Model for the Creation of
Meaningful Community College Learning Experiences
a LEARNING-CENTERED Environment--Introduction
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)
does a brain-friendly classroom look like?
Is classroom environment really all that
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
go the Caine's web site and learn more about their 12 principles,
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.
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.
to feel comfortable with themselves, with each other, and with the
to be actively engaged in learning and they need to feel free to
needs to be supportive of the physical requirements for good learning.
is a place where the unique learner is respected and provided for.
to read our section on the unique learner.
- The classroom
allows for the individual construction of meaning in a variety of
here to read our section on the construction
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.
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
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
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.
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, ¶
conducted by Marian Diamond at the University of California at Berkeley
has also shown that the brain is actually modified by the environment.
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:
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)
An environment where students feel safe and supported, where individual
needs and uniqueness are honored, where abilities and life achievements
are acknowledged and respected.
An environment that fosters intellectual freedom and encourages experimentation
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.
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.
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.
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
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)
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.
Within each area, we will look at what's involved in creating a safe
learning-centered environment. Beyond safety, however, we will consider
how to create an enriched learning-centered 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.
to the next section, Brain Function.