What Environments Encourage Learning? - Steve Barkley

What Environments Encourage Learning?

Betty Steinberg wrote a commentary, Schools Need a Culture Shift; Bringing Passion, Fun, and Collaboration Back to the Classroom, in the Nov 18, 2009 Education Week where she suggested too many students would describe school as follows:“It’s drudgery. We sit alone at our desks and silently answer lots of questions that our teachers tell us look like the ones we will see on the state tests. We’re not interested in what we’re doing. We hurry up to finish first, and if we’re done before the rest of our classmates, we get to sit quietly and take out a book or do other work. We follow the rules and speak out only when called upon. We leave for a break only when the teacher tells us it’s time to do so, or when the buzzer signals the end of the class. To get a good grade, we do what the teacher wants us to do. Our sole focus is to do well on the state tests. Quiet, discipline, and following the rules are valued.” (page 24)

I just read a tweet on Twitter from a parent that said: “From one week’s absence from Kindergarten, they sent home 20 worksheets for us to do. Torture.”

Thomas Newkirk in a Education Week (Oct 21 2009) commentary, Stress, Control, and the Deprofessionalizing of Teaching, discusses studies which illustrate that lower-status workers experience more stress because they have less control over their work. Workers with a sense of their own agency and control find the prerogative to act made their jobs less stressful.(page24)

Newark states, “When teachers lose control of decision making- when they prepare students for test they have no role in designing (and often no belief in), when they must abandon units they love because there is no longer time, when they must follow the plans designed by others, when they are locked into systems of instruction and evaluation they don’t create or even choose-they will not be relieved of stress. Their jobs are not made easier, they are made harder and more stressful. While some find a way to resist, others acquiesce, though they feel, as one teacher put it, that “the joy is being drained out of teaching.”(page 25)

Students, teachers, and parents with the above view of school will surely find little motivation for the effort and hard work of quality learning.

Several months ago I was preparing to help a school leadership team design a plan for increasing student achievement in a historically low performing school. The principal sent me the improvement plan that they had been required to complete for the state department of education. As I studied the over 25 page document, I realized there was not one statement about what the students should/could/would do. You could assume that the changes being recommended in curriculum, instruction, professional development, and leadership would produce changes for students, but it was never stated. No where did it say “Students will…”.

I am afraid that this lack of a description of learning environment and learner activity leaves an unclear expectation for teachers, administrators, parents and most importantly students.

I’m concerned that the same missing message may be present in Race to the Top ,

”We are asking States to advance reforms around four specific areas:
• Adopting standards and assessments that prepare students to succeed in college and the workplace and to compete in the global economy;
• Building data systems that measure student growth and success, and inform teachers and principals about how they can improve instruction;
• Recruiting, developing, rewarding, and retaining effective teachers and principals, especially where they are needed most; and
• Turning around our lowest-achieving schools.
Awards in Race to the Top will go to States that are leading the way with ambitious yet achievable plans for implementing coherent, compelling, and comprehensive education reform. Race to the Top winners will help trail-blaze effective reforms and provide examples for States and local school districts throughout the country to follow as they too are hard at work on reforms that can transform our schools for decades to come.”

What do the writers, readers, and decision-makers awarding the funding imagine the students will be experiencing and doing that will take them to the top? If you could invite these possible reformers to your school or classroom, what would you want them to see? Are there reforms needed in your location?

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5 Responses to “ What Environments Encourage Learning? ”

  1. Er Says:

    Thank you Steve! As always you helped me to think from a different perspective. I have started writing about classroom visits in my blog. I will be continuing with that topic and I’d like to quote from your ideas if its possible.
    In the book called “Instructional Rounds” from Harvard University Press, the writers discuss the difference between “good teaching” and “good teachers”. Do you think good teaching always triggers learning?

  2. Esra Sagol Says:

    Steve the previous comment was mine btw. I hit the sent button by mistake before I completed it. 🙂
    “Thank you Steve! As always you helped me to think from a different perspective. I have started writing about classroom visits in my blog. I will be continuing with that topic and I’d like to quote from your ideas if its possible.
    In the book called “Instructional Rounds” from Harvard University Press, the writers discuss the difference between “good teaching” and “good teachers”. Do you think good teaching always triggers learning?”

    Esra SAGOL

  3. Stephen G. Barkley Says:


    Of course you can quote from me anytime…..

    Good teaching requires changing what the teacher is doing, whenever the learning isn’t happening.That’s why coaches help teachers study their learners. Observation is a critical teaching skill.

  4. Didi Lefler Says:

    Depends on how you define “good teaching.” Is it about what the teacher is doing or the lesson she is teaching? Just today, I had a similar conversation with one of my best teachers. As she put “I am not a big lesson teacher.” If you were to observe her you would see her sitting conferencing with a student about their reading or writing and exposing students to all kinds of literature. she would be tapping into their interest to engage them. Year after year students leave her room with a genuine love of reading. Her student needs are what drives what she does not the lesson. So does “good teaching” cause learning? Yes if you are refering to good teacher behaviors.

  5. Esra Sagol Says:

    So “good teaching” requires shifting your focus from teaching to learning as explained in learner centered education. In other words there is no such thing like good teaching or lets put it more positively, every lesson can have good moments. Everytime the teacher responds to a learner’s needs, pays close attention to some students’ progress, changes the way s/he usually does things in class to reach more kids…etc can be great examples of “good teaching”.
    At this point observation gains critical importance.I agree with you Steve. That is the question though. In that book I mentioned before, Teitel refers to this and adds that there is no common understanding of such conecepts in the education world. This means when you have a group of educators in your class as visitors, when they leave the room, they might end up making totally different comments. Didi lefler has every right to ask me what I refer to by “good teaching”.

    My question is then how can we be sure if observer and observee have similar understanding about how teaching and learning (should) take place??

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