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Tompkins Cortland Community College

Model A Model for the Creation of
Meaningful Community College Learning Experiences


Creating an


As we have seen, there are things we can do to create a safe physical environment. At the very least, we should give serious consideration to creating a physical environment that respects the physical needs of our students. Yet, there is much more that we can do. I would like to suggest that it is worth our effort to go beyond simply creating a safe environment to creating an enriched physical environment.

A Rationale for Creating an Enriched Physical Environment

Strategies for Enriching the Physical Environment

In Learning Smarter, Jensen and Dabney discuss research that, contrary to previously held beliefs, shows our brains continue to grow new brain cells throughout our lives.

A landmark study by Ericksson and colleagues (1998) found that the human hippocampus, the area of the brain linked to learning and memory, retains its ability to generate neurons throughout life, even into old age.   (Jensen & Dabney, 2000, p. 173)

Marion Diamond's work at the University of California at Berkeley in 1967 shows us the importance of an enriched environment in rats, and by implication, the importance of an enriched environment in human learning. Diamond's work also shows that the potential for learning, i.e., growing new connections, continues throughout life. In speaking at a conference on aging in March of 2001, Diamond outlined 5 basic factors that will ensure a healthy brain well into old age: diet, exercise, challenge, newness, and human love. I have already touched on the importance of diet and exercise in the section on Creating a Safe Physical Environment, and emotions will be considered in the next section. Here, I want to focus primarily on challenge and newness. With respect to challenge, she says, "The brain needs new challenges if it is to remain a healthy, functioning organ. Translated, if you have been enjoying working on the same kind of crossword puzzles year after year, it is time to advance to more complicated puzzles or to introduce a new game that will challenge different skills that are lying dormant." (¶ 36) Pushing ourselves to try more difficult things, especially when multisensory input is involved, is good for us at any age. Furthermore, Diamond reports, "Because 'newness' is an important aspect of challenge, we had to change the toys [in the rat experiments] frequently; otherwise, the brain at first responds to the enriched conditions but decreases its growth activity when the newness wears off." (¶ 60) Here, however, Diamond cautions that too much newness, or too much overstimulation, can cause stress, which as we shall see, interferes with learning. It's important to find the right balance. Not an easy task, but we can do it! After all, teachers also need challenge to remain fresh and to grow, too.

To read excerpts from an interview with Diamond and learn more about her research, click here.

Peripheral Learning
We are generally not aware of how much the brain is actually capable of doing. We know that we never use all of our brain's resources, which are phenomenal. Research tells that our bodies and our brains form a complex system.  Much of traditional education treats the human body as if it were made up of separate components with one section for music, one for art, one for physical education, one math and so on. So we teach academic subjects in isolation one from the other.  But the brain is a multi-function parallel processor, taking in information at many different levels and processing the information in different ways.  (Jensen, 2000a) The seventh of Renate and Geoffrey Caine's (2001-2002) learning principles suggests a rationale for enriching the environment:

The core idea is that the brain/mind is immersed all the time in a field of sensations, images, and input, and continuously has to select what to attend to and what to ignore. Now attention itself is natural, and tends to be driven by what is of most interest or relevance to the satisfaction of wants and needs.

However, even while paying direct attention, children (and all of us [my words added]) are also absorbing information that lies beyond the immediate focus. This input ranges from basic background sensations (sound, color, chatter, laughter) to the behaviors and aspects of the environment that reflect the beliefs and practices of a culture. This dual operation of attention and peripheral perception occurs all the time in every context, including the home and the classroom.

To go the Caine's website and read more about their 12 principles, click here.

Magnifying glass.Our brains continually take in all kinds of information, much more than what we are focusing on at a given moment.  As we have already seen, it selects what is most important for survival and focuses energy on that first.  Once survival needs are met, the brain will focus on things it thinks are meaningful from past experience. However, the brain has the capacity to focus on much A maze.more than what we actually are paying attention to. Natural learning occurs in complex environments.  Observe young children exploring their world and learning rapidly.  Or consider how we learn outside the classroom. I love to tell me students about learning how to ski in Austria. The instructor spoke in German, of course, but I learned so much more than just how to ski. My whole skiing vocabulary is still in German today. The richer their environment, the better the learning.

The brain is poorly designed for formal instruction.  In fact, it is not at all designed for efficiency or order.  Rather, it develops best through selection and survival. ...It is easier to conceive how this amazing multi-processor, called our brain, is undernourished, if not starved, in the typical classroom.  Many educators unknowingly inhibit the brain's learning ability by teaching in a ultra-linear, structured, and predictable fashion.  The result is bored or frustrated learners who then perpetuate the underachievement cycle. What this means to learning is that we understand complex topics better when we experience them with rich sensory input, as opposed to merely reading or hearing about the subject. (Jensen, 2000a, pp. 3, 12, 13)

In Brain-Based Learning, Jensen (2000a) reports on an amazing study conducted by Emanual Donchin and his colleagues at the Champaign-Urbana campus of the University of Illinois. They have discovered that more than 99 percent of all learning is nonconscious. The learning comes from visual cues, sounds, experiences, aromas, and feelings.  Georgi Lozanov, PhD., the Bulgarian researcher, utilized unconscious learning in developing his concept of "suggestopedia" with amazing success in the teaching of foreign languages. Jensen says, "Lozanov's success in the area of suggestopedia (or accelerated learning) suggests that in a well-orchestrated, positively suggestive learning environment, student learning can be dramatically improved." (Jensen, 1998, p. 103) Dhority and Jensen (1998) discuss contributions that Lozanov has made to understanding the role of the unconscious in learning:

Lozanov believes that the brain, consciously and paraconsciously, receives, orders, codes, retrieves and utilizes outside stimuli in certain ways. He maintains that interpersonal communication and mental activity are always conscious and paraconscious at the same time. Paraconscious is that which is outside of our conscious attention, like peripherals, background music and subconscious associations. Because every stimulus is complex, it is interpreted, associated, coded, symbolized and generalized in a way that we can understand it. (p. 20)

To read how Lozanov explains this, click here.

Many researchers call this phenomenon of unconscious learning peripheral learning and this is the fundamental reason we should consider enriching the physical environment of our classrooms. By doing so, we recognize that while our attention may be focused in one area, our brain still registers items outside the center of focus, and this can be a valuable learning tool.

A final reason for enriching the physical environment, in our opinion, is that it respects different learning styles and intelligences. Although the end product of student learning may be the solution to a math problem or writing a research paper, utilizing a variety of materials and activities can help students who are not verbal/linguistic or mathematical/logical find an entry into the content of the course.



"Tools" to Enrich the Learning Space
First, I need to make it clear that the following strategies alone are not enough. The focus here is on ways we can creative a rich physical learning environment, one that would be comparable for humans to Diamond's enriched environment for rats. But simply placing various items in the classroom and then not making use of them will not achieve much. Our students are usually not allowed to explore freely and create their own meaning out of their surroundings as rats are, nor would they or we teachers think that would be a good use of our time.

The best enriched learning activity is one that is complex and as close to real life as possible. Francis Hunkins (1994) of the University of Washington describes a dream environment as follows:

I see misty outlines of spaces that suggest unity, integration of knowledge realms, not discontinuity, the atomization of information. I see spaces that suggest prolonged inquiry under the control of students, with teachers as consultants, coaches, guides. I see spaces that allow for emergence and chaos, that give students time and space for developing patterns of meaning, projects.

I see spaces that enable student dreaming teams to collaborate on long-range projects.

I see spaces where the concept of synergy, the concept that under certain conditions the whole can be more than the sum of the parts, is a key concept.

I see spaces that allow dreamers to take initiative and responsibility through reliance on themselves and "colleague teams", spaces that allow for creating knowledge through mutual deliberation. (Learning Environments that Foster Authentic Activities, Knowledge Work, ¶ 4-7)

The section on Constructing Meaning describes what is involved in creating complex learning activities. The Classroom Applications section also has many examples of learning activities that require an enriched physical environment. For now, suffice it to say that an enriched physical environment is only a tool to help students and teachers make learning more meaningful, and thus, more memorable. However, Thomas Armstrong in his book, Awakening Genius in the Classroom (1998), suggests that we don't need complex learning programs or toolsMicroscope. to enrich our classrooms.  Simple things that come from our every day lives can stimulate a sense of wonder and curiosity.  He gives an extensive list of ideas including  recordings of significant music, reproductions of great art, historical relics, math puzzles, fauna and flora, classic movies, prize-winning documentaries, performances of great theater or dance, readings from great literature, recordings of the work of eminent poets, simple machines, building supplies, simple science tools, a Polaroid camera, storytelling, models of cities, inventions, the human body, guest speakers, personal memorabilia or collections, materials to smell, taste and touch, a tape recorder, and field trips.  While it seems obvious that some of these will be used in some classrooms, for example microscopes in a science lab, we need to consider breaking out of the box of our respective disciplines.  What would happen in a writing class if students looked through a microscope at a bug or a leaf before writing a descriptive essay?  What are the possibilities if a poem or an excerpt from literature were included in a history class?  How might great works of art be included in a math class?  We must keep in mind that the brain is not organized by disciplines, and that learning is much broader than the specific disciplines that we are dealing with.

