Effective Learning Environments
"Good. Keep Going"
February 4, 2018
Defining a successful learning environment is a difficult task. Go from school to school, and one might not find many classrooms that resemble each other. Even within a school, or within a department, teachers have their own style. They bring ideas for how to structure the classroom physically, how to manage time, and perhaps most importantly, they bring themselves. From personal experience, I have found that many students, myself included, can detest certain teaching strategies that pedagogues espouse. In short, any strategy could be effective or ineffective depending on its deployment and how the particular group of students engages with it. For me, in consideration of all these factors, a successful learning environment in the middle school is one where students are mastering material and beginning to appreciate the process of learning, which can help them develop invaluable internal motivation. As I cannot directly get at the level of mastery that occurs in the classroom with only six observations and no assessment data, I chose to focus on whether three areas, specifically movement, praise and peer-to-peer interactions, contribute to or inhibit the opportunity to learn material and the motivation to do so. Through analysis of these observations in connection with personal experiences and relevant literature, I argue that a successful learning environment in a middle school classroom depends not on the use of any one strategy, but ultimately on how the deployment of these teaching techniques can hold the attention of students, allow them to construct their own learning, and work to cultivate internal motivation to learn.
To challenge this hypothesis, I wanted to observe two drastically different teaching styles for eighth graders. One, a math teacher who has been in the classroom over 30 years, is championed by the administration as being the most technically sound pedagogue. He commands the classroom. The other, an English teacher who came to teaching by way of journalism and various jobs in the NFL, is entirely different. His classroom feels like chaos, his humor at times crass, and his habits unconventional. Yet ask students at the Gilman Middle School to name their favorite teacher and these two will split the votes. Ahead of my inquiry, I wanted to see whether both these teachers could claim to have a successful learning environment, and whether the qualities that made them successful were shared or divergent.
The idea for my first area of focus originated from conversations I had with the program leaders at Northfield Mount Hermon’s Summer Session in 2016, when I had my first experience teaching. In an observation of my teaching, their Head of the English Department, John Corrigan, remarked that one of the things I did best was my physical movement and positioning. Sitting on top of the desk at the front of the room during discussions after beginning the lesson at the board, he said, signaled my surrender of the power position. By giving up my standing status, I was making the students feel equal and inviting them into the space as learners. Giving students that equality, he argued, would enhance engagement and motivate them to learn. In my first formal observations for this inquiry, I wanted to test the value of these convictions, charting the movement of both the teachers and the students on paper (see Appendix A,) while keeping additional notes of where and when they moved, how the teacher was positioned, and how that affected attention. I chose to measure attention by noting when students were looking somewhere other at the person speaking, when they rested their head or arm on the desk, and when they put their feet up.
In the math classroom I attended, the teacher primarily inhabited a seat among the student desks in the center of the room. Whenever he went to the board to put up a problem, he would return to the seat while students worked. On six separate occasions, he took a seat among the students, giving them an equal status in the room, as my former boss would say. Additionally, I noticed that the teacher utilized the classroom’s multiple whiteboards effectively, going four times to one board at the front right, three to another at the front left, and twice to the back board. I say effectively because in the five minutes after each move, every student was looking towards him, engaged in their work. As for his positioning, once at the front and once at the back, after two minutes with his back facing one corner, he changed how he was standing so that he faced the opposite direction. Never did he have his back on any student for more than two minutes, as he was constantly switching his positioning. Only on one occasion did a student put his head down in these forty minutes. This instance happened with a student in the front row when the teacher had been in the back for five minutes to that point. Less than two minutes later, the teacher switched activities and the student again became engaged. That the teacher kept switching boards at which students looked, and even sides of the classroom every three to four minutes, seemed to keep this group of students attentive and engaged. In doing so, he gave each student the opportunity to learn.
Later in the day, the English teacher also sat down rather than stood as he taught, though instead of teaching from a student desk, he sat on a stool at the front. The key difference from the morning math class seemed to be that he primarily taught from one spot, instead of from different spots around the classroom. Though the students arrived at the class with lots of energy, moving around a lot in the opening three minutes as they got settled, they quickly fell into a post-lunch, comatose state. When the students did a worksheet on their own to begin class, five of the 14 students had their elbow on the desk after three minutes and nine of the 14 did after another three. Though the teacher circulated through the desks during the activity, he always returned to the stool. By the time the teacher transitioned to a new activity ten minutes after it began, the class appeared wholly less engaged than they were when they began. When the teacher went to the next activity, he again remained in the stool. Four minutes into their discussion of Lord of the Flies, the entire front row had their legs up on their chairs, and one student had leaned his chair up against the wall, leaving his book on the desk. While the students were lively in the discussion, calling out answers freely, the body language through these two lengthy activities gave me pause at calling this particular session successful.
