The latest buzzword in educational reform is “learning environments”. These are, according to the OECD, places where constructive, self-regulated learning, that is sensitive to context, is fostered. Critical to the success of learning in these spaces is that “learning professionals [should be] highly attuned to the learners’ motivations and the key role of emotions in achievement” and that they should also “encourage well-organized co-operative learning.”
This all sounds really wonderful and very 21st century but as someone who has spent almost 3 decades creating learning environments that are socially inviting, emotionally safe and intellectually stimulating, I can assure you that teachers are going to need much more than a text and a workshop to successfully role- shift from being primarily deliverers of content and dispensers of discipline to being “attuned to learners’ motivations” while they structure learning environments in which learners are at the centre.
It will take much more than just a cognitive decision to change a way of being in the classroom.
If teachers do not spend time getting to know themselves, truly, and if they’re not willing to look deep into the shadows of why they do the things they do, they will be incapable of creating for students an emotionally safe space in which miscommunication and conflict that arises amongst students and between students and the teacher is managed in a way that preserves relationships.
When a classroom becomes de-centred, when a teacher is not in complete control of all interactions, all kinds of wonderful things can and do happen but these can be easily overshadowed if the not-so-wonderful dimensions of relationships within the learning environment are not constructively managed.
Relationships are strengthened when they can withstand, and be strengthened by the fires of conflict. But how is a teacher to know how to deal with conflict when in her traditional role of dispenser of discipline, punishment or banishment was the norm?
Central to the success of learning environments is that teachers should ‘care’ about students’ emotional well-being but caring is not always rainbows or fuzzy Care Bears and Hallmark cards. Caring takes courage and honesty and trust and those are not deliverable by a point and click or an announcement of a policy change.
It is not enough to be an educated adult, motivated to create a caring classroom community/learning environment.
Nothing in my undergraduate studies in Anthropology, Sociology or Psychology or my post-graduate studies in Curriculum and Instruction prepared me to know how to meaningfully manage the dynamics and dimensions of classroom relationships between students and teachers and amongst students.
I am still not aware of any teacher-education programme that directly and specifically teaches teachers, in ways beyond reading and discussing a text, how to develop and maintain and support relationships in the classroom. Please let me know if you do!
In the absence of such a formal program, I have learned, mostly through direct experience, how to create a learning environment in my classroom that supports and encourages relationships between students. It is these relationships that are critical and crucial to the health of a learning environment. They are the lifeblood, the ground, of the learning environment. Just as any biological ecosystem depends on healthy relationships between all components of the ecosystem, social learning environments cannot succeed without healthy relationships among all human beings in that environment.
It is because of this that I structure my classroom/learning environment so that it is socially inviting, emotionally safe and intellectually challenging.