Jan 16, 2018

Matching the Environment with How Students Learn

By Kevin Stoller

Like many of you, I’ve been in thousands of classrooms throughout my career. The vast majority of them look like this:

Students sit in their assigned seats in straight rows. The teacher is at the front of the classroom near his desk to start the session. He has a front board that is either dry erase, Smartboard, projector, LCD screen, chalkboard — or a combination of these. The students are expected to pay attention, sit still, watch the board, take notes, and be quiet — unless they raise their hands and wait to be called on. When the bell rings, they go to their next class and repeat throughout the day.

Sound familiar?

However, there is a movement going on today in education, a literal movement. I’ve had the privilege to witness classrooms that look more like this:

Students come into the class excited and pick where they want to learn. There is noise coming from all directions. The teacher gets the students’ attention in the middle of the classroom and everyone swivels, loosely forming a circle around her to make eye contact.

The instruction is brief and to the point, the students get the game plan for the day and break off into groups of 4-5 and make space to interact. Again, eye contact is made, this time between peers as they communicate on their work.

One student breaks off from the group to work on their portion of the project. The teacher moves throughout the room and challenges the students on their thought process. Several times throughout the class period, she gets everyone’s attention by sharing info from her hand-held device to the monitors positioned around the room.

One student jumps out of his chair and paces, then points to the screen that a classmate is sharing from her device. The room is buzzing, maybe even considered loud. The student that broke away, now has headphones on, but is re-joining his group after sharing what he created.

The class period is half-way done and the teacher starts reminding groups that they’ll be presenting in a few minutes. Time is up and the first group shares their screen with the rest of the class. The students swivel their chairs to watch the presenter, their own devices put down.

One student scoots closer to hear and see better. Two other groups share their progress and a discussion ensues. With two minutes left, the teacher gets back in the middle the classroom, reminding students of the deadline and the work they need to do that evening. The bell rings and a few students remain to ask questions as the discussions continue into the hallway.

With the integration of technology into the classroom, this second example is now a reality for many schools all over the country. Whether the first or second example describes the current space, this article is written for you. If we look at this shift in the industry as a bell curve like a Product Life Cycle, the industry is on the verge of a tipping point. The Early Adopters of new technology, furniture, and educational tools have paved the way for the Early Majority. Lessons were learned, corrections have been made, and we are now seeing the Early Majority joining the revolution of improving learning environments.

The Challenge
The education system is more complicated than ever. Various student needs, demands from society, parents, and government entities. Additional constraints may be old buildings and inadequate teaching space due to more students per classroom. The staff and teachers are asked to do more with similar — or even less — resources. There may be times when you feel like you are in a no win situation and the thought process is focused on surviving, instead of thriving.

The Opportunity
I get it. None of this is easy, but it is an enormous opportunity to make positive impact on students’ lives. We all have the desire to be a positive influence and drive change within the education community. It only takes one voice to challenge, inspire, and lead in a common goal of creating better learning environments.

Learning Environment Catch-words
The idea of changing the learning environment is not new. Different terms and buzzwords have been used to describe trends:

  • 21st Century Learning (As of 2017, 17% of the 21st Century is now HISTORY. Can we stop using this term?)
  • Flexible Learning Spaces
  • Student-Centered Learning
  • SEL (Social and Emotional Learning)
  • Collaborative Learning
  • 4C’s (Creativity, Collaboration, Communication, Critical Thinking)
When it comes down to it, the main purpose of education is to help students maximize their potential. For the purposes of our book and this article, we are going to simplify all the catch-words and just focus on making things better. To do this, we need to start with the basics and focus not on the status quo, but on how can we improve. In addition, the educational landscape continues to be more complex — from student needs, testing requirements, and a changing educational population. With all these changes in the dynamics and demands of the classroom setting, hence the need for a well thought-out process either via engagement with educational consultants, or self-implemented with resources such as this. Tony Wagner talks about this in his book Most Likely to Succeed, referring to the improvement process as “educational Research & Development”: the idea of many schools trying different tactics to improve the educational outcomes.

Learning Styles
Let’s start by looking at the different learning styles of individuals. Each student has a predominant learning trait — but will exhibit one or more of the six basic learning styles — Auditory, Visual, Physical, Verbal, Solitary or Social.

1) Auditory — These learners need to clearly hear information.
These students need a quiet space when having a conversation, or to be close to the person speaking during a presentation. Without proper acoustics, this type of learner can get distracted or frustrated.

2) Visual — If these learners don’t see it, they don’t remember it.
Everything visual is a stimulus — from what is on the walls, down to students’ personal workspace. They learn from reading, viewing presentations, and graphical representations. If there are screens in the room, make them large enough for all people to see.

3) Tactile — These learners are the doers of the world.
These students need to get involved and learn by trial and error. The space they require can sometimes be messy. It may necessitate utilizing outdoor space to release their full mental potential.

4) Verbal — Talking it out is the way these learners thrive.
By allowing interaction and creating collaborative situations, the verbal learner gets to brainstorm and figure things out by verbalizing his thought process. Providing the space for verbal people can be via small tables, lounge furniture clusters, and places to walk and talk inside or outside the building.

5) Solitary — Just give these learners some peace and quiet.
Let them get in their own zone to figure things out without distractions. Whether they need a way to break away from the group, close the door, or have some privacy screens — it is up to the leaders of the school to provide the outlets for solitary learners to excel. With the increased focus on collaboration, these learners may need special time dedicated to their needs.

6)Social — Group learners and team projects fit into this category.
The ability to work through it with others is the toughest environment to create, since it requires many variables and options for the students. This is especially true when technology is introduced. If everyone is working on their own devices, technology to share the info with the group is a challenge.

Recognizing this concept is what is driving most of the innovation in our industry today. Makerspaces are popping up everywhere because we are recognizing that the majority of students are tactile learners, they learn by doing. By helping our customers and students recognize how they learn, we will now be armed with valuable information that can help tailor the needs of each student.

Kevin Stoller is Co-Founder and President of Kay-Twelve.com, a national leader of educational furniture. Kay-Twelve.com helps schools, colleges, libraries, and corporations create better learning environments. He is the author of Creating Better Learning Environments and host of the Better Learning podcast.

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