Carol Weinstein encourages teacher movement for the sake of monitoring student behavior in her book Middle and Secondary Classroom Mangement, a tactic the English teacher employed (2005). However, she also believes teacher movement can affect engagement. Referring to the point a teacher teaches from as his or her “action zone,” she suggests moving around the room “to ensure that the action zone encompasses your whole class” (p. 37). The primary advantage of this movement, she claims, is that all students can get the benefits of sitting in front. They can be seen, given eye contact and called on regardless of their seat. Those in the back or by the walls are less likely to disengage as they did in the second classroom I observed.
The two charts I made (see Appendix A) show the teachers and students moving roughly the same amount in the two classroom, which given the difference in engagement, suggests the amount of movement is not a primary factor for engagement. Instead, the quality and timing of the movement appears key. As I noted previously, the English teacher, although he moved around the room, circulated the room before returning to the same spot. He did not change his action zone. When he gave information students needed or asked questions for them to respond to, he was always on the stool in front. Affirming Weinstein’s connection between movement and engagement, the students became restless, losing their motivation to learn that class. When the math teacher moved, he did so deliberately, leaving his position among the students to recenter his action zone at least every five minutes. He stopped at different points, and while he returned to the center desk, he began every new activity from a different spot than the previous exercise so that students had to refocus their attention on a new spot.
While Weinstein does not explicitly mention attention in that section of her book, she later mentions movement as a strategy for helping students with ADHD concentrate, though in this case, the students are the ones moving (p. 126). She suggests teachers “provide opportunities to move around in legitimate ways (e.g. exercise breaks, doing errand)” to help with focus (p. 126). Though she does not go into the science of why, the implication is that movement can break up the class into segments, allowing those students to have to concentrate on parts for smaller amounts of time. While students without ADHD might not need the movement as much, they too, can benefit. One route some teachers go to use student movement is to have them move their desks into a new structure while switching from one activity to the next. However, Weinstein points out the fear of teachers that “moving furniture can result in loss of instructional time, chaos, and confusion” (p. 35). While she notes that “students can learn to [make new configurations] quietly and quickly” after being taught the procedure, teachers may still fear having students move around in 40-minute classes when each second can be precious teaching time (p. 35). A possible solution for gleaning the attention-aiding benefits of student movement she mentions without that lost time may lie in my data.
Where Weinstein notes the benefits of teacher and student movement separately, as a matter of inquiry, I wondered how this tactic of teacher movement meshed with her ideas about student movement. Even as most students stayed at their desks in the math class for forty whole minutes, changing the action zone kept attention levels high. What I noticed was that to keep up with the teacher’s movement, the students needed to keep their head on a swivel, changing their own body position to see the next problem on the white boards. Perhaps some of their added attention overlaps with the nature of the rapidly changing activities in the math classroom, but I suggest the teacher’s movement more likely played a bigger factor in holding students’ attention than just the changing activities. As teacher movement causes the students to shift positions in their seats regularly and refocus on a new action zone, those subtle movements I believe contain some of the same attention benefits Weinstein speaks of for having students move. It might allow students to sufficiently reap benefits similar to larger scale movement. Where Weinstein notes the time-wasting drawbacks of those strategies, here teacher movement can provide accomplish the task without those drawbacks, helping create an engaged classroom that continuously has the opportunity to learn. Students may need bigger movements to maintain attention in a longer class. But for 40-minute classes at a middle school age, having the teacher move his or her action zone every three to four minutes seems to be enough.
As the quality and timing of movement affected attention in the classrooms more than the total amount, I wondered how that would translate to peer-to-interactions. Was the quality more important than the use for creating a successful classroom, and if so, what are the vital qualities? My experiences in school suggested group work, as well as student-led discussions, often detracted from attention in ways counterproductive to the class. As a middle school student, I felt discussions without the teacher as facilitator would waste time and not lead as efficient a discussion. Yet on my mind-map and the whole Penn cohort’s, peer-to-peer interactions were a central tenet. Especially after seeing the lengths to which the math teacher went to maintain attention through his movement, I sought to learn how these teachers deployed these interactions without losing the attention of students.
