This Is How I Created A Strong Learning Culture In My Classroom
Three building blocks for effective learning environments
When I first started teaching I believed that the most important measure of an effective lesson was if I survived without forgetting my lines.
Almost twenty years on, lesson planning is not my North Star instead it is a rough outline agile enough to move with the pace of each learner.
The one mind shift that helped me get from rigid Point A to agile Point B was prioritising the culture of the learning environments I was trying to create.
There is no precise guide to creating a learning environment as these are very much context-driven.
This is the beauty of the approach I am going to outline in this article.
I was inspired to prioritise cultures of learning after reading a paper in the Harvard Business Review by David A. Garvin, Amy C. Edmondson and Francesca Gino.
While the authors’ research focusses on corporate environments there is much to take from their findings. They highlight that,
an organisation with a strong learning culture faces the unpredictable deftly.
Considering that as an educator I want to create opportunities for my learners to develop resilience to help them grow as individuals, I thought this research might be a good place to begin.
The three building blocks of an effective learning environment are identified by the authors as:
1. A supportive learning environment
This comprises psychological safety, appreciation of differences, openness to new ideas, and time for reflection.
2. Concrete learning processes and practices
This includes experimentation, information collection, analysis, and education and training.
This final building block reinforces and sets the tone of the learning.
If you follow my work you will know that I write extensively about learning and teaching strategies, so for this article I am going to home in on the supportive learning environment and leadership building blocks to illustrate how a culture of learning can be cultivated with any group of learners.
Prioritising Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs before Bloom’s Taxonomy is probably my North Star when it comes to teaching and learning.
If you are unfamiliar with this foundation, the main premise is that learners need to have certain needs met before they can learn and develop.
These ideas are illustrated below:
Creating supportive learning environments
A supportive learning environment is the core of a successful educational setting.
To learn, learners cannot fear being ridiculed or marginalised if they disagree with their peers or teachers.
Should they have a minority viewpoint, learners should feel comfortable expressing such ideas without fear of reprisal (unless such views are dangerous in any way. It may be appropriate in your educational setting to challenge such views or escalate them.)
Learners need to feel safe to be able to learn.
This means they feel comfortable sharing answers that may be incorrect. By creating a learning environment where failure does not signal the end of anything, especially respect or progress, learners can be more agile in their approach to their learning.
They can be more creative in their problem solving because the consequences of being ‘wrong’ are not final. Teachers and instructors that demonstrate ‘wrong’ answers as being a negative aspect of a classroom environment cannot hope to create a psychologically safe environment conducive to learning.
There is a simple strategy that any teacher or instructor can use to help build a ‘mistakes welcome’ environment: write a question on the board and ask learners to only note incorrect answers. The learner should then justify the reasons why they believe the answers are incorrect.
By removing the taboo of ‘wrong answers’, errors can form part of the building blocks of learning and not something to shy away from. They instead become something from which they can learn a great deal.
When a learner offers a totally incorrect answer to a question, the teacher or instructor should avoid simple “Not quite!” responses which feel well-meaning, but are in fact a missed learning opportunity.
Needless to say “Wrong!” or “No” are pointless responses which only serve to reinforce a sense of psychological insecurity.
A more effective learning and teaching centred strategy is to simply ask a follow up question, such as “Can you tell me a little more about why you think that?” or “Tell me more!”
This can help the teacher or instructor uncover gaps in knowledge or misunderstandings so that subsequent teaching can address such issues. This Socratic questioning technique can be really effective not only in drawing out misconceptions but also helping learners practise their critical thinking skills and creativity.
For more about Socratic questioning ideas, read my article on this teaching and learning technique here.
Where there is a possibility of a nuanced response, the same Socratic approach can be used to learn more about a thought process that may be different to that of the teacher and their peers. This should not be shied away from as a teacher or instructor despite how disempowering this may initially feel.
I once asked a class a question about the benefits of using satellite imagery in relation to identifying weather patterns. I was looking for answers surrounding mapping natural disasters so governments could plan emergency responses.
