Creating a Significant Learning Environment

School is a place of learning. We send our children for months at a time to learn and explore all the things that life will require of them. Easy enough right? Our kids leave the education system with the ability to read and write, multiply and follow methods, but what else? Why is this the peak for them? What are they losing in the process?

Douglas Thomas states that “learning is fundamentally an easy thing that we do from the day we were born to the day we die. Mostly natural and effortless everywhere but school.” You can walk into almost any educational building and sense the change from one grade level to the next. Kindergarten classrooms are full of creativity, curiosity and imagination. Children exploring what it’s like to learn. As the grade levels progress, student exploration is declining and curiosity is holding its hand on the way down. Educational culture has changed classroom learning environments across the nation. Our children are losing their passion for learning and the desire to continue. Maybe the idea of brick and mortar education is due for an upgrade. 

Why are we teaching anything anyways? What outcomes are we striving to achieve? Whatever those desired outcomes are, change needs to happen before we begin to see progress. What if we start with altering the environments in which we teach and our children learn?

January of 2021 I set out to develop a plan of innovation for my campus and soon the entire district. What I settled comfortably on was digital portfolios, or ePortfolios. Sheepishly I knew this was a plan I could implement almost seamlessly and without much pushback from administration. I mean, what could it possibly entail to ask my students to use a web based portfolio to document their learning in my classroom? I knew as I planned that COVA would definitely have to be an extremely large piece of my plan and my struggle would be with allowing students to have choices in what this would entail. Not a comfort level for me. It wasn’t until reading A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change by Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown that I realized just how much of my style would have to change. It would all need to start with the environment that my students walk into each morning.

Learning environments are quite possibly the most important piece in educating because they are the very foundation of learning. Thomas and Brown claim that the school system should be viewed as an environment and cannot be viewed as broken because environments cannot be broken; instead, they can either be effective or ineffective (Thomas, 2011). Making the connection from our environment and student learning clicked with that statement. We like to argue that our system is broken and in need of a complete renovation, but what if we started with just those environments embedded so deeply in our system? 

Creating significant learning environments allows students to learn how to learn through inquiry and imagination, take ownership of their learning and build meaningful and long lasting relationships between children and education.  Implementation of ePortfolios will push my students to want to explore and focus on areas of their choice. Doing so will hopefully drive the passion to continue learning and open their minds to new areas of interest. We know that when humans are passionate about something, they continue to want to partake in that and there’s nothing more that we could want for our children. Learning isn’t about the grades going home or the pass/fail of an assignment. Learning is about the doing, the questions of what if, and working together.  ePortfolios show that learning looks and feels completely different than mastery of a standard and can be used across all content areas. It is my hope that my students will feel heard and in return will begin to take more ownership of their education. 

This would be an easy change, or an added bonus to our campus. Easy. I couldn’t be naive enough to think that asking students to open up a digital device and decide what they wanted this to look like is all that would be required, could I? I’m not just asking teachers to open a web browser and let come what may. We know these changes are not beneficial if we don’t begin with our learning environment. This is not an easy task and I am settling in with being okay with that. Easy never gets us anywhere. I also do not feel this will be technically hard, but more on the lines of mentally challenging. Teachers on my campus are not accustomed to allowing students to have any choice in their learning. If they aren’t utilizing student voice and choice in their environment, are the students used to having it? 

What I noticed as I moved through A New Culture of Learning was that my heart has always been in what I do, but I am frustrated that I have let these years tick by without doing what I knew needed to be happening in my room, with my students. I’ve been focused on student mastery and progress. I mean, if the test shows mastery then this means my students have learned what was expected of them and they are ready to move forward. What this isn’t telling me is my students are great memorizers/test takers, lacking passion for learning, and emotionally disconnected from learning. 

We know change needs to happen and we put it on our states and local government to fix what we’ve all labeled as broken. Reality is it’s not what our students are learning. The issues lie with HOW our students are doing this learning and how significant that learning ENVIRONMENT is. Change needs to start from the four walls out and not the outside in.

 

Thomas, D. (September 12, 2012). A new culture of learning, Douglas Thomas at TEDxUFM. Retrieved from: https://youtu.be/lM80GXlyX0U

Thomas, Douglas,Brown, John Seely. (2011) A New Culture of Learning:  Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change [Lexington, Ky. : CreateSpace?]