In the math classroom, the supposed pinnacle of Gilman teaching, there were zero purposeful peer-to-peer interactions in a forty-five minute period. Shockingly to me, the only time the students spoke to each other directly was the occasional whisper behind the teacher’s back or a student saying “same” aloud. When the teacher asked for answers, he always responded to the comment and then redirected his question to another student who had his hand raised. When seeking multiple opinions on the same problem, he would repeat his question in between student responses, only changing the name involved in the direct address, such as “Did you find it, Armaan?” “Yes.” “Did you find it, Trey?” As the teacher moved around the room, calling on student after student, he would never let two students speak one after another.
When the teacher sent six students to the board to do problems, they spread out and did not talk, while those at their desks worked on their own pieces of paper. Noticeably, the room stayed completely silent but for the sound of pens hitting the board during these activities, where every student appeared locked into the work. When reviewing the answers, the teacher went student by student, saying, “perfect. Next” as a transition from one to the next. The absence of peer-to-peer interactions felt purposeful, and it only amplified when the teacher asked one student if he thought another student had done something wrong. When he said yes, the teacher responded, “I don’t think he did anything wrong.” Referring to everyone else in the room by the third person, it was as if each brief exchange between teacher and student happened in isolation, without anyone else around. Only when the teacher asked “could you tell Charlie what he should have done here?” with nine minutes left in the class did a student address another directly. Given the improvement from the beginning of the class to the end on the math problems, nobody would claim this class was not successful. Every single student was locked into getting better.
While the class did not have any group interactions, it fit neatly into the constructivist model the teacher told me he ascribes to, which Peter Gow (2009) describes as “a student-centered notion based on the idea that effective learning occurs when the learner literally ‘constructs’ meaning and understanding from the intentional learning experiences to which he or she is exposed” (p. 52). Gow notes that while this model of teaching may create momentary disorder and chaos, it allows students to make inferences on their own, a powerful tool for fortifying synaptic connections in the brain. Through his attention-management tactics, the teacher could avoid the chaos, even as he encouraged students to work on their own, facilitating their improvement. Before moving to a harder topic, he offered a sample problem, asking them to apply their knowledge to this new type of problem. As each student worked individually on these tasks, each had the opportunity to construct the knowledge on their own.
Down the hallway, again, the environment was drastically different, though these students were asked to construct meaning together. The English teacher began class by having students work in partnerships. Though almost five minutes were lost as students found their group and moved around desks, confirming the downside of this type of movement that Weinstein describes, the students began working well. Every discussion was on task for a couple minutes, but soon some began jousting with pencils. Only when the teacher moved through the desks did they return to work. Five minutes later, the teacher sent three students to the board to lead the class through a series of grammar sentences. At the front, the student, acting as the teacher, called on his peers and filled in their answers on the Smartboard. During this activity, the students were almost entirely working without the teacher, who only would chime in occasionally to ask a question. During this period when there were at times eight student responses in a row, all on task, the students were laughing and smiling. Every single student, unlike the first observation, had their heads off the ground and were fully focused and engaged. Only when the teacher replaced the student at the front did attention fizzle, with four heads hitting the desk and a number of students wandering around the room.
While the two teachers had opposite techniques on this day for peer-to-peer interactions, both classes reached successful levels of engagement for extended periods of time. Based on the observation, the number of peer-to-peer interactions, or even the use of any in a forty-minute eighth grade class, does not appear to decide engagement and attention. Success, then, is not contingent on these interactions. However, in examining the moments where these interactions were both effective and ineffective in the english class, I noticed the teacher’s engagement in the process impacted attention. When the teachers led the discussions, asking the students for known answers, the students were less engaged than when the teachers acted as facilitators. In that role, both teachers supported the students’ constructive co-learning by letting students come to answers on their own. Whether through peer-to-peer interactions or silent work, allowing students to construct knowledge produced success.
