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At what point does ‘having a good education’ even get measured? Is it once high school is over and the results are in? Or is it an ongoing assessment during one’s education? It certainly used to mean going to a ‘good school’ and a ‘good school’ meant achieving good grades. There wasn’t much conferring with students about their experience of the schooling they received. The experience didn’t matter as long as the end result was high test scores. But as we enter this third decade of the 21st century, thankfully the educational landscape is increasingly focusing on the whole child as the world shifts and acquiring good grades is no longer a guarantee of future success.

The question – what does ‘having a good education’ mean? – seems to place an emphasis on singular needs. If we turn the question around and ask ‘what does education need to provide in order for students to thrive?’, immediately one’s mind encompasses students in the plural rather than an individual basis. If the desired outcome is for all students to thrive, a possible approach may be to focus less on the achievement gap and more on the opportunity gap. We all know that children come to school bearing the weight of many external factors that can impact their ability to be successful. Providing a safe, nurturing, equitable learning environment for all is the first step in closing the opportunity gap. Research consistently identifies the elements of the physical environment that lead to the best learning outcomes. There are the obvious health related ones: natural lighting, clean air, and having access to nature; and the more intentionally considered elements such as having a beautiful space for students to go to each day, offering flexible seating, and providing opportunities for movement and choice for how each student learns best. The word ‘beauty’ appears subjective, but looking again to the research, the definition of beauty in this context is a space that is uncluttered, has calming white or pale colored walls, clear sight lines, natural furniture and green leaved plants. Having an aesthetically pleasing learning environment is much more important than it being ‘nice to have’. For students, having a beautiful, welcoming environment with links to nature creates a sense of safety and can close the equality gaps that students experience outside of school. It can raise their expectations, self-esteem, and connection to others, which in turn often leads to greater focus, engagement, and enjoyment. For many children, entering a classroom that’s been intentionally designed for them sends the message that they matter, are valued and can potentially encourage and empower them to take ownership of their own learning.

“Teachers can be champions for learning spaces for a number of reasons, but one of the motives should be that beauty is good for learning, and students need to experience beauty to grow to their full potential.” – Dr. Robert Dillon.

Let’s imagine the ideal physical learning environment is in place, what then? There is a growing body of research showing that schools who invest heavily in social-emotional learning, and imparting additional skills needed to thrive in adulthood, are winning in the academic stakes as well. Skills such as how to work well with their peers, an openness to new ideas, listening, advocating for oneself and others – skills that not only help individuals succeed, but also make society better as a whole.

‘Students learn better, and score better on tests, when they feel supported in school, and have explicit guidance and skills on regulating their behavior and recognizing how it affects themselves and others. They’re less likely to get distracted or to distract others, and that translates into academic gains. There’s an economic argument for focusing on social-emotional learning in schools, too: Interpersonal skills are also increasingly sought after by employers.’ – OnPoint

One way schools are implementing social-emotional learning, is through the idea of ‘crew’ – where all students are crew not passengers. Being ‘in crew’ is like being part of a school family, where students check-in with each other multiple times a week in a structured way about the ups and downs of their experiences that week and work on team building activities. This creates stronger bonds and community commitment to friendship, perseverance, responsibility, respect, self-discipline, cultural sensitivity, and courage.

“Kids learn best when they have a relationship with somebody,” she said. “Being able to create these groups of kids who might not necessarily hang out outside of this group … and being able to have me as someone to support them through their middle school experience, really helps them with their self-image, helps them with their confidence, helps them with their ability to grow.” – Springfield Renaissance teacher Samantha Vega

It’s now 2020 and using the measure of achieving good grades as the main marker of having a ‘good education’ seems very single faceted and completely outdated for the future that awaits students. They need many skills to thrive, and imparting a strong ability to advocate for oneself and others based on empathy, responsibility, and respect, alongside the academic piece, seems the best measure of a ‘good education’, for individuals and society.