Walk into any learning environment, and you’ll see the theory of learning that created it. The phrase “sage on the stage” is one example. When behaviorism prevailed, classrooms and lecture halls were designed so an audience would absorb the expert’s content. Then when educators started adapting their lessons to more constructivist perspectives, the learning environment became compartmentalized: specific areas were redesigned for social interactions or areas were set aside so students could retreat to construct their own learning. Desks not in rows but in groups. Classroom libraries and maker spaces. Teachers struggle repurposing their classrooms because inventory sheets still require X desks and clunky furniture, and they must manage larger classes, which means more physical bodies with more belongings. Even though many teachers’ lessons incorp
orate constructivism (scaffolding, group work, problem-based learning), their space is haunted by Skinner’s ghost. Creating a new learning environment requires a systemic exorcism.
Beyond the physical space, a learning environment includes the learners, the instruction, and the content. While K-12 and higher education has changed the classroom’s design and offers more constructivist spaces, moving desks doesn’t mean creating a constructivist environment.
First, the types of learners need to be reconsidered. Vygotsky’s theories argue people learn through social interaction, and inexperienced learners benefit by being stretched by more experienced learners. Although teachers may include scaffolding and work to mentor students, classes themselves are mostly based on homogenous age groups. Due to rapid technological advances and changes in workplaces, higher education is already experiences more age diversity. This trend will continue, and K-12 education should consider different ways of organizing grade levels beyond age. Author and education leader Heidi Hayes Jacobs describes such a vision in more detail in her TEDxNYED talk.
Second, regarding instruction, Piaget’s work shows how children use play to practice, simulate, and assimilate new knowledge. How many lesson plans make time for structured play? Also, new technologies, like the smart phone, make knowledge recall almost instantaneous, so instructional strategies focus more on helping students apply information in different contexts. The “flipped classroom,” or blended learning, restructures the learning environment by outsourcing direct instruction to recorded lectures, thereby freeing class time for discussions and guided practice. Studies show the positive effects of flipped-learning in university settings, but K-12 education struggles to incorporate this practice. One reason is university students have more access to computers outside of school (as well as the self-discipline to watch lectures). College students also have a designated space for learning. Before K-12 schools fully adopt blended learning, there needs to be space for them to learn, and not necessarily the home, which may not offer reliable access to technology or a sibling-free space. Community centers and public libraries could be these hubs where students go after school to watch lectures monitored by trained adults.
Finally, just as instructional strategies must change to recreate the learning environment, instructional content must change as well. Controversy over the Common Core, AP US History, and new standards in science show how controversial change can be. Similar issues revolve around incorporating new content, such as social and emotional learning, digital literacies, and STE(A)M education. Some of what drives controversy is the content itself (like how US History belies historical perspectives), but mostly assessment shapes curricula. The Department of Education’s guidelines for innovative assessments under ESSA give states more flexibility for their assessments to incorporate different curricula, and soon assessment designers will come for the Makers. Therefore, a new learning environment demands redesigned curricula and assessment in tandem.
Until systemic changes are made, what might an ideal learning environment look like? Here, the NACUBO In Brief podcast (start at minute 19:00), educational consultant and futurist Bryan Alexander shares how Virginia Tech helped solve its problem with teaching remedial math by creating the Math Emporium. Once a department store, the space is huge allowing for movement and informal interactions. Students work on computer stations in groups in the center of the room, and graduate school mentors are available around the walls. When students need help, they signal the tutors. Success rates have gone up and morale has improved. What’s more is Bryan suggests this is not a physical design but a paradigm to replicate for different courses and different curricula.
Now, for K-12 education, there would have to be changes, and perhaps how the AltSchool organizes its space, learners, instruction, and content could guide those changes (albeit with less of a Big Brother vibe).
The learning environment is like any ecological environment: it’s a system with many factors influencing its health. Unhealthy influences, like poor social support systems and digital divides, need to be addressed as part of the Skinner-behaviorism exorcism. Until then, there are several very replicable approximations which schools can copy.
After all, department stores are dying.