My third factor centered around motivation. Many scholars encourage teachers to avoid using praise in the classroom, believing it can create fixed mindsets that harm motivation. Praise, which refers to a teacher’s explicit positive evaluative remarks of a student’s actions, behavior, or traits, comes in many forms. Having read extensively about the harm of certain types of praise, I wanted to see whether the successful teachers stayed away from this controversial topic or whether they chose to embrace it as a motivational tool.
Eddie Brummelman et al. (2016) begin their examination of the “praise paradox” in schools with the notion that “western society believes strongly in the power of praise, especially to support children with low self-esteem” (p. 111). Their transactional model of praise that they develop posits that when adults see children with low self-esteem, they revert to praise as a way to solve the perceived issue. However, the paradox, they argue, is that the two qualities of the praise often used to boost self-esteem, person praise (“you are great”) and inflated praise (“you have perfect coordination”), often have the opposite effect (p. 111). These authors document that when adults use person praise and inflated praise to students with low self-esteem, the intended effect backfires.
Person praise can create a troublesome fixed mindset, leading students both to feel added shame after setbacks and to avoid challenges altogether (Mueller & Dweck, 1998). Inflated praise, which is given twice as often to students with low self-esteem, sets an unrealistic standard in students’ minds that they feel they must meet (Brummelman et al., 2016, p. 112). Both forms of praise, Brummelman suggests, create unhealthy self-validation goals. “They become driven by the desire to gain or avoid losing self-worth,” he writes, “rather than by their intrinsic motivation or personal values” (Brummelman, p. 113). Where Brummelman focuses on the negative effect of praise, Mueller & Dweck show that children praised for performance rather than intelligence tend to choose to work on harder problems, seeing more value in learning than in their final outcome. Specifically aimed praise can steer students to become internally motivated to become better learners. Though its downsides are enormous when used incorrectly, when used effectively, praise can promote hard work and motivation to succeed.
In the math classroom I observed, praise was deployed abundantly. As part of the teacher’s trademark call-and-response style that I documented previously, he followed nearly every student comment with immediate one-line feedback. The feedback often took the form of praise. “That’s a nice, fast way to do it, Nate” and “Good job, Gordon! Congratulations. You did it perfectly” were comments that were typical after a correct response. Sometimes he would just say, “yep,” or “good,” but on a harder problem, he usually followed through with greater praise. However, while the word “perfectly” might signal inflated praise, both of those examples involve the teacher praising the process, rather than the person. The praise was explicitly for executing a learned process to solve a problem. Never did the teacher praise a student, but only their work. This teacher took the process praise a step further, cutting in to praise students even before they completed a problem. He said to one student as he was working, “Armaan, I saw you dive into the paper and start thinking right away.” As the problems got more difficult, he even praised one student’s attitude after getting a problem wrong, saying, “I really appreciate the smile at the new level of difficulty.” These comments, heard by all students, reinforce that the teacher was embracing the process, focusing on more than just their end result. Especially when used in the face of failure, praise can negate some of the negative effects that create fixed mindsets.
Once again in the English classroom, the teacher took a wholly different approach to failure, primarily leaning on humor as a motivating tool rather than always finding ways to praise. Responses to incorrect answers ranged from “remember these participles died a terrible death and came back as something else” to “you kind of screwed that up” to “what the Sam Hall are you doing?” With his humorous responses, he was not only getting the rest of the class to connect with him, but subtly motivating these students on. Peter Gow (2009) writes that “without the leavening of humor (and its helpmate, humility), learning can be leaden and sour, a drudgery and a chore” (p. 51). Humor, he argues, encourages the students to bring their own joys to the classroom. The regular laughter, even in the face of failure, suggested the teacher had allowed joy into the room in a positive way. Notably, after these humorous responses to incorrect answers, the teacher always let the students have another shot, encouraging them to find their way on their own. Immediately once they made strides, he would shout, “now you’re getting somewhere!” or “I like where you’re going with that.” This approach, while it may be unorthodox, really seemed to work with the students, as the success rate on the second and third answers of a student was considerably high.
Though his praise for correct answers was often less explicit, he still commended their work in powerful ways. For example, after one student made a cross-chapter connection in Lord of the Flies, the teacher said, “I didn’t even see that the first time I read this,” communicating how impressed he was without just saying something like, “great job, Alex.” After a series of questions about the book, rather than saying right or wrong after any analysis of the text, he gave subtle affirmation and encouraged the discussion on, keeping the ownership of the meaning in the students’ hands. “I like that. Garrison?” he said once, redirecting a question to another student to build momentum while he offered limited praise. After the next response, he merely said, “good. Keep going.” Instead of parroting the student’s response, which not only claims ownership over a student response, implying the answer was known, but also signals to the students that listening to peers is not as important, the teacher kept his praise minimal, only encouraging the students on in their process. Those words led to another student picking up on the comment and taking it further, driving the conversation to another level. If a student had doubt in their tone of voice, the teacher would offer an affirming comment without giving away an answer, such as “You’re totally on the right track.” His affirmations of the process, though not as explicit as the math teacher’s praise, let the students take complete ownership of the powerful discussion.
Though the teachers used praise differently, they both achieved the desired goal of motivating students. First, each teacher in his own way indirectly addressed the downside of praise by negating the fear of failure. Whether it was verbally finding success in the process, or using humor as a tool to deflect doubt in order to give the student another chance, the teachers created a classroom culture where failure was not condemned. In turn, that allowed the students to be more comfortable pushing themselves. Further adding motivation, the teachers both limited their praise to the process, before explicitly asking the students to keep thinking. Their praise communicated warmth, but did not signal finality in the way the praise Brummelman et al. describe does. By asking the students to keep going, they were working to cultivate motivation to get better, no matter the successes or failures the students encountered. The praise and humor, when done avoiding the pitfalls scholars describe, motivated the students further to co-construct their analysis of the text with teacher as facilitator.
In order to better grasp why the boys like these two teachers, I interviewed a group of six students casually after my observations. With the math teacher, they immediately pointed to “the silent atmosphere and the expectation that people listen” as the primary contributor to what makes his classroom the best one. When I pressed as to why the like it, they told me the atmosphere communicates his enthusiasm for pushing them to be better. In short, they become motivated to learn, no matter their affinity for math, because of how he grabs their attention and what he asks them to do. Using the techniques I observed, he creates a culture where students like paying attention and have the autonomy and motivation to make connections on their own.
As for the English teacher, the students told me that his humor is everybody’s favorite part of his classes. There is real joy in being in the room with him. But beyond that, they all think his classroom is successful because of his ability to bring students back in quickly when he needs to. In one student’s words, he “gets people to do their best by letting them do what they want initially before getting them to focus.” Though his focus is less on maintaining attention, he still motivates them to do learn through his use of humor and peer-to-peer interactions.
While these observations do not prove anything about what makes a successful classroom, the different paths that these teachers take to be successful suggest the complicated nature of teaching. There is no direct path to being successful. Though each teacher I observed arrived at success from opposite directions, they both possessed a classroom in the end where high-level learning occurred. Gow writes in his book that “for the intentional teacher, the secret of ‘classroom management’ is not the management, or containment, of 10 or 20 individual wills but rather the creation of a classroom culture that brings those separate wills into some kind of alignment around core values focused on respect and learning (2009, p. 50). The use or lack thereof of the certain strategies I observed, be it movement, peer-to-peer interactions, praise or even humor, can mold a classroom culture to align with those values. Once the teachers can reign in the exuberance of the students and motivate them to want to learn, to respect the learning process, the classroom will thrive.
Certainly, the three areas I examined are not exclusive ways to create success in the classroom. Moreover, my work suggests that for any strategy or activity, including the ones I examined, it is not the use of it that matters, but moreso how the teacher deploys it conjunction with the classroom culture they are trying to build. However, the two teachers I observed are able to be successful because they have built cultures that revolve around asking the students to do more through these techniques. They push the students to “keep going,” in the words of the English teacher, after both failures and successes. They put no cap on potential learning. Through the intentional use of strategies to maintain their attention, ask students to construct their own learning, and cultivate their motivation to learn, these teachers have built successful learning environments for their students.
Brummelman, E., Crocker, J. & Bushman, B. (2016). The praise paradox: when and why praise backfires in children with low self-esteem. Child Development Perspectives, 10 (2), 111-115.
Gow, P. (2009). The intentional teacher. Gilsum: Avocus.
Mueller, C. M. & Dweck, C. S. (1998). Praise for intelligence can undermine children’s motivation and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 33-52.
Weinstein, C. (2015). Middle and secondary classroom management: Lessons from research and practice. (5th ed.) New York: McGraw-Hill.