As an educator it’s highly probable that one of your top wishes is to have your students meaningfully engaged in their learning. It’s probably the reason you went into teaching, to experience that sense of fulfillment that comes from witnessing a child’s mental and emotional growth. Especially when they are aware of their own growth as well, seeing the energy and excitement it gives them, and that light bulb moment of ‘learning is fun’!
It’s one of the best feelings in the world. But the pressure of achieving it doesn’t have to be, nor can it be, all on the educators’ shoulders. You can be the best teacher in the world but if other factors aren’t in place to support your work, student engagement can be an ongoing uphill struggle.
Successful learning outcomes are optimised at the intersection of the learning environment, organizational culture and pedagogy. Therefore, before any focus is put on academic achievement, the stage needs to be set for growth potential. From the moment children start in any kind of care outside of their home it’s vital for the environment they enter to feel welcoming, safe and supportive, and for that level of care to be continuous throughout their schooling. Without that sense of belonging being cultivated, no deep learning can happen.
Creating a positive learning environment encompasses the physical space and the classroom climate. There was a unique piece of research conducted during the 2011–12 academic year that found that classroom design could be attributed to a 25% impact, positive or negative, on a student’s progress over the course of an academic year. The research was carried out in England, UK, with 751 students in 34 classrooms, spread across seven different K-6 schools.
‘Ten different design parameters were looked at: light, sound, temperature, air quality, choice, flexibility, connection, complexity, color, and texture. Light, for example, included the amount of natural light entering the classroom, as well as the teacher’s ability to manually control the level of lighting; flexibility took into consideration how well a given classroom could accommodate pupils without crowding them, in addition to how easily its furniture could be rearranged for a variety of activities and teaching approaches.
So what did they find? Six of the design parameters–color, choice, complexity, flexibility, connection, and light–had a significant effect on learning. Light, as mentioned above, concerns the amount of natural light in the classroom and the quality of the electrical lights it contains. Choice has to do with the quality of the furniture in the classroom, as well as providing “interesting” and ergonomic tables and chairs for pupils. Complexity and color both have to do with providing an ample amount of visual stimulation [without over stimulation] for students in the classroom.’
The area of flexibility within the learning space encompasses flexible education furniture yes, but additionally it’s about giving students flexibility of choice. Giving students autonomy over where they position themselves for learning invites them to have autonomy over their own learning, and potentially heightens their engagement levels.
Becky Fisher, the Director of Educational Technology at Albemarle County Public Schools, shared her experiences of how Flexible Seating Elevates Student Engagement with Edutopia. Fisher is interested in learning about the thinking that drives student choice. She painted the picture of walking into a classroom and seeing kids:
- Lying on the floor
- Sitting at low tables on their knees
- Standing up
When Fisher walks into a classroom, she asks the students the reasoning behind why they choose their particular learning space. “Why are you standing right now?” she asks one TK student. “Well,” says the student, “we’re using math manipulatives, and I move better when I’m standing up than when I’m sitting down.”
Fisher once heard a kindergarten student articulate that she was a belly reader. She loved reading on the floor while lying on her belly, her class was reading, and that’s why she was sprawled out on the floor. “That’s awesome that, at five or six years old, you know your preferences,” Fisher says. And that’s critical to their work.
Justin, a seventh grade student from Sutherland Middle School, was also able to articulate his preferred learning environment. He chooses a table and chair, unlike the couch that many of his fellow students choose. “When I get down into a couch and am more comfortable, it’s almost like it’s a bit distracting. It’s not exactly the environment I want to be working in, but for the other people, clearly they have their optimum working environments,” Justin says.
Krishan, also in seventh grade at Sutherland, likes that his teacher gives him a choice in how he works. “Since she lets us choose, we ultimately choose what’s best for us. We work better together and individually,” Krishan says.
Once these positive, student-led learning environments are created the next stage to increasing engagement is supporting all students in “examining and critiquing the content and skills they are learning, and to engage in critical inquiry of how what they are learning interacts with the world around them,” says Lanette Trowery, PhD, Senior Director of Learning Research and Strategy. “Doing high-level learning through critical analysis with your peers, taking risks and making mistakes, or engaging in discussions that draw on different, and sometimes uncomfortable, methods or worldviews requires students to be in a space where they feel safe and cared for.”
The reality of providing that continuity of care needs support from your team members and administration. There ideally needs to be an organizational culture of care, inquiry, and student led learning to develop truly engaged students. As many of you know, shifting organizational culture isn’t easy. It takes energy, perseverance, time – often years – and ultimately strong leadership to create a common vision that all team members are behind and can work towards. But if we wish to foster thriving, effective, empathic, global minded citizens, it’s worth it, from the very start.