The Environments of Learning

Reading Time: 4 minutes

This video was shared by Tom Whitford in response to a post by David Culberhouse aka @DCulberhouse. The post asks us to think deeply about how environment impacts learning. To quote Dave,

As we question whether our instructional methods are fitting to our changing times…we also have to determine if our physical environments are conducive to supporting learning in the 21st century.  Environment is not about whether we are using rows or group seating in our classrooms…it is about taking a deep and reflective look at the environment of our entire organization.  And being able to decipher what message our organization’s physical environment is sending…

Absolutely! The way we design our physical environments says something. We need to pay more attention to the physical environment that we ask people (kids are people too) to be in while they learn.

What does your space say?

A few years ago I worked for a fairly well known non-profit. They did some amazing work in advocating and directly helping women and children. They also had this policy and practice around the counters in their office spaces. The counters were all over 4 feet high and had additional glass barriers on top of that. The message was very clear. It said we are afraid of you and we sure as heck don’t trust you. I did some digging and sure enough the counters were in response to one incident when an irate and mentally ill client jumped the counter. They didn’t understand that by sending the message through their environment that “you scare us” they were most likely increasing the likelihood of having people act out. They were also making it hard for their staff to be the respectful and caring people that they were.

The emotional environment

I recently had to pick up one of my grandkids at her middle school. It was awful. I felt like I was doing something wrong just by being there. There is a massive empty space at the entrance that looks like it might be used during lunch and other breaks, but as this was class time there we no kids. The main office was just off to the side of this space and like most school offices, it was built like a fortess. I have been in correctional institutions that were more and inviting than this school. (Corrections folks know about the impact of environment on behaviour.)

The real challenge with this particular grandkid pickup event was the emotional environment set by the office staff. I went to the window and there were two staff chatting at he back of the room and one sitting at a desk near the window. The all did the office staff stare when I approached. you know the one. The look that says, “we see you and will get over to you when we it’s convenient for us”. No smile, not even a neutral expression. A definite message message though. The visit went downhill from there. I understand the need for vigilance and child safety but alienating the majority is not the best route.

Signs that say welcome

The other story I have about environment and messages relates to parking spaces. I had a meeting at a school district office recently and there was literally one space for visitor parking and it was really hard to find.  The sign for the one space said something like “Visitor Parking. Do not park in stall marked for staff. You will be towed.” How about something like “So sorry we only have one stall for you. Please use it so the tow truck stays away”. Both say the same thing but the message is very different.


The video at the top of this post describes an environment that is aligned with recent research on empathy and children.

Notre Dame Psychology Professor Darcia Narvaez show a relationship between child rearing practices common in foraging hunter-gatherer societies (how we humans have spent about 99 percent of our history) and better mental health, greater empathy and conscience development, and higher intelligence in children. (Science Daily 2010)

Narvaez identified six practices that may increase empathy, intelligence and overall well being in children.

  • Lots of positive touch — as in no spanking — but nearly constant carrying, cuddling and holding;
  • Prompt response to baby’s fusses and cries. You can’t “spoil” a baby. This means meeting a child’s needs before they get upset and the brain is flooded with toxic chemicals. “Warm, responsive caregiving like this keeps the infant’s brain calm in the years it is forming its personality and response to the world,” Narvaez says.
  • Breastfeeding, ideally 2 to 5 years. A child’s immune system isn’t fully formed until age 6 and breast milk provides its building blocks.
  • Multiple adult caregivers — people beyond mom and dad who also love the child.
  • Free play with multi-age playmates. Studies show that kids who don’t play enough are more likely to have ADHD and other mental health issues.
  • Natural childbirth, which provides mothers with the hormone boosts that give the energy to care for a newborn.

Schools can’t provide most of these, only parents and caregivers can. Schools can create environments that promote interactions between children of differing ages and increase the number of adult caregivers that that children form attachments with.

The other BIG thing that stood out for me in the video, also related to the idea of grouping kids with multi-age playmates, has to do with how we learn. In the video they call this flex grouping and one of the teachers in the video talks about kids teaching other kids and how that helps them learn.

In a brain scan of a child doing four distinct learning activities – reading, writing, listening and telling – the brain activity is most active when the child is telling someone about that he had read or heard. Telling, explaining, showing, describing, teaching activates the brain and learning becomes deeper, richer and more connected, literally. Providing opportunities for kids to learn by teaching other kids should be front and centre in considering learning spaces and practices.

