As I have talked about effective practices for teachers and administrators, I really wanted to shift the focus on what the best environment is for student learning. If we are to have students become leaders and grow within our classrooms, they have to be in an environment that creates that.
There have been points in my own childhood where I feared the teacher and didn’t feel safe or cared for. The belief at that time may have been that if I “feared” the teacher, I would listen and respect their wishes. The fact was, when I felt unsafe was the time that I caused the most issues in a classroom. A mutual respect between teacher and student must be created to ensure that there is an opportunity for optimal learning.
Here are some key conditions that I believe must be created for students to give them the best opportunity for learning (in no particular order):
1. Kids need to feel safe – This is the most important factor for students to not only succeed, but to also excel. Safety is not only that they do not worry about being emotionally or physically hurt by those that they share their space with, but also that their ideas will also be valued. The environment is safe to make mistakes, share thoughts, and know that their ideas will not be attacked or ridiculed. I have seen students cower under these conditions and it could not only affect them in their current classroom, but could very well stay with them long past the time in that environment. Trust must be apparent for students to succeed.
2. Students are cared for as people first. - A child will not succeed in the classroom if they are starving. They will also not do well if they are dealing with tragedy in their lives. Take care of them and show them that you care about their personal well being. Ask them about their day, talk to them what is important about their lives, and find out what is important to them. We always need to teach kids FIRST then curriculum. Remember that. Always.
3. Opportunities for fun. – This is a no-brainer. If you enjoy what you do, have a sense of humour, and can laugh in your environment, you will do better and enjoy what you do. This has been proven over and over again, and it is essential that we can learn to laugh at ourselves, and with our students. I do not want to work in an environment where I do not enjoy what I do and kids are not the same. Staff are encouraged to allow students to use Ipods in the classroom to not just connect with the outside world, but to also just let kids listen to music while they work. For many people (including me), music engages the spirit and helps people to perform better as they are less distracted. Allowing students to use them responsibly in the classroom while respecting the learning of their peers is just one way we can create a better environment for students to learn.
4. Ideas and opinions are valued. - I have heard some crazy ideas from students and I have talked to them about these ideas. I have listened to them and talked to them about their thoughts. Those same students have also come up with some pretty amazing ideas after that. If I would have simply scoffed and ignored them because of what they shared with me the first time, they would have never come back. Even the most famous inventors have failed before but we have to show students that even when they fall short, it is all a part of the learning process.
5. Opportunities for individualized learning. - Kids need to have the opportunity to show their understanding in a way that is meaningful and relevant to them. Having one way to get to the same destination is not fair and is not differentiating learning for each child. Students also take different lengths of time for their learning, but if they get to the same level of understanding eventually, you have gave them the opportunity to be successful.
6. Understand their knowledge and guide them to further their learning. – What do students know about what they are learning? What is the knowledge they need to build a solid base to move forward? I do not believe that “marks” are the best basis for this because they do not give any feedback for growth. As teachers, it is our responsibility to give strategies to improve learning and help them further their own learning.
7. Student as a leader in the classroom. – To be a leader does not mean that students are the most popular. It simply can mean that they have the opportunity to show leadership in areas they excel and are passionate in. We have to help students find out where they are leaders and give them opportunities to exhibit this. As an educator who has worked extensively with technology integration, I have seen students lead ME in this area several times over the years. I appreciate learning at all times, even if it is from a child. Not only will students appreciate that they have taught their teacher something, they will go out of their way to further their own learning to ensure that it happens again. Do your best to find opportunities for ALL students to exhibit leadership in different areas of the classroom.
8. Opportunities for all to reflect. – Even as I write this blog post, I know that I am improving my learning and putting my ideas together. Time has to be given to students where they can self-assess their learning and put their ideas together. This could easily be done in a journal, blog, through music or art, or through just having conversations with others. It is not the avenue that is important, but the opportunity. Find time in the busy school day to let students reflect on what they are learning. The time spent now will be well worth the dividends in the future.
Through writing this post, I realized that this is not JUST an environment that we should try to create for our students, but for all those that we work with. People are more engaged in their work if they have all of the opportunities listed above (and probably more) and will ultimately move their practice forward. It is essential as administrators that we not only work to provide these opportunities for our students, but also for our staff. The optimal learning environment can be implemented in classrooms, workplaces, and even at home. Do your best to create this for everyone and you will be amazed at how people flourish.