Creating Innovative Learning Environments

Over the past few months I have delivered a presentation I call “Creating Innovative Learning Environments” a handful of times. It was initially developed as a breakout session presentation for the DEN Summer Institute in Bozeman this past July. Over the past year I have read a variety of books, blog posts and articles and attended some webinars and I wanted to challenge myself to put what I had learned into my own words in a way that would be meaningful and helpful for educators. After all, what’s the point of learning something new if you aren’t going make use of the new knowledge and skills?

The purpose of this presentation is, more than anything, to empower the audience to think differently about learning environments. I attempt to do this by sharing examples of what educators are doing to foster creativity and innovation along with the science and research that I’ve come across. This presentation is a continual work in progress and it’s been fun to add information here and there as I reflect on what I’m trying to share.

Here is the challenge with creativity: “We are never more creative than when we are kids. The world is new and we explore it all, wide-eyed and inquisitive.” (Think With Google.) If we want to keep our creative juices flowing throughout life we have to create an environment that will foster and develop creativity.

To keep it as simple as possible, I divide the information I share in this presentation into 3 categories.

1. Environment

“The moment students enter the classroom, the space informs them more than we can imagine about the type of learning the environment will foster.” (Ryan Bretag, Glenbrook North HS) 

The layout of the physical space we use to learn have an impact on students. Take a close look at your classroom- what message does it send to students? Space can be a change agent and often times defines the pedagogy. Imagine what kind of learning experiences could take place if you were to redesign the room. EDUCAUSE has a wonderful, FREE book on learning spaces.

Learning doesn’t just happen inside the classroom, it can happen anywhere. Imagine the collaboration and communication that could take place in the hallway, around a desk, on the wall if you were to use something like Idea Paint

 

2. Students

Last year I read the book Flourish by Martin Seligman. In the book he asks 2 powerful questions: “In 1-2 words what do you want most for your students? In 1-2 words, what do schools teach?” I’ve asked these questions in my presentations and there is always a huge disconnect between the 2 sets of answers. How can we fill that gap? Seligman talks about the importance of teaching wellbeing in school and provides some strategies including the “what went well” exercise (list 3 things that went well today and why), gratitude visit (thank someone for making an impact on your life) and understanding the 3:1 ratio (for every negative in a child’s life, they need to have 3 positives to counter balance).

Emotion plays a crucial part in learning. Positive emotions associated with a learning environment must be present in order for students to learn new content. There are some simple strategies you can use to foster positive emotions. Create an element of mystery and wonder to what they are learning. Play a sound or show an image and ask “what do you see, what do you know, what do you wonder?” Give students “time off “to work on things they are passionate about to help develop their confidence. Here’s a great example of 6th grade students participating in an Innovation Day

Create a culture within the classroom that fosters the learning community. It’s not just about what the teacher knows, it’s about harnessing the collective wisdom of the class. A great example I recently heard was from a teacher who had each student write a 3-4 sentence bio about themselves. They then took all the bi0s and put them in a Wordle. The words that were the biggest were the things the students had in common, and the smaller words are what made each of them unique.

 

3. You

We can’t be at our very best unless we take care of ourselves. And we owe nothing less than the best for our students. What are you doing to make sure you are at your best each and every day? I recently read the book Off Balance by Matthew Kelly. In the book he talks about the importance of “core habits”- a list of habits you do each day to ensure you are at your best. You can read more about my core habits HERE. Whatever your core habits are, write them down and hold yourself accountable. Remember that personal and professional satisfaction and inextricably linked. You have a life outside of education, and the quality of that life is an important part of your ability to bring your A game to school.

Make what you are teaching interesting. Stop asking students to pay attention. If they aren’t paying attention, shouldn’t we be trying harder to engage them in meaningful and interesting ways?

Here are a few examples I have run across in recent months:

  • Teach With Tournaments: “On the very first day of school (September 2011) I had the students define what they believed to be the definition of courage. The students came up with their own personal definition of courage and wrote that definition on the inside of their notebook (where they would see it each and every day). Following the NCAA “March Madness” basketball tournament our students selected who they believed to be the most courageous American of all time.  I placed the names in brackets (randomly) and we began researching, debating, and voting for  who the kids believed was the most courageous.”
  • World of 100: “When I started teaching Globalization, I decided to employ an activity called The World of 100 to help bring perspective to students. This activity asks students to imagine the world is 100 people and then guess what portions would fit into different demographic categories – gender, age, literacy, etc.”
Finally- keep it simple. Think about the learning process as a game of catch with your students. When you pitching (giving information), they are catching. Keep in mind they will always respond better to one idea expressed clearly. The more you ask them to focus on, the fewer they will remember. When you play catch, throw one ball at a time. Throwing ten simultaneously almost guarantees nothing will be caught.

 

 

 

Comments

  1. Justin

    “Create a culture within the classroom that fosters the learning community. It’s not just about what the teacher knows, it’s about harnessing the collective wisdom of the class. A great example I recently heard was from a teacher who had each student write a 3-4 sentence bio about themselves. They then took all the bi0s and put them in a Wordle. The words that were the biggest were the things the students had in common, and the smaller words are what made each of them unique.”

    This comment excited me to no end. I am a pre-service teacher who had orientation yesterday, I officially begin teaching grade 3 on Nov. 7. I cannot wait to be back in the classroom to do this exercise with them! Thank you!

  2. Robin Talkowski

    I am looking forward to reading Off Balance and exploring my own core habits. Thanks for the reference.

  3. Kass Bates

    I am a Library Media Specialist and the environment in the library is so pivotal to how learning is perceived in the entire building. This year our district has changed the name of this space to “The Learning Commons.” But it’s not just about a name change it is really about how we are shifting our understanding of learning as a community. All three of your major points support the shift we are trying to make.

    Looking forward to finding and reading Flourish and Off Balance. Thank you for some great “food for thought.”

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