The term “learning environment” suggests place and space – a school, a classroom, a library. And indeed, much 21st century learning takes place in physical locations like these. But in today’s interconnected and technology-driven world, a learning environment can be virtual, online, remote; in other words, it doesn’t have to be a place at all. Perhaps a better way to think of 21st century learning environments is as the support systems that organize the condition in which humans learn best – systems that accommodate the unique learning needs of every learner and support the positive human relationships needed for effective learning. Learning environments are the structures, tools, and communities that inspire students and educators to attain the knowledge and skills the 21st century demands of us all.
The term learning environment encompasses learning resources and technology, means of teaching, modes of learning, and connections to societal and global contexts. The term also includes human behavioral and cultural dimensions, including the vital role of emotion in learning, and it requires us to examine and rethink the roles of teachers and students because the ways in which they make use of spaces and bring wider societal influences into play animates the educational enterprise.
Space becomes environment when it is stretched to include a broader sense of place, as well as the people who participate and the culture in which these elements are situated. As the model of teaching and learning evolves from the transmission of information to the creation of knowledge, students and instructors become equal partners in the learning enterprise. Effective learning environments promote active learning, critical thinking, collaborative learning, and knowledge creation. They break learning out of isolated courses or topics and expand it to include all areas of inquiry. Learning is art and science, physical and virtual, local and global. Conceiving and building intentional, thoughtful learning environments will contribute to a culture that puts learning into this context and improves education.
What, then, does an effective learning environment look like? To be sure, there isn’t a single answer to that question. Environments – with their multiplicity of players, forces, and systems interacting – are dynamic, changing in response to the complexity of causes and effects arising from both inside and outside influences. The variables are many, and combinations that work well in one setting won’t be ideal at other institutions, in different disciplines, or even in several sections of the same course taught by different faculty. Moreover, the fact that technologies and teaching methods will continue to evolve means that the job of creating effective learning environments is a journey, not a destination. What is clear is that we must begin to think in environmental terms about the factors that influence learning and strive to understand, test, measure, and evaluate how they work together as an interrelated system – an ecology of learning.
Tom Warger and Gregory Dobbin Educause
Learning Environments: Where Space, Technology, and Culture Converge
American poet Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “The great thing in this world is not so much where you stand, as in what direction you are moving.” Holmes may not have been referring specifically to education, but his words certainly apply. Education is about movement, metaphorically speaking, not about standing still. Students seem to learn best under circumstances that are not static, but fluid; in classrooms that are not stagnant, but energized; facilitated by leaders who know when to step back and let the learners show the way. Easy to say. Harder to do.
Kathleen Moylan, a history teacher, is particularly interested in how to make “what my students think are dusty old history documents come alive.” She finds she can do this best by infusing each of her content units with choice. She explains, “I give my students an opportunity to choose the types of assignments and projects they do when we tackle the content – most often they take on a project that keys into their learning style.”
Though thoughtful planning is central to creating dynamic learning environments, Moylan strives to capture the teachable moments in her classroom, no matter whether the student are working as a whole class, in small groups, or individually over the course of a lesson, a day or a unit of study. The key is seizing the unplanned opportunities for learning that present themselves, changing tactics if necessary, and incorporating student feedback into every aspect of the lesson. That keeps their teaching lively and the students engaged. “There has to be fleetness in a classroom, regardless of what I’m teaching. Learning is just naturally that way because students have questions that I may not have anticipated,” explains Moylan. “My favorite days are when someone, particularly an administrator, pops into the room and can’t find me right away. That means I’m not up at the front of the class, that maybe one of my students is, or maybe a whole group of them. I really think kids need to discover the content for themselves. That can be scary, but that’s where the engagement comes. Structuring an entire unit of study around different learning environments means Moylan does more preparation up-front, but she believes it pays huge dividends. Because she creates opportunities for her learners to facilitate their own study of U.S. history, they take ownership of the content.
Creating a fluid learning environment in which teachers and learners work together creates the alchemic mix that makes a classroom a place of fluidity, energy and movement. Harkening back to Oliver Wendell Holmes’s observation, the craft of teaching is one that involves continual exploration and experimentation – not standing still.
Heather Ellwood, ED Compass Newsletter
Enriched Learning Environments