Horses and carts

One final word. In Tom’s response to Dave original blog on this he offers us a glimpse into his wife’s mind more than her classroom. A new environment alone will not change learning. Teachers all over the world create warm and inviting spaces because their environment is a reflection of who they are. Great teachers with access to great environments are going to do great work. Great teachers in awful environments will still find a way to connect with their learners. But the best environment in the world will not make an uninformed or disconnected teacher great.


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Engagement and Feedback with VoiceThread

Reading Time: 4 minutes

I’m a student of engagement and feedback. I think they’re related on micro and macro levels and are on a continuum. A micro engagement could be a small as a glance exchanged between two people. A macro engagement could be – no it doesn’t have to do with a ring – a community wide, civic engagement activity that spans months or even years.

Feedback is similar. Micro feedback can also be a glance or a “look”. You know, the one your mom gave you when you were about to misbehave in a restaurant. Macro level feedback can be as large scale and long term as a longitudinal research project about health outcomes or educational initiatives.

I also think that feedback on a micro level can improve outcomes at a macro or community level. The sum of the parts kind of thing.

In behavioral health, many counsellors use a system of feedback called My Outcomes. I’ve posted on it before but due to the originators of the system restructuring their organization the links may be broken, so here’s a link to their new site and video. Don’t let the medical profession type language scare you off. The system itself is easy, effective and brilliant. I used it for the last few years that I worked as a counselor and even the most street entrenched of my clients loved it. They loved it because it offered them an opportunity to tell me clearly what they thought and felt about our relationship and time together.

I have also used the MyOutcomes tool (which comes in a paper version that any individual can use for free on Barry Duncan’s website by the way) to get feedback from groups that I’ve facilitated. And to be fair here is link to Scott Miller‘s resource page. Miller and Duncan co-created the system and then had some kind of change in their relationship, each taking a different path.

In thinking about feedback, engagement and then having a Twitter conversation with @pmacoun that began with the cool things he’s doing with claymation in his classroom which eventually lead to swapping VoiceThread links. His first link is this charming story created by his daughter and captured on the VoiceThread mobile app. The second link he shared was to a really awesome example of digital storytelling by Grade One students at Aspengrove School in Nanaimo, BC.

The VoiceThreads got me to thinking about my own experiences in elementary school and I had an epiphany about siloed curriculum and classes in high school being evil, but will save that for another post. It also got me thinking about how I would like to see VoiceThread used for feedback and community engagement. See, if you stick with me long enough I eventually get back around to the point 🙂

Wouldn’t it be amazing to start a VoiceThread for each child in a class at the beginning of the school year and use it to provide both a space for reflection (for older kids) and for a space to provide ongoing formative feedback in the  tone of appreciative inquiry?

Lets say Johnny is a grade three student. At the beginning of the year his teacher would take a picture of him or better yet a short video. Johnny could add comments, his teacher could say something she has come to appreciate about Johnny, other teachers and even his classmates could add a comment or two. This could be done monthly with a new picture or video each month or just one picture and lots of comments. The link could be shared with parents right from the beginning. They could also add comments.

At the end of the year each child would have ten months worth of positive affirmations about them to take with them into the next year. The VoiceThread could be burned onto a DVD for those families that struggle with internet access. (I work with a lot of economically challenged families and virtually all have a DVD player). Innovative schools could even sell additional copies to grandparents. I have seven grandchicklets and I promise you, I would purchase something like this from each of them.

This is a way to provide feedback that builds learners up and is a way to engage multiple people in that process. It’s kind of like the pat on the back process where at the end of the year each child draws an outline of their hand an it’s passed around so others can write something they like about that person… this is the digital or 2.0 version.

I would also love to see VoiceThread used for larger scale, macro if you will, community engagement. Imagine using it to gather informal feedback about a school or class initiative. Or using it to share a special project or story about a class in general. Because of the way VoiceThread works you can control who has access, it can be moderated and it can be left open for adding comments, for as long as you want.

Ok, I rest my case. Leaving you with the VoiceThread that won me over in the first place. Click the arrow in the bottom right corner to progress through all the slides. The third slide has some interesting ideas about formative and summative assessment.

Update: Here is the workshop archive for May – June 2015, from the VoiceThread blog.

What other ways can you think of to use VoiceThread or other kinds of collaborative technology to engage community or provide feedback?

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