We have already seen how the brain responds to color and movement. Now, we can begin to use these elements to actually enrich the physical environment. Posters, charts, hands-on working models, videos, cognitive maps, artwork, photographs, student-produced projects all can be used effectively to take advantage of peripheral learning. They can anticipate coming content and stimulate thinking about a topic before it is introduced (priming/pre-exposure).  They can also be left out after content has been discussed allowing students to review the content almost subconsciously. However, they need to be changed periodically to avoid familiarization Robin Fogarty (1997) provides an extensive wish list of things related to the five senses that would be included in an ideal physically enriched classroom. Click here to view her list. No single classroom could contain all of these items, not would that be recommended. But from time to time, a few of these things might be appropriate as we seek to provide a rich learning environment. In our brain-friendly classroom, we are fortunate to have shelving and storage so that we can keep a supply of creative items on hand for use as needed. But when we have to be in another space, we make use of "tool boxes," small plastic baskets filled with various items to enrich the space wherever we are. You might be worried that bringing such items into a college classroom might be demeaning to students, taking them back to their kindergarten days. I have to confess that at first my students are a bit hesitant to make full use of these learning tools, especially because I work with international students who are clearly accustomed to more traditional approaches to learning. But with a proper explanation and modeling, it doesn't take long for students to realize the value of using these tools in learning. Jensen cites studies by Fan and Gruenfeld in 1998 Subhi in 1999 and others that show that such activities not only help improve problem solving skills, they can improve the emotional and social climate of the classroom.  (Jensen & Dabney, 2000, p. 177)

You may not realize it, but while having fun with such brain teasers as the Rubik's Cube, the Tangram, the Tower of Hanoi, crossword puzzles, various word games, and mathematical puzzle books, you are actually enhancing your problem-solving ability, research shows.  (Jensen & Dabney, 2000, p. 177)


Many of us are tempted to bemoan the fact that students today seem to have Public speaker at lectern with strange visual in the background.such short attention spans. And in fact, says David Sousa, contemporary brains are being accustomed to a quickly changing environment. Video games, MTV, advertisements, and just about all other forms of entertainment today expose us to rapid sensory and emotional changes. Students growing up in this environment find school dull, nonengaging, find it difficult to concentrate for long periods of time, easily distracted

Part of our success as a species can be attributed to the brain's persistent interest in novelty, that is, changes occurring in the environment.  The brain is constantly scanning its environment for stimuli.  When an unexpected stimulus arises--such as a loud noise from an empty room--a rush of adrenaline closes down all unnecessary activity and focuses the brain's attention so it can spring into action.  Conversely, an environment that contains mainly predictable or repeated stimuli (like some classrooms?) lowers the brain's interest in the outside world and tempts it to turn within for novel sensations....The rapidly changing multimedia-based culture and the stresses from an ever-increasing pace of living are changing what the developing brain learns from the world.  (Sousa, 2000, pp. 27-28)

Pat Wolfe and Ron Brandt (1998) tell us "The brain is essentially curious, and it must be to survive.  It constantly seeks connections between the new and the known.  Learning is a process of active construction by the learner, and an enriched environment gives students the opportunity to relate what they are learning to what they already know." (Finding One, ¶ 9) So the conclusion is that seeking novelty is hard-wired in our brains, and that novelty plays a role in the development of new brain cells.

Diversion is one of the most commonly used multisensory teaching techniques for stimulating the classroom away from habituation and boredom. The moments of losing enthusiasm and attention in the classroom can easily be modified with diversion methods that transform an atmosphere of habituation into attention. A simple change in the pattern of the voice, the dynamics of expression, or the tempos of speech can alter the classroom flow. Diversion can also be accomplished by rearranging desks, changing the typical flow in a lesson plan, or using a different teaching technique. (Brewer & Campbell, 1991, p. 226)

Sousa (2000) suggests the following ways to introduce novelty into our learning environments:

Humor: Laughing causes more oxygen and glucose to enter the bloodstream, and thus the brain, providing the brain with more fuel. It also causes endorphins to be released in the blood. Endorphins are natural "feel good" chemicals in the body. However, avoid using sarcastic or destructive humor.

