Jul 11, 2019

Research Insights for Setting Up Powerful Learning Environments

By Melina Uncapher, Babe Liberman, and Judi Fusco

You’ve probably heard about the “learning sciences,” but what is this research field and how can it help educators?

Learning sciences research — which draws from many academic disciplines including neuroscience, education, developmental science, linguistics, psychology, and sociology — focuses on how people learn, investigates novel approaches to teaching and learning, and designs for educational environments to promote effective learning. Learning sciences research can aid educators in selecting instructional strategies, developing curricula, and creating learning spaces.

The learning environment is an important equity consideration, as equity gaps often stem from different opportunities in the places in which students grow up. How safe, nurturing, and stimulating an environment may affect a child’s brain development.

When children are born, their brains are optimized for all environments. As they grow and develop, their brains undergo a process of synaptic pruning, removing connections that are not necessary for the environment where they live. In the schematic below, you can see that the older brain (the brain on the right) has fewer connections, and that is because it has pruned away connections that were not consistently needed for its environment, in favor of making strong connections for experiences that were consistently encountered while growing up. Thus, this older brain is more efficient than the younger brain (on the left) because it has been optimized for its environment. 

Context matters for student learning, so those who design learning environments — including architects, education leaders, curriculum developers and teachers — can benefit from incorporating learning sciences research into their work.

Keep reading for three learning sciences insights, and associated design considerations, for setting up research-based environments to support powerful learning for the full spectrum of students. These teacher strategies will help you be a resource for the best possible learning environment.

1. Students learn well when they feel safe and connected.

To thrive at school, students need to feel that they are part of a positive, supportive learning community. Feeling safe and connected at school can reduce students’ anxiety, allowing them to focus their attention on the learning at hand.

Trauma-Informed Design
Childhood trauma results from emotionally painful or stressful events and is often associated with lasting mental and physical effects. Unfortunately, such trauma is commonplace: nearly half of all children in the United States have experienced at least one adverse childhood experience, such as parental divorce, death, or incarceration; being a victim of violence or witnessing violence in their community; or experiencing economic hardship. Many students who have experienced trauma view the world as a scary place and may have trouble engaging in everyday activities, including participating in learning activities in the classroom.
The good news is that trauma-informed practices, such as teaching coping skills and building caring relationships between teachers and students, can benefit all students, not just those who have experienced traumatic events.

Teacher Strategies:

      Begin class with a breathing or mindfulness exercise to acclimate students to the learning environment.
      Set and stick to a consistent schedule and classroom routines, informing students in advance about any upcoming changes to their schedule. When school is predictable it feels safe. Post the schedule somewhere prominent so that students can refer back to it.
      Designate a “calm down corner” in the classroom, so that students always have a safe place to visit to refocus and recharge until they are ready to rejoin the group. Deck this space out with cozy seating (bean bags or pillows) and quiet, independent activities (tactile toys or books).
      Explicitly teach social and emotional skills, like empathy and kindness, and encourage students to practice using these skills in multiple contexts (during group work or on the playground).

Positive Student-Teacher Relationships
It can be challenging for teachers to build authentic relationships with each of their students, but these connections matter. To grow and persist through challenging learning experiences at school, students need teachers who know them as individuals; who care about them, have high expectations for their success, and understand what they need to succeed. Teachers and students who have different cultural backgrounds may experience difficulty connecting, so teachers should practice culturally relevant pedagogy (CRP) to help all learners. Practicing CRP requires teachers to understand their own cultural background, make a point to learn about the backgrounds of their students, and incorporate the personal and sociopolitical issues that impact their students and communities into their teaching.
When teachers are able to build such stable, trusting relationships with their students, this connection can promote students’ self-worth and sense of belonging, allowing them to be confident and valued in the classroom.
Teacher Strategies:

      Foster connections with students by opening up about your own hobbies, pets, and family members, and by encouraging them to do the same with you. Designate a gallery space in the classroom for students to show off photos of their families or special memories.
      When teaching students from a culture different from your own, discover culturally appropriate ways to get to know them. Learn about how students from different cultures may interpret directions, feedback, and discipline to create an atmosphere that guides and supports them appropriately. Build an inclusive classroom by displaying artwork or poetry from a variety of cultures, and books featuring diverse characters.
      Communicate positive and high expectations (related to classroom behavior and, especially, learning) for all students. Explicitly remind them: “I believe you can do it,” and prominently display student work so they can take pride in their achievements.
      Ensure that each student has an equitable opportunity to participate in class by rotating the students who are called on. Allow sufficient wait time for students who may need more time to formulate responses. Work to invite students with language differences, and those who may be less comfortable speaking in class, to participate in other ways.

2. Collaboration and social interaction can be powerful learning experiences because they encourage deeper processing and engage the “social brain”.

Students can be highly tuned to social dynamics, particularly during the transition to and through adolescence, and research shows that collaborative and relational interactions can drive learning. Harnessing this social drive in the classroom can take students further than they can go alone. Working collaboratively towards a common goal can encourage students to discuss, think about ideas they might not have considered, and learn more than they would if working individually. Since collaboration isn’t suitable for every learning task, educators can help students identify opportunities when working together is most beneficial.

Fostering Teamwork

Create a classroom environment that nurtures positive peer relationships so that students feel included in the learning community and understand how to work together to solve problems.

Teacher Strategies:

      Promote collaboration and exchange of ideas by structuring projects to require shared learning and co-creating, rather than splitting tasks among group members.
      Encourage students who are working on teams to get to know one another to better understand each other’s perspective. To help students work together in more effective ways, it may be important to have discussions about cultural differences. As students build stronger relationships with fellow team members, they can move beyond superficial questions to ones that are deeper and more challenging.
      Ask students to take the perspective of others (e.g., the people who you are teaching about in social studies or literature) to help students tie the learning to themselves and to a broader perspective.
      Invite students to teach each other. The process of preparing to teach is a powerful way to engage the social brain, whether or not students end up teaching the material! Teaching others often benefits the tutor the most, so be sure to give all students the chance to be tutor as well as tutee, or to compare notes on the lessons they prepare.

3. The entire environment, from space to temperature to lighting, can affect learning.

It may be no surprise that elements of the physical environment can play a role in determining whether the classroom will be conducive for focus and learning. For example, exposure to sunlight and views of nature from the classroom have been shown to boost student achievement, well-being, and behavior.

 Consider the Physical Space

Teacher Strategies:

      Incorporating flexible furniture — lightweight or on wheels — can support flexible instructional goals and gives students choice in where they work to empower them to take responsibility for their learning. The best arrangement of furniture depends on the task at hand: More interactive tasks benefit more from interactive arrangements (semicircle and clusters), and independent tasks from independent arrangements (rows).
      Try to keep the temperature between 68- and 74-degrees Fahrenheit so students are comfortable and able to focus. No thermostat? Have blankets and small fans for students to use.
      If your classroom has less natural light than you’d like, replacing lighting with blue-enriched or full-spectrum bulbs may improve students’ cognitive performance.
      No windows with views of nature? Take your class for walks outside and have plants in the classroom to get some of the benefits of nature.

To learn more about the learning sciences, check out the following resources:

      Culturally Responsive Teaching Blog - Hammond
      e-Learning and the Science of Instruction - Clark and Mayer
      The ABCs of How We Learn - Schwartz
      Visible Learning- Hattie and Yates
      Developing Minds in the Digital Age - Kuhl et al.

Melina Uncapher is Assistant Professor at UCSF and CEO & Co-founder at Institute for Applied Neuroscience
Babe Liberman is the Project Director, Research Communications at Digital Promise.
Dr. Judi Fusco is a Senior Research Scientist, focusing on STEM Teaching and Learning, at Digital Promise.

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