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CREATING A LEARNING-CENTERED ENVIRONMENT

 An open window with the sun shining outsideAll of us are very much aware of the affect of the environment on our lives.  Who doesn't feel a little more optimistic when the sun is shining, the sky is blue and a warm breeze gently blows?  Who hasn't had trouble staying awake through a long lecture in a stuffy room?  Who hasn't had trouble concentrating when stress or ill health overcomes us?

In just the same way that the environment can impact our lives, it  can also contribute to or detract  from  the way a student learns.  As we think about it, we realize that most of what we have learned in our lives has come to us from outside ourselves.  We are born knowing how to suckle, but we have to learn to eat.  We are born knowing how to cry, but we have to learn to talk.  We instinctively learn how to walk, but we have to be taught how to dance or play basketball.  Everything we know about the world comes to us in one way or another through the environment in which we live.  As a result of their research in cognitive and neurosciences, Renate and Geoffrey Caine have developed 12 brain/mind learning principles that outline important considerations for us as educators.   From the first principle, it is evident that environment plays a significant role in the learning process.  They describe the brain as a living system operating and growing within a specific environment. Several other of their principles touch on the impact of the environment on learning. We'll look at these as we go along.

To go the Caine's web site and learn more about their 12 principles, click here.

When we hear the word environment, we usually think of things like air and water quality, trees and buildings, and so on. As we consider the environment in which learning experiences take place, however, it is important to think about not only the physical needs of the students, but also psychological and social needs.  So, when I speak of the environment, I am considering the environment in its broadest sense, including not only the physical environment of the learning space, but also the physical and emotional "environment" that the learner brings to the learning endeavor, as well as the social environment that the student finds in the learning space. Of course, these aspects of the environment must be processed by the brain in order for learning to take place.

Much of what I'm going to say in this section is going to sound like common sense. We know that lack of sleep or poor diet can interfere with learning. We know that overcrowded classrooms and lack of learning resources make it more difficult to teach. We know that when students experience stress and anxiety in their daily lives, it is more difficult for them to concentrate. We know that if a student feels excluded by others in the class, learning can suffer. Yet how often do we give serious thought to such things as we plan our lessons.  And even if we do think about these things, we may feel we have no power to change any of them.

The message of this section is that we can and must do something about the environment in our learning places. There are two reasons we say this: Because of current brain research, we know for a fact that the environment does impact learning. And, as we shall see, there is much we can do to positively impact the environment to make it possible for every student to reach his or her full potential.

Every teacher possesses the power to transform the quality of life and learning in themselves and in their students at any time. (Brewer & Campbell,1991, p. 225)

What does a Brain-Friendly Classroom Look Like?
We are accustomed to a traditional community college classroom.  Although some rooms accommodate larger groups, a typical classroom at TC3 seats about 30 students, usually arranged in rows facing the blackboard, with a teacher's desk in front of the students.  The walls are generally plain and there may be an overhead projector and a VCR.  The general mode of instruction is lecture, perhaps augmented by overheads or writing on the blackboard.  The students listen attentively and take notes.  In some classes, the students may be asked to arrange their chairs in small groups for discussion or project planning.  This is the way the classrooms were arranged when we went to school (and long before that , too), and it seemed to work just fine for us, so why should we try to do anything differently?

Although the traditional model of instruction worked well for most of us, all of us have experienced the frustration of working with students who just don't seem to fit into the traditional mold.  As the section on valuing the unique learner has shown, and as we know from our own experience,  the community college today brings together a very diverse group of students with a wide variety of learning styles, experiences, intelligences and goals.  We often fail to recognize that our traditional classrooms favor certain types of students--those with strong verbal or mathematical/logical intelligences, while neglecting other types of students.  While we may embrace the open enrollment policies of our community colleges, we are hardly prepared to deal with the differences in students we encounter.  Although we may believe that every student has the right to be successful, we have not internalized what our roles are in actualizing that success.   And so we ask ourselves what changes we can make to improve the odds for students who don't seem to quite get it.  In addition to recognizing and valuing our unique learners, we need to look at our teaching environment.  Do our students feel safe there?  Is it supportive to the learning process?  Does it stimulate learning?  What can we do to make the classroom environment more attuned to the learning needs of our students, given the constraints we face teaching in a community college?  This section will try to show why we should be concerned about the environment and offer ideas about ways to make the environment supportive of the process of learning.

 

 

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Let's take a look at a typical ESOL class that I teach in our brain-friendly classroom.  The room has large windows that look out on a hillside covered with maple trees.  In front of the windows, sitting on narrow tables are various green, leafy plants including a rubber tree, a philodendron and some jade plants.  Sometimes there are also blooming plants like asters or poinsettia. There are several computers with Internet access and speakers, an LCD projector, and a VCR.   Various pictures and posters are on the walls:  samples of student projects, paintings by Salvador Dali and M. C. Escher, photographs of Mark Twain and Albert Einstein with memorable quotes, and a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon that invites us to go exploring.  The tables are round and seat from 4 to 6 people easily.  On each table is a tool box containing colored markers, post-it notes, tape, scissors, play doh, tooth picks, paper clips, a ruler, glue sticks, and other odds and ends.  There is no teacher's desk, nor is there a clearly designated "front" of the room.  On one wall there is the traditional blackboard, but the opposite wall has the screen which is used with the over head projector and computer presentations.  Along one wall are book cases filled not only with reference books, but more supplies such as construction paper, note cards, and other art supplies, legos, dice, and games.  Fish swim in small tanks on another narrow table along the third wall.  There is also a CD player on the table playing classical music softly.  Around the room are various stuffed animals:  a couple of monkeys, a large, lumpy camel, and a baby emu.  Gadgets such as a magnetic calendar, a mobile, and metal puzzles are also scattered throughout the room. 

As students enter the room, they engage in friendly small talk with each other as they decide on the table their team will sit at that day.  On the blackboard is a cognitive map of the days activities with reminders of assignments that are due.  When the music stops, I ask a student to lead the class in a wake-up stretching exercise for a half a minute to lively music.  The students relax and smile as they work out some of the muscle tension they feel from sitting and listening for the last few hours. 

I then begin by launching into the topic for the day. The class is continuing to work on writing summaries of academic articles.  During a previous class the students looked at two articles and two sample summaries and tried to define the characteristics of a good summary.  Their ideas were written on newsprint which is now posted on the wall.  I ask the students to look at the newsprint on the wall  and review with their team members the main things to keep in mind when writing summaries.  While the teams review the process of writing summaries, upbeat music is playing.  Now, each team is given an article to summarize.  The team chooses one student to be the recorder and write the summary on an overhead transparency.  As they work on writing the summary, gentle classical music fills the background.  The students are obviously used to interacting with each other in this way as they work with great intensity discussing what they should include in the summary.  I allow the students to work on their own, but am available to answer questions or help with problems.  When the summaries are completed, a member of each team other than the recorder displays the summary on an overhead projector and explains why each element is included in the summary.  After each person presents his team's summary, the class applauds a job well done.  After all the teams present their summaries, there is a whole class discussion about writing summaries.  The students reflect on the process of writing a summary and the criteria for writing a good summary.  There is another brief 30 second movement break when students are asked to get up and walk around the room briskly. 

Finally, each team is asked to use the tools on their tables or on the bookcases to make a representation of a good summary.  The representation may be a drawing, a sculpture, a chart or diagram, a verbal description, a series of movements.  There is much lively discussion as the students plan and create their representation.  Again, upbeat music plays in the background.  Finally, another member of each team briefly presents the team's representation of a good summary.  Again, there is applause for each team's representation.  The class ends with each team reflecting on its work for the day and entering a score on charts on the wall.  Homework includes writing a summary of another article, writing a brief reflection on the process of writing a summary,  and filling in a grading rubric on their own summary.

