While spending some time reading about significant learning environments, I attempted to engage in some dialogue with other teachers and administrators about shifting learning environments on campus. After a few encounters, it became obvious to me that there was a significant disparity in how people defined this term “learning environment.” Most thought I was only referring to how tidy, decorated, and welcoming the classroom was. Some thought it had to do with being inclusive and encouraging students to feel like they could speak up without fear or ridicule. While these things are technically part of the learning environment, there is more to a significant learning environment in the 21st century. Douglas Thomas and John Seeley defined learning environment in A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change as the context in which learning happens, but they also make a point to include the students themselves, the teachers, and rich digital resources that are available in the 21st century.

If students are a part of the learning environment and not just visitors passing through, then the entire system shifts. Putting the student at the center of the environment results in the bringing the students’ world into the classroom, including their technology. This understanding could be the thing that finally shifts the traditional factory model of education into obsolescence. With the student at the center of the educational universe, their curiosity becomes the driving force. Their inquiries become the units of study. Keeping the student in mind and designing a learning environment that enhances their natural ability to learn from play and collaboration, the learning environment could look drastically different.

One of the biggest criticisms of Thomas and Seeley’s work is that it emphasizes idealistic situations with intrinsically motivated students. Students who have the drive and desire to learn won’t be stopped, but the book does not seem to directly address the other students who are reluctant learners. The reason that it does not directly discuss reluctant learners is simple. If an environment has been cultivated so that students can engage in learning their way, through play or collaboration, and in a way that interests them, then we might find that we no longer have reluctant learners….only learners that need help finding their passion.

The focus of my initiative is on this student, which my district refers to as the “disengaged” student. These are the reluctant learners, the students with behavioral problems, the students with attendance issues, and the students who are not yet performing to their potential. The key to moving a student from disengaged to engaged is finding their intrinsic motivation, finding their passion. I have proceeded with the creation of this initiative working under the hypothesis that intrinsic motivation can be discovered when the learning environment shifts to focus on the student and to allow students to explore inquiry of their own choosing. The successful creation of the significant learning environment depends on the ability to build relationships with the student in order to help them find their passion. This learning environment empowers students to not just learn content and curricula, but to pursue their passions, interests, and their futures, which is the heart and soul of this innovation initiative.

The “new culture of learning” isn’t just about allowing students to choose their own paths, but is also about creating opportunities for learning to resemble play, even in high school. For instance, last year my partner and I began piloting measures for the initiative. We created a novel unit that was based on video game design…students were given access to a website we created, they had a certain number of points they were required to earn per level, Easter-eggs were hidden throughout, