Learning Environments

IMG00035-20100513-0950When I first started teaching, I used to get more frustrated with my students.  I remember feeling that the only time they took learning seriously was when I would stand at the front of the room and deliver a note.  If I asked them to participate in an activity that required any self-regulation, such as a lab investigation, my students would always get off task.

I have learned to stop blaming my students.

I came to understand that my students didn’t take my activities seriously because I didn’t take the activities seriously! Unintentionally, I would undermine their commitment to each task by the simple fact that, in my mind, I believed the tasks represented “bonus learning” – that the activities were auxiliary to a lecture/note.  For example, I would deliver the content as a lecture and then ask the students to “investigate” the content in a lab.  Or, I would ask students to debate an issue and then lecture them about the pros and cons in the lesson the next day.  I was undermining each activity because the students quickly came to know that the activity was not as important as the note that came before or after.  It was easy for students to think, “why should I learn something on my own if Mr. Whisen is going to tell me what I need to know afterwards anyway?”

A couple of years ago I realized that I needed to change my approach.  It is now clear in my mind that the activity is not auxiliary to the lesson, the activity IS the lesson!

To help clarify this change in approach for my students, I decided to outline explicitly the different types of “learning environments” in which they will be actively engaged throughout the course.  I even created simple icons to capture the essence of each learning environment.  There are 5 in my mind:

1. Direct Instruction

  • lessons, demonstrations

2. Independent/Reflection

  • homework/problem sets, independent reading, reflective writing

3. Class Activity

  • labs, debates, discussions

4. Tutorial Groups

  • small group discussions, projects, cooperative learning strategies

5. Social Network

  • blogging, forums, photo/video sharing, social bookmarking, wikis

Instruction Independent-Reflection Classroom Activity

Tribes clean Social Network

I believe that re-framing the way I understand “learning environments” has had a profound impact on the level of engagement in my classroom and it has improved student learning.  However, it was not as simple as just telling the students about the different types of learning environments.  It’s one thing to say that an activity “IS the lesson,” but it’s much more difficult to create an activity that can truly be considered a standalone instructional piece.  It takes careful scaffolding and a balance between being too challenging (that they give up) and too easy (that they become disengaged.)  Accordingly, I have been slowly building up a repository of standalone learning activities, but it takes time.

Students need to know why they are being asked to do something.  I have learned that by emphasizing all of the different ways that students will be expected to learn, they begin to see each activity as important.  In order to communicate my learning expectations to students, I put a far greater emphasis on #2, 3, and 4 in the first few weeks of classes.  I think this helps to get the class off on the right foot.