I was blown away by one student who said that such imagery may also reveal humanitarian disasters and help to identify areas in which genocides had occurred.
I was humbled and demonstrated this to the class. Instead of me taking this as a challenge to my knowledge and preparedness I was able to show that the contribution had brought significant and unexpected value to the lesson.
This emboldened my learners to attempt this again because they realised that I was receptive to it and believed they held great value. This is one way teachers and instructors can create visible cultures of thinking and move away from the ‘sage on the stage’ style of direct instruction.
I wrote more about this here.
The power of appreciating and embracing differences
Appreciating differences is key to a supportive learning environment. The learners need to understand, appreciate and celebrate the fact they are not a homogenous group labelled by their gender, ethnicity, age or any other characteristic.
They are all unique and that is their strength.
One of my learners recently expressed concern that she had not written the same amount of words as her peer and was worried her work was not going to be good enough.
I offered her a quote from Theodore Roosevelt: ‘Comparison is the thief of joy’ and explained there was nothing to be gained by comparing herself to others because it only served to fuel feelings of inadequacy.
By sharing with a little humour this quotation she also understood I was not going to make a judgement on the face value of the quality of her work by its length, but was instead going to read her unique views and feedback on that only.
Taking opportunities to empower learners to feel more confident about their unique offerings is just one strategy to help them understand that differences are welcome but not value judged.
In a recent class I had with a group of spritely 12-year olds I found that by verbally expressing expectations that differences were desirable the motivation and engagement levels went through the roof.
After teaching the class about different political systems ranging from anarchy to democracy and thalassocracy to meritocracy I asked them to create their own version of a utopian political system. We talked about the subjective nature of utopia and that although my utopia might be different to theirs, it didn’t make mine right and theirs wrong.
The freeing expressions on their faces was a picture as they raced to grab paper and pens to begin their design process. I had taught the class the basic principles of design thinking and using this human-centric, problem-solving approach they came up with ideas quite frankly I never would have.
While some designs were outlandish, amusing, sustainable and inherently unsustainable, the vibrancy and excitement of the sharing of ideas added to this learning environment.
This will now lay the foundations for where we could go next in our learning and teaching.
I observed how letting go of control of what I wanted learning to ‘look’ like sparked fresh thinking and prevented lethargy…no mean feat when the class in question takes place last period on a Wednesday afternoon in a classroom that I can only compare to a greenhouse on a summer’s day.
What made this learning environment all the more positive and nurturing was the fact that they were excited to craft a novel approach to a challenge. They were encouraged to take risks and explore the untested.
The learners were not only asked to simply design and present their ideas, they were asked to reflect upon the ideas of others, ask for clarification and offer supportive feedback.
I use the Project Zero Harvard University Ladder of Feedback to scaffold this kind of communication.
I believe that instilling this good practice at an early age will make this part of the culture in the classroom, if not elsewhere in their lives.
I made a video about this approach, also known as ‘accountable talk’. Watch it below:
Providing time for this kind of collaboration and communication creates a supportive learning environment because it encourages thoughtfulness in terms of the way in which learners interact with each other.
Teachers as leaders
The leadership of the teacher or instructor is essential in fostering such a supportive learning environment. When leaders engage, show interest, question and prompt dialogue they are creating a culture in which learners are encouraged to learn.
When teachers and instructors devote time to encouraging, entertaining and exploring ideas they are cultivating a culture of curiosity and visible thinking.
When the learners can see this they can visualise and comprehend what they can be too.
For me, I am far less concerned with ‘correct answers’ than I am with demonstrations of curiosity.
The former may help a learner ace a test but the latter will lead to learning mastery, agile thinking and confidence in becoming a lifelong learner.
When my learners come into my classroom, either online or in person, they may not know what to expect but they have grown accustomed to feeling comfortable feeling a bit uncomfortable.
They accept that they may unlearn some ideas after listening to feedback or exploring their own thought processes.
They enjoy the company of their peers, sometimes even more so when they realise their differences.
They are excited about learning because they are never 100% sure what that might be…and to be honest, sometimes neither am I.