The Fertile Soil – Positive Learning Environments

Geoff Carlisle

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A boy of 13 walks into his Year 7 classroom at the start of Term 1. He is at a new school, eager to please and optimistic about what he can achieve. As he enters the first classroom something does not feel right. The curtains are drawn, the fluorescent lights glare. The walls are covered in the shadows of student work of days past, the teacher’s desk is void of any sign of a personality and the desks have the signs of bored children marking desks as bored children do. He doesn’t know it yet, but his inherent spark of optimism and natural zest has dimmed just a little, and that is before a pencil has been lifted or the “Good Morning Miss …..” sung.

Often in Positive Education we think about personal and interpersonal aspects associated with relationships, emotion, accomplishment and purpose. However, the physical environment is easily overlooked, and its importance cannot be understated. Just as the expert gardener takes equal care preparing the soil and tending the seedling, so too must educators prepare the ‘soil’ for optimal learning conditions.

Researchers like Harvard Professor Ellen Langer (1979) have been fascinated by the concept of conformity and the power that different social conditions and situations can have on people.  She studied the elderly and the physiological and psychological improvements in their health caused by simply changing their environment to mirror that of an earlier, happier time. It would seem that the environment we create and the situation we are exposed to, can have significant psychological benefits – if we can get it right! 

Recently our Year 5 and 6 department began to consider the effects of altering our learning environments to foster creativity, student agency and personal growth. Students arrived to school in 2018 with a classroom as a blank canvas, with all furniture removed and stacked outside the room. They went on tours around the school and looked at images from classrooms around the world as well as historically. Students considered the environment that they felt would be most conducive to powerful learning and how that might be achieved. Guided by the Professional Standards framework (AITSL), teachers were encouraged to create and maintain supportive and safe learning environments. This prompted the question; can we create educational environments where students’ creativity, grit, and engagement are potentiated by the physical and social space in which they are working? 

Research in the area of priming (Stadler and Hogan, 1996) establishes that our subconscious grasps much more than most of us think, and the subliminal messages that it receives influence where we focus our attention and ultimately how we feel about ourselves and others, as well as how we act. (Akey, 2006) Professor Tal Ben Shahar describes “priming” as a technique pivotal in raising the self-belief in ourselves. Therefore, the power of the situation cannot be underestimated. 

So how do we go about establishing such a learning environment that primes students to behave in a way that increases the likelihood that they will continue to be creative, persistent and enquiring learners? 

It is suggested here, that the classroom setting can be a precursor to the learning behaviours that lead to increased academic performance and reduced academic anxiety. In fact, it can be argued that the classroom and school culture start with the learning environments and classroom settings that reflect the behaviours educators ask of their students.

In my own experience, the changes made to our department’s learning environment at the beginning of 2018 made a noticeable difference to the motivation and learning attitudes of my students. They had a greater sense of ownership of the classroom and therefore treated its contents with greater respect and care. They did not stay in one area for the year, as I had expected, instead moving about determined by the nature of the task. They set the rules for each area within the room and, for the most part, respected those parameters. Their levels of engagement seemed greater than in previous years and my own teaching was far more flexible as I could adapt quickly to dynamic teaching moments as well as respond more quickly to student needs. Simply put, the learning environment reflected how the students wanted to learn and my teaching adapted to meet them where they felt most comfortable and most engaged.
 
 

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(The above video showcases Geelong Grammar School's re-design of its Year 5 and 6 Middle School classrooms. Click here to play)

Let us imagine a future where all 13-year-old students can walk into an inspiring and airy classroom; where the teacher’s expectations are reflected in a classroom environment of equally high standards. In this class, that precious spark of optimism and zest for learning has been enlivened and who knows what possibilities await!

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Geoff Carlisle

 Geoff Carlisle has been teaching at Geelong Grammar School for 10 years. He completed his Certificate in Positive Psychology in 2016 and was appointed as Campus Head of Positive Education – Middle School in 2017.