Movement: "By getting up and moving, we recirculate that blood. Within a minute, there is about 15 percent more blood in our brain" (p. 32)

Multisensory Instruction: Using interesting and colorful images and sounds get our attention.

Games: Quiz games and other similar activities change the pace but also provide an excellent opportunity for rehearsal and review.

Music: More on this below.

Jensen also gives some suggestions for the use of novelty. New activities need to be stimulating and challenging. While novelty has its place, it's important not to overdo it. With too much novelty, more cortisol and , the stress hormones, are released into the blood stream. (Jensen & Dabney, 2000) Alternating new and challenging activities with more predictable rituals can help to create a balanced emotional climate. Whatever activities we introduce to change the pace and stimulate attention must be meaningful and related to the content at hand. Feedback is also essential."This feedback loop enables the brain to extract generalized patterns from many bits of information." (Jensen & Dabney, 2000, p. 171) Furthermore, feedback "increases coping abilities while lowering the pituitary-adrenal stress responses."  (Jensen, 2000a, p. 33) The brain is self-referencing, that is, what happens on one level is checked by another level.  To make feedback more effective, it must be specific and immediate. Jensen (2000a) suggests that we can add novelty by increasing difficulty of the material, varying time, materials access, expectations or support, changing instructional strategies by using computers, field trips, guest speakers, games, complex projects, problem solving (p. 32)


In 1993 Frances Rauscher, PhD. at the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory at the University of California, Irving, formulated Music scale and notes.what has since become known as the Mozart Effect. He looked at students who had listened to Mozart's Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major for ten minutes prior to taking a test in spatial and abstract reasoning. The students raised their scores significantly compared to students who just listened to relaxation music or had silence. (as cited in Jensen, 2000a, pp. 246-247) Since then, there has been much discussion about the validity of Rauscher's research, with some studies supporting his original claim and others refuting it. A study done by Nantais and colleagues in 1999 (as cited in Jensen & Dabney, 2000) report that music stimulates the right frontal lobe area of the brain, which is where verbal functioning, verbal skills, planning, social conduct take place. Jensen concludes, "The overall, positive effects of music on learning, such as activation and stimulation of the brain's limbic system, stress reduction, and increased molecular energy--all of what affect cognition and creativity--are well documented." (Jensen & Dabney, 2000, p. 78). It seems that there is evidence that music activates procedural memory, which lasts longer than declarative memory. (Jensen, 1998, p. 38)

Quite simply, music making seems to activate and synchronize neural firing patterns that orchestrate and connect multiple cognitive brain sites. Thus, the brain's efficiency and effectiveness is enhanced. The key systems impacted are well connected between the frontal, parietal, and temporal lobes, as well as the cerebellum. (Jensen, 2000b, p. 30)

In any case, music can contribute to a positive atmosphere in the classroom, creating relaxation and in turn enhancing learning. Brewer & Campbell (1991) suggest the following uses of music in the classroom:

  • to create a relaxing atmosphere
  • to establish a positive learning state
  • to provide a multisensory learning experience that improves memory
  • for enhancement of active learning sessions
  • as background sound for learning activities
  • to increase attention by creating a short burst of energizing excitement
  • to release tension by using music with movement
  • to align groups
  • to develop rapport
  • to accentuate theme-oriented units
  • to provide inspiration
  • to add an element of fun (p. 230)

Quite an impressive list. When it comes to music, we see that it has an impact physically on the brain, both also emotionally. The next section focuses on creating a safe emotional environment, where music can also play a significant role.

Many of the current educational theorists whose work is centered in current research suggest appropriate types of music for various types of activities in the class.(Brewer & Campbell, Jensen, and Fogarty among others) Jensen and others go into quite a bit of detail about the type of music, including beats per second, that are appropriate for learning environments.  For example, music that has 50-70 beats per second has been found to slow body functions because the rhythm is similar to the heartbeat. (Brewer & Campbell, 1991, p. 232) Brewer and Campbell identify two major classifications of music: passive and active, which I find quite helpful. Passive music, so called because it induces a passive learning state, is music that has a fairly slow rhythm. This type of music is appropriate as background music for fairly quiet activities such as discussions, reading, lectures, or teacher review. Passive music promotes relaxation and rejuvenation and can help relieve tension and stress. Active music, on the other hand, can be used to get attention, stimulate awareness, or create greater focus. When combined with movement, more active music can restore flagging energy and promote blood circulation and deep breathing.

In Music with the Brain in Mind, Jensen (2000b) also suggests two general categories of music: complex and simple. Complex music, he suggests, increases activity in many areas of the brain.

