What Makes an Effective Learning Environment?

Wherever we are, we’d all like to think our children’s classrooms and schools are intellectually active places, but what does that actually mean? What makes an effective learning environment? Please let us know your ideas in the comments and read on for ours.

The students ask the questions—good questions

The role of curiosity has been studied (and perhaps under-studied and under-appreciated), but suffice to say that if a learner enters any learning activity with little to no natural curiosity, prospects for meaningful interaction with texts, media, and specific tasks are bleak. Many teachers force students to ask questions at the outset of units or lessons, often to no avail. Cliché questions that reflect little understanding of the content can discourage teachers from ‘allowing’ them. But the fact remains—if students can’t ask great questions—even as young as elementary school—something, somewhere is unplugged.

Questions are valued over answers

In an effective learning environment, questions are more important than answers, so it makes sense that if good questions should lead the learning, there would be value placed on these questions. And that means adding currency whenever possible—grades (questions as assessment!), credit (give them points—they love points), creative curation (writing as a kind of graffiti on large post-it pages on the classroom walls), or simply praise and honest respect. See if you don’t notice a change.

Criteria for success is balanced and transparent

Students should not have to guess what ‘success’ in a highly effective classroom looks like. It should also not be entirely weighted on ‘participation,’ assessment results, attitude, or other individual factors, but rather meaningfully melted into a cohesive framework that makes sense—not to you, your colleagues, or the expert book on your shelf, but the students themselves.

Ideas come from divergent sources

Ideas for lessons, reading, tests, and projects—the fiber of formal learning—should come from a variety of sources. If they all come from narrow slivers of resources, you’re at risk of being pulled way off in one direction (that may or may not be good). An alternative? Consider sources like professional and cultural mentors, the community, content experts outside of education, and even the students themselves. Huge shift in credibility. And when these sources disagree with one another, use that as an endlessly teachable moment–because that’s what the real world is like.

Allison Green
Boston Tutoring Services

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