Climbing The Hill
Is it time the learning environment was given higher status as a learning multiplier?
Very little education research, if any, examines the impact of environmental factors on learning as a multiplier of knowledge, skills or motivation to be successful. It’s not something you will find in the EEF toolkit or written about in school leadership. A synthesis of global evidence yields almost nothing about inspiring displays, language prompts as resources or the creative design of space to maximise collaboration amongst pupils. Even the language associated with classroom ‘environment’ is misleading and dis-associated from pedagogy; emphasising classroom furniture, colour schemes or room temperature.
Where classroom environment has formed part of a serious discussion about learning, more often than not, a warm narrative excites about ‘bright colourful classrooms’ and nostalgic trips back to the days of teasels and hessian. It locates responsibility for environment with fuzzy-felt primary teachers spending days cutting crinkly borders. Secondary colleagues are thinking more deeply about the real substance of learning. The alternative debate about environment obsesses with health and safety, the structure of physical spaces and the desks in rows conundrum.
Both arguments miss the point. We are speaking about environment as an enabler; a model for greater depth thinking; the silent teacher; a carefully planned reference point for pupils to help free working memory slots by building long term memory associations. A high quality learning environment has the potential to shift possibilities, raise aspiration and demands deep commitment to learning.
Respect means to cherish in all its forms. The spaces in which we spend most of our time give important messages about what we value most. They are spiritual as well as physical. We cannot divorce our personal values from their manifestation in our classrooms. What we see, think and feel are the true measure of a values base. We experience this ourselves every time we visit a historic building or place of special interest. For our most disadvantaged pupils, this is an essential element of education - too often overlooked. When we provide our pupils with the very best, when we show them a future they may not otherwise have access to, we take pupils to a place where new possibilities are revealed. As Bill Strickland argues:
“The beauty we’ve designed into our centre isn’t window dressing; it’s an essential part of our success. It nourishes the spirit, and until you reach that part of the spirit that isn’t touched by cynicism or despair, no change can begin.”
The learning environment also communicates the inner belief system of teachers and pupils. What we see in the work of students or in the way classrooms are set up for learning provides valuable assessment for learning about what is going on inside peoples’ minds. But, here’s the twist: Just as we need to ensure pupils are continuously engaged in a dialogue and surrounded by excellence, so too do leaders need to ensure staff are engaged in the same process. Ron Berger writes that:
"the most important assessment that goes on in a school isn’t done to students but goes on inside students. Every student walks around with a picture of what is acceptable, what is good enough. Each time he works on something he looks at it and assesses it. Is this good enough? Do I feel comfortable handing this in? Does it meet my standards? Changing assessment at this level should be the most important assessment goal of every school. How do we get inside students’ heads and turn up the knob that regulates quality and effort.” (An Ethic of Excellence)
This is ‘back to front’ planning, or, to be more precise, starting with the quality outcome or end point in mind and then working back to teach and model how to get there.
Woodhill Primary School in South East London, is an excellent example of how environment can transform the way we think and feel. In 2013, It communicated not just low expectations but also an apathy towards teaching and learning which transcended the whole community. Buckled coat pegs, pupil name labels scratched on with biro pens, plastic pencil pots with half chewed pencils. Outdoor play spaces were overgrown with weeds; bins left un-emptied. Along corridors, displays of children’s learning lacked imagination and creativity. Some displays were torn and contained minimum standards of learning rather than the very best. Nor was there any sense of consistency between learning spaces.
A connected approach to planning for high quality learning, placing environment at the centre of learning, shifts the focus of learning away from surface learning towards deeper levels of understanding. Matthew Syed refers to ‘social multipliers’; Daniel Coyle describes ‘ignition’. Both are references to the opportunities or conditions that inspire excellence. This could also be described as the culture and climate created in an organisation which values specific skills or attitudes leading to success. The learning environment is an extraordinary multiplier for expertise and should be given higher priority when creating a school wide pedagogical framework. Here's why:
Tuning In - Just as an art gallery or museum exhibition quality learning spaces inspire curiosity across learning domains – often raising questions and provoking deeper enquiry
Integrated Learning - Learning walls or modelled displays can make the ‘whole’ learning concept visible and provides a rich context for learning. This helps pupils see where the intended learning aspires to be
Organising Information - The environment builds neuro-plasticity. When pupils can make physical connections between the learning spaces (e.g. learning walls) and learning concepts, this helps push working memory learning into long term memory, freeing up learning slots, increasing cognitive bandwidth
Raising Aspiration - Outstanding classrooms model the expectation required for excellence to be reached. They also provide reference points to help pupils develop learning strategies like reasoning skills
It is hard to separate the environment from teaching or planning - it communicates more than just the learning content. It represents the blending of content and pedagogy so that an understanding of how learning is organised, represented and adapted is made visible. There is also a link between mastery learning and how the environment is used as a resource for challenging pupils to gain deeper levels of understanding. When connected to a learning philosophy, the environment can:
- Provide a framework to help pupils organise sequences of learning
- Build conceptual understanding so that the ‘why’ of learning is better understood
- Encourage deeper levels of reflection
- Help learners make sense of the world around them
The following questions are a useful starting point in helping school leaders audit provision:
- Does our school have a clear vision for how the environment is used to promote learning?
- How do the spaces within our school promote curiosity, pedagogy and excellence?
- What key messages do our school learning environments provide?
- How effectively do learning environments model expertise?