What Characterizes an Optimal Learning Environment?
A Powerful Mix of Practices that Accelerate Student Learning
By Kathleen Cushman, co-author, Belonging and Becoming (Harvard Education Press), and
Wendy Baron, Chief Officer, Social and Emotional Learning, New Teacher Center
The minute you walk into a classroom, you sense its atmosphere — but you might not know how that ambiance came to pass.
Are students acting bored and restless, or provoking their peers? You may have your theories, but the possibilities abound.
If you witness the hum of small groups of students purposefully engaged in work that matters, however, it’s pretty safe to credit the teacher for creating an environment where norms, routines, and procedures promote respect and caring and students are taking an active role in their own learning.
And you might find yourself asking questions like these:
- How could I get my learners to listen well, to the teacher and each other?
- How did this group learn to collaborate respectfully, consider different perspectives, thoughtfully give and receive feedback?
- What classroom routines taught them to set goals for their work, identify next steps, and seek help when they get stuck?
Academic and personal behaviors like these — made prominent by the Common Core standards — have always anchored the learning process. (Think Socrates.)
Starting in the late 20th century, research in neuroscience and cognition began to extend our understanding of how we humans learn, no matter what our age or station.
Social and emotional factors, scientists found, play an essential part in the acquisition of what we once regarded as purely academic knowledge and skills.
Why the learning environment matters
Research and common sense both remind us — as we think through answers to questions like those posed above — that anyone’s competence grows best in an environment of physical and emotional safety and support. (Remember when you learned to ride a bike?)
Knowing their students well enables teachers to create that environment, step by step.
- They can coach their group in building a sense of classroom community through identifying shared values (such as mutual respect and open-mindedness).
- They can foster a learning mindset that regards mistakes as opportunities for growth.
- They can tune their own attention to what each student needs, in both academic and personal contexts.
- They can empower students to recognize (and act on) what interventions help when something undermines their learning behavior.
- They can make transparent the ways that teachers also learn from students.
Teaching like this helps develop key personal competencies (for example, in self-awareness and self-regulation) while practicing important academic competencies (such as classroom discussions, small-group work, and the revision process).
It fosters an optimal environment for learning, which values every student as an important contributor and conveys genuine belief in each learner’s capacity for growth.
For the past several years, New Teacher Center has been preparing materials that help to identify and coach the academic, social, and emotional competencies that strengthen that environment.
In future entries in this series, we’ll be documenting some ways that educators accelerate academic learning by integrating social and emotional practices in their teaching.
We’ll be exploring this process, focusing on four key social and emotional areas in which teachers can guide students’ academic work:
- Listening well and attending to one another
- Collaborating and resolving the tensions that arise
- Perspective-taking across the content areas
- Giving feedback in a manner that others can hear and use
Whatever our age and our role, we experience interactions like these at a very personal level. When they go well, they lend great depth and meaning to our learning. But it takes practice — both for teachers and for students — to acquire these skills.
Stay tuned for our next post, where we will offer examples of how that practice looks, as teachers deepen their skills of listening well.