06/17/2013 01:49 pm ET Updated Aug 17, 2013

The Importance of Learning-Environment Design

Question: When was the last time you stopped and thought about how much you learn in a day? The old adage is, "You learn something new every day." I'd argue that we learn a few new things every day - be it socially, academically, or even internally. Sometimes we learn because we intentionally seek knowledge; but often times the knowledge comes to us whether we are seeking it or not.

The concept and art of learning is indeed a fascinating thing; something we try to perfect in our schools through the use of various forms of pedagogy, standards, and assessments. But what I am realizing is that the discussion on learning in the classroom may benefit from an increased focus on the design of the environments where the learning is set to take place (which we aptly name, learning environments). I believe that often times we look at learning as something that is purely connected to activity, and don't think of it nearly enough as something that needs to be, in some ways, facilitated by the environment where the learning is to occur. Perhaps this is because we learn so much throughout the day in the midst of our activity that we take for granted everything in our various environments that allow that learning to take place.

For instance, if you are reading this on a train, take a look at how many posters are hanging on the sides and in front of you, ready to help you learn about whatever content that poster is covering. The inside of that train can be considered a learning environment, and the designers put the posters up with the intent for you to actually see them and learn from them without a mediator (for instance, you may see posters hanging that explicitly tell you the rules you need to follow in the "quiet car."). If all of the posters were in awkward locations like the ceiling or floor of the train, they most likely wouldn't be as successful at facilitating the learning experience for the passenger, no matter how clear the message. The designers keep all of this and more in mind as they put up the various posters, maximizing the chance that the passenger will achieve the intended learning goal.

Regarding learning in the classroom, I believe that taking serious time to think about where the students are expected to learn and everything that's going on in that environment can support the students' chances of achieving the intended learning goals. As I look back at my past and current opportunities to create learning environments, I realize that there are a few questions that ran through my head:

  • Who is the intended learner?
  • What is the learning goal?
  • What is the physical design of the environment or space, and what type of furniture is in there?
  • What technology or other resources will be implemented into the environment, and how do we use them effectively to achieve the learning goal?
  • What should the role of the teacher be in this environment? (Teacher as expert? Facilitator? Moderator?)
  • What is the role of the learner? (Solo? Collaborator? Peer teacher?)
  • How do we keep the learner motivated and engaged in this environment?
  • How can we tell that learning occurred?

I strongly believe that stopping to ask questions along these lines before beginning the journey towards learning could be useful in creating an optimal learning experience. Even better, if this is done in collaboration with the students themselves (as I touch on in this previous entry), this could come together to help create a truly exceptional learning environment and experience.

All of this is before we even consider some of the things we should think about specifically for digital learning environments (video games, virtual worlds, MOOCs, etc.). But we'll save that for another day.

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