Toward a Richer Environment for Learning

Often, educators (professors or lecturers) at college and university feel that they should maintain a stern, exacting, rigorous, and disciplinarian approach to teaching course contents. They assume that mature learners require and will benefit the most from a ‘sterile’ classroom environment. That is why college and university classes are famous for lectures, powerpoint presentations, etc. However, if students are asked about the amount and quality of learning experienced, their responses will shock most educators.

We think that when people grow older, they no longer need an invigorating and stimulating environment for learning (somehow adults have a difficult time accepting that they still enjoy being and learniing in environments that are exciting and fun to be). We wrongly believe that colorful, richer environments are only suitable for young learners at Kindergarten and primary school levels. However, brain research and studies in the area of learning point to a single significant truth about the environment in which humans learn. Regardless of age, learning is maximum when it takes place in an enriched context (surrounding).

It is important for educators at any level of teaching to deliberately work toward creating a more appealing classroom environment. This is done by restructuring both the physical as well as the social-emotional aspects of the classroom. Holding learning sessions in non-traditional settings, where there are colorful pictures, bulletin boards with posters, etc. help the classroom become a place where learning is sought and enjoyed.

The following photos testify to the fact that even college classes can be filled with ‘fun and meaningful’ learning experiences (EDUC 375 Psychological Environment for Learning class; 2nd Semester 2006-07).

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HELP! (A new way of defining leadership)

When asked the question, “what kind of experiences do you expect from a class where a teacher does not share his/her power (or leadership) with students?”, the students in the EDUC375 class (Second Semester 2007 batch…you know who you are!) responded:

  1. frustration
  2. rebellion
  3. discouragement
  4. a drop in self-efficacy
  5. creativity ‘killed’
  6. demotivation
  7. boredom

Although the world in general defines ‘leadership’ as a process of interpersonal influences (making people do what you want them to do), the students and teacher in the EDUC 375 class have decided that ‘leadership’ is an art of helping students to realize their potential and achieve greatness in life, beginning at the school. Sharing power (shared leadership) with students isn’t easy…but if it is seen in the light of helping and empowering students, it is something a teacher can’t afford to operate without!

But what does ‘true helping’ entail? The following profound philosophical insights about the art of helping will help us understand the kind of help we are talking about here…

“When I’m getting ready to reason with a man, I spend one-third of my time thinking about myself and what I am going to say, and two-thirds thinking about him and what he is going to say.”

Abraham Lincoln, an American president

If One Is Truly to Succeed in Leading a Person to a Specific Place, One Must First and Foremost Take Care to Find Him Where He is and Begin There.

In order truly to help someone else, I must understand more than he–but certainly first and foremost understand what he understands.

All true helping begins with a humbling.

The helper must first humble himself under the person he wants to help and thereby understand that to help is not to dominate but to serve, that to help is a not to be the most dominating but the most patient, that to help is a willingness for the time being to put up with being in the wrong and not understanding what the other understands.

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

Stephen Covey

Enabling the Disabled

Introduction

The Village International Education Centre is a non-profit organisation committed to helping children and young adults acknowledge, understand and overcome their learning difficulties.

The school provides full time and part time programmes for students who have specific learning, language, motor and behavioural / emotional difficulties.
The faculty and staff of the school ensure complete flexibility in relation to teaching techniques, attendance (full time or part time) and the emotional requirements of each student. Their primary aim is to provide a caring environment so that all students can recognise and reach their true potential.

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My personal Experience

Having visited the school twice, I realize that the difference between teaching learners with significant learning difficulties and learners in mainstream schools is not huge. In fact, being exposed to many children with special needs reassures me of the commonness of our problems in learning.

The requirements of learners are universal. Every learner needs a challenging, engaging, and stimulating learning experience (provided by a caring, understanding, passionate, and patient teacher who works hard at creating an environment in which support is communicated and felt). The principles of learning apply similarly to all individuals and conditions.

Often, what we see and perceive as a ‘disability’ is actually an enabler, and not a disabler for an individual. This is especially true when an appropriate assistance is planned and provided to facilitate meaningful learning experiences for a child. This holds true to children in the mainstream school system as well. Sadly, most children in the mainstream system do not have the type of stimulation, challenges, and engagement in learning as they would wish to have.

In the end, thousands of children in mainstream schools suffer from a more severe disability which I call, the zero-affect-learning syndrome. These children perform poorly in academic tasks not because they possess actual problems in learning. Rather, their problems in learning reflect the kind of environment provided for their learning of school subjects.

When children are expected to learn in unfriendly, hostile, unchallenging, least stimulating, boring, and uncaring (‘inaffective’) environments, they manifest the zero-affect-learning syndrome. If only schools would treat every child as one needing specialized attention and intervention/support, we would see a more positive trend in learning itself.

In my opinion, when it comes to learning…EVERY INDIVIDUAL MUST BE CONSIDERED AS A CHILD WITH SPECIAL NEEDS.

Important points to remember

  1. involve as many sensory experiences as possible when teaching (any subject)
  2. prompts (hints, cues) are useful in scaffolding and supporting learners to move forward in learning
  3. minimizing distractions is the duty of the teacher! Don’t expect learners to be attentive if the environment does not allow them to do so!
  4. it is extremely important to remember that humans, whether old or young, infant or adult, learn the same way (quality and quantity of learning differ, but the processes remain the same). So, the best thing to do is to work with a learner’s personality and identify ways in which he/she learns the best and cater to this need
  5. know how the brain ‘learns’ (read my previous article)
  6. in order to work well with a learner, you must first and foremost find out what he/she is thinking. this is not an easy thing to do…but it is essential. It is good to let the learner know that you are interested in finding out what he/she is thinking so that you can eventually build on those thoughts
  7. whatever teaching aid you use…they only assist the learner in the learning process (supplement the learning process). you (the teacher) are still the most important and the only effective mediator between the child’s thoughts, his environment, and his experiences. So, don’t expect gadgets and techniques to do the job for you…YOU do it with the child
  8. help each child to get through the day! in the end, it doesn’t matter how much one has learned. what’s more important is how well he/she has lived through the day
  9. uproot the feeling of insecurity and inadequacy from the child (this is done by helping the child gain mastery over academic and non-academic tasks and celebrating his/her successes)
  10. children do not have problems…they have needs! Learners have learning needs!
  11. have faith in learners and communicate this faith as frequently as possible
  12. be creative and use a variety of approaches to help a learner – learning is not a fixed process – it is as fluid as water and so, it requires different molds to fit in
  13. be enthusiastic, energetic, and lively. if you are not zestful about what you teach…don’t expect learners to be so
  14. every noticeable changes and improvement must be acknowledged and rewarded
  15. CARE CARE CARE for the learner – positive emotion leads to positive learning experience