescuing. Now I am not suggesting we allow our students to drown, however in an encouraging way, explicitly teach them how to solve their problems effectively.

2. Create a safe environment by redefining mistakes and failure

Part of this learning philosophy is also about creating a space where students are free to give new ideas a whirl, make mistakes, fail and use what they know.

Redefining mistakes and failure is crucial. If students are fearful of making a mistake or scared of being wrong, then they are less likely to push themselves to their learning limit and more likely to stay within what is conformable and known. Again a great metaphor is to talk to students about learning to walk or ride a bike. To learn both these activities you have to ‘fall over’ or ‘fall off’ and get back up.

Steve Gurney, nine time winner of the NZ Coast to Coast race, a gruelling multisport event says; “I never learned from winning, except to increase my ego. I learned most from losing.”
Create an environment in you classroom where it is OK for students to make mistakes and fail. FAIL stands for: First Attempt In Learning.

Take time to discuss what went wrong and celebrate the failures, so they will not be repeated. Of course if someone makes the same mistake more than once, it simply means they did not learn the lesson the first time.

3. Teach students to take ownership

So what do students do when they make a mistake or get things wrong? Do they automatically become a victim or a victor? A victim chooses to blame others for their mistakes and failings or make excuses. Common phrases of a victim include; “She made me do it” or “He’s doing it too.” They might also often choose to put their head in the sand and pretend the result did not happen or choose not to see the consequences of their actions – the “I don’t care” attitude.

On the other hand, the victor is able to take ownership and admit they have it wrong and go about working out how to fix the problem or remedy the result. A key to hearing this dialogue is the victor will use the word “I” in their explanation demonstrating they are taking responsibility.

4. Ensure students know the learning process

Our job as teachers is to take students to the edge of their comfort zone and invite them to step out. Teach students about James Nottingham’s ‘The Learning Pit.’ Often, when students start a new project they seem to be clear of the task and have a positive outlook towards the completion. However somewhere along the learning journey, they get stuck, unsure, confused and the work gets hard. These are signals to suggest learning is about to occur! At this point the key is to teach students the strategies to get themselves out of ‘The Pit.” This may include; persisting, thinking flexibly, using past knowledge, using your senses, finding humour, asking for help, working with others and questioning. These are some of the Thinking Dispositions that are the rungs of the ladder used to climb out of ‘The Pit”. Once out of the pit and the project is completed, it important to take time to reflect on the journey and the next steps.

5. Celebrate the learning – not the end result

Take time to celebrate the learning in your classroom. Have conversations about the steps and not just the end result. Display the ‘work in progress’ and not just the final result. Ask students to hand in their drafts, attached to the final copy, with evidence of growth and learning. Invite students to reflect on the process and what they might have done different next time.

Once students understand the learning process, what to do when they are stuck, how to deal with failure and have a big picture view of learning, working in an MLE is sure to be easier. Students will not be so reliant on you as the teacher and will be able to work effectively independently.

About Karen Tui Boyes

Winner of the NZ Educator of the Year 2104 and the NZ Speaker of the Year award in 2013, Karen is a sought after speaker who continually gets rave reviews from audiences around the world. Her dynamic style and highly informative content—which turns the latest educational research into easy-to-implement strategies and techniques — sets her apart from others in her field.

www.karentuiboyes.com