The classroom just described is obviously not a typical classroom in any post-secondary institution.  In fact, it is a description of the brain-compatible classroom that we have set up at TC3.  While creating such an environmentally rich classroom may be out of reach for most community college faculty, components of it can be implemented with some imagination and creativity.  We will give some concrete ideas on how to take steps in this direction.  At the outset, however, it may be helpful to understand how this brain-compatible classroom came to be at TC-3.  As the three of us, myself, Khaki and Lisa, began started thinking more concretely about incorporating understandings achieved from recent brain research in how we best learn, we realized the crucial importance of an appropriate learning environment.  Our first reaction was that it just couldn't be done at a community college.  Then we asked ourselves, what if all three of us taught in the same classroom, with me teaching ESOL, Khaki teaching math, and Lisa teaching English.  The class schedules were such that all three of us could teach in one room.  So we asked ourselves, why not dedicate the room to our use and make some changes in the room.  Our administration backed us in this request.  The approach has worked very well.  We have collaborated on the use of the room and have provided a rich, interdisciplinary environment for our students.  We have been very pleased by student responses to having class in this room.  Comments such as "I wish all of my classrooms were like this one" to "I really enjoy being in this room" have affirmed that the environment does make a difference.

Is the classroom environment really all that important?
Pat Wolfe and Ron Brandt (1998) state that "The brain changes physiologically as a result of experience.  The environment in which a brain operates determines to a large degree the functioning ability of that brain. ... The brain gobbles up the external environment through its sensory system and then reassembles the digested world in the form of trillions of connections which are constantly growing or dying, becoming stronger or weaker depending on the richness of the banquet." (Finding One,
1-3)

Pioneering research conducted by Marian Diamond at the University of California at Berkeley has also shown that the brain is actually modified by the environment. 

As the nerve cell gets stimulated by new experiences and by exposure to incoming information from the senses, it grows branches called dendrites. Dendrites are the major receptive surface of the nerve cell. One nerve cell can receive input from as many as 20,000 other nerve cells. And if you have 100 billion cells in your brain, think of the complexity! With use, you grow branches; with impoverishment, you loose them. (D'Arcangelo, 1998, ¶ 12)

The neural plasticity of the brain continues throughout one's life.  Dorothy D. Billington (1996-2002) describes a 4-year study she did  on learning environments and adult learners in her article "Seven Characteristics of Highly Effect Adult Learning Programs." She concluded,  "Results revealed that adults can and do experience significant personal growth at mid-life.  However, adult students grew significantly only in one type of learning environment; they tended not to grow or to regress in other types."  ( 5) She then goes on to describe key factors in successful learning programs for adults.  While Billington is focusing on the adult learner, the key factors that she describes generally describe a  learning centered environment appropriate for all of our community college students.  These are the seven factors she found to be most important:

    1. An environment where students feel safe and supported, where individual needs and uniqueness are honored, where abilities and life achievements are acknowledged and respected.

    2. An environment that fosters intellectual freedom and encourages experimentation and creativity.

    3. An environment where faculty treats adult students as peers--accepted and respected as intelligent experienced adults whose opinions are listened to, honored, appreciated.  Such faculty members often comment that they learn as much from their students as the students learn from them.

    4. Self-directed learning, where students take responsibility for their own learning.  They work with faculty to design individual learning programs which address what each person needs and wants to learn in order to function optimally in their profession.

    5. Pacing, or intellectual challenge.  Optimal pacing is challenging people just beyond their present level of ability.  If challenged too far beyond, people give up.  If challenged too little, they become bored and learn little.  ... Those adults who reported experiencing high levels of intellectual stimulation--to the point of feeling discomfort--grew more.

    6. Active involvement in learning, as opposed to passively listening to lectures.  Where students and instructors interact and dialogue, where students try out new ideas in the workplace, where exercises and experiences are used to bolster facts and theory, adults grow more.

    7. Regular feedback mechanisms for students to tell faculty what works best for them and what they want and need to learn--and faculty who hear and make changes based on student input. (¶ 6-12)

Therefore, it behooves us as educators to ensure that we are creating an environment that truly supports learning, at least to the best of our ability, given the constraints and limitations that we face our our learning communities.  The discussion on creating a learning-centered environment will focus on three areas: physical environment, emotional environment and social environment. But before we look at each of these areas in detail, let's first get an overview of how the brain functions with respect to the environment. The next section is Brain Function.

 

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