Music that has structural complexity (like the piece used for the Mozart experiments--Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major) is good to include in your mix of music selections. Other pieces in this category include Haydn's Symphonies 42, 45, 56, 94, and 100. Some samples of music that have rhythmic complexity include Master Drummer from Ghana, by Mustapha, and Tettey Addy or Trichy Sankaran's Laya Vinyas (in Music of the World 120). (Jensen, 2000b, p. 33)

On the other hand, music with a simple structure is well suited to background music.

Music which has structural simplicity is best for background music. Consider using popular jazz instrumentals like George Benson, Kenny G. or David Sanborn. Environmental music can work wonders, too. Ocean sounds, waterfalls, and rain forest soundtracks are usually well received. (Jensen, 2000b, p. 41)

I would echo Jensen's (2000b) caution to "do some action research with your own students." (p. 39) Not all students will react in the same way to the use of music. When you use music in your classes, be watchful and sensitive. Ask students to give you feedback about how the music is affecting them, and be ready to change the type of music or delete it altogether if necessary.

In Classroom Applications, under Strategies I have compiled a list of specific recommendations for using music for various activities. Click here to go to it.

In my classes, I make use of many types of music. As the semester goes on, I also invite students to bring in CD's of music they enjoy studying or working to. Because my class is multi-ethnic, I also try to incorporate music from different countries around the world. Some Japanese music is wonderful for work that requires concentration and Caribbean music provides a great rhythm for moving. I also make use of variety contemporary music, including movie musicals, jazz, country and western, and recent hits. My main concern in selecting a piece of music CD's and CD player.is the emotional atmosphere I want to convey for a particular activity. Upbeat music greets my students as they enter the room because I want to frame an optimistic, fun attitude for the class ahead. The class often ends with joyful, celebratory music to give the students a positive feeling as they leave the room. When students are doing small group work, I like music with a bit of a snappy beat, but not overpowering. It works wonderfully to signal both the start and end of small group discussion time. I have found it easier for students to start talking when music is playing. Otherwise, the room is so silent that no one wants to speak first. Cutting off small group discussion can also be difficult, but the end of the music clearly signals that people should stop talking. Finally, I use slow, calming music for activities that require concentration, such as reading or writing. Because I teach a two-hour class, I like to use lively, familiar music during breaks. At the beginning of every class and whenever I notice attention or energy are low, I will do a quick half-minute of stretching to lively, active music. Finally, a quick review activity that I like to do is walk-pair-share to lively music. During this activity, students stand, take 5-7 giant steps and find a partner. They then review together the specific content that we have been studying. This activity usually only takes 3 minutes or so. In addition to getting the students up and moving, it also gives me an indication of the level of student understanding of the content so I know whether to reteach it, review it or go on to something new.

For most of us, there is not a lot of money available in our budgets to purchase extensive collections of CD's. Perhaps you have your own extensive CD or tape collection, but I did not. However, developing a collection doesn't have to take a lot of money. The Friends of the Library Book Sale in Ithaca (where they sell used books, records, CD's, tapes, etc. to raise money to support the public library in Ithaca) is an excellent place to hunt out inexpensive CD's and tapes, sometimes costing as little as ten or twenty-five cents. Sometimes department stores and drug stores will have inexpensive CD's and tapes that probably haven't sold well in the music stores, but are exactly the types of music I am looking for. Finally, I look for collections of music, i.e., The Greatest Broadway Hits, or the Best of Jazz. Some of these are suggested on the page "Strategies for Using Music" in the Classroom Applications section.

One last word of caution about using music in our classes. Brewer and Campbell recommend that music be played no more than 30% of class time. Music does generate considerable brain activity, as we have seen, and we must remember to balance the load we place on the brain in any activity. We need to be sensitive to our students' varying needs. Not all students benefit from music in the same way. Variety is essential as well as times of silence. Furthermore, music with lyrics should generally be avoided. I only use music with lyrics when the class is truly having down-time, as during a break. I myself find myself singing along if I know the words, which easily distracts me from what I really need to think about. Finally, it is not recommended to use music during test situations (unless you have made an effort to accustom students to music during tests).


Heart icon.Go to the next section, Creating a Learning-Centered EMOTIONAL Environment


Learning-Centered Environment links:

Creating a Learning-Centered Environment--Introduction

Brain Function
Creating A Learning-Centered PHYSICAL Environment

Safe and Enriched

Creating A Learning-Centered EMOTIONAL Environment

Safe and Enriched

A couple.
Creating A Learning-Centered SOCIAL Environment

Safe and Enriched

The Model Introduction

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