For quite some time, I have been thinking about the characteristics of an effective learning environment. My objective was to compile a list of ideas in response to the question “What makes a learning environment an effective one?”
Recently, I read the book Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas by Seymour Papert. First published in 1980, this book includes Papert’s arguments in favor of using computers as a learning tool in an educational setting. Being an education theorist, Papert characterizes the essential properties of an effective educational system. I was amazed how close the ideas presented by the author were to my experiences as an educator. Therefore, I thought it was time for me to present the twelve images that characterize an effective learning environment as seen by Papert and experienced by myself.
- In an effective learning environment, learning occurs naturally as a byproduct of the learners’ interactions with their surroundings, without the need of structured teaching (e.g. lectures, presentations), similar to the way a child learns to talk or walk. In such environments, learning occurs through embodied experiences that engage a full range of human sensitivities in an interactive and spontaneous way.
- In an effective learning environment, the educator focuses on creating personally meaningful and intellectually coherent learning experiences for the learners. In such environments, learning is not separate from reality. The learners are thereby not left alone in making sense of what they learn and are guided by the educators in their journeys of reconciling, accommodating and assimilating new knowledge within their existing intellectual structures.
- In an effective learning environment, the learners and educators both challenge themselves by venturing into the unknown and going into a space that is out of the boundaries of their comfort zones. They give themselves the permission to fail and learn from their failures. In such environments, exploration, failure and discovery are key ingredients of the learning process.
- In an effective learning environment, the learners make the newly acquired knowledge and ideas their own. They deconstruct what they learn into fundamental ideas, reshuffle and combine them in new and innovative ways and generate a personalized way of applying and communicating what they have learned.
- In an effective learning environment, theoretical knowledge is a means to amplify and expand the learners’ intuitive understanding of their surroundings. In such environments, not only does theoretical knowledge not oppose the intuitive insights of the learners, but it also serves as a mechanism through which the learners can enhance and refine their intuition, and subsequently their creative capacity.
- In an effective learning environment, interaction, communication and collaboration amongst the learners and between the learners and the educators are facilitated and enriched. In such environments dialogues are viewed as a free flow of meaning and knowledge is viewed as a means of creating harmony between the learners and their surroundings.
- In an effective learning environment, measuring learning provides an opportunity for more learning, rather than hampering it. Therefore, the learner’s understanding of a subject matter is not merely judged as “right” or “wrong” but considered, by the educator, as a powerful starting point and a foothold for designing further learning.
- In an effective learning environment, the learner and the educator’s roles are interchangeable. In such environments, learners learn from their peers, realizing that the educator’s role is not exclusive to the educator, and that they themselves can be sources of inspiration when it comes to knowledge acquisition and development. Educators also realize that to be an educator is synonymous with being a lifelong learner.
- In an effective learning environment, the learners learn from the educators not by “what they say” but by “what they do”. In such an environment, the educators are the embodiment of the ideas that they want the learners to encounter, and they look sensitively for conflicts between what they preach and what they practice (i.e., their stated and revealed preferences).
- In an effective learning environment, both the learners and educators think about the ways they think, and learn about the ways they learn. In such environments, every topic provides the learners and educators with an opportunity to become a better learner and thinker by reflecting upon their assumptions, mental models and cognitive heuristics and biases.
- In an effective learning environment, learning is an interdisciplinary undertaking. Meaning that, boundaries between different disciplines fade and that learners and educators are encouraged to transfer insights from one field of inquiry to another. In such environments, the focus is on creating connections between seemingly different ideas.
- In an effective learning environment, the fundamental assumptions underlying what constitutes an effective learning environment are continually challenged and critically reflected upon. In such environments, education is a viewed as a fluid and ever-changing phenomenon that should dynamically adapt to cultural, pedagogical, scientific and technological developments.
I hope these 12 images can give you a bigger picture of an effective learning environment. While compiling this list, I quickly realized that each of these 12 images deserve a more in-depth treatment. Therefore, my intention is to elaborate on every point and exemplify it with instances and cases from my own learning design activities. So, stay tuned for the next entries in this series. Meanwhile, if you think some more ideas need to be added to this list, please do not hesitate to leave a comment. I would also be happy to know which of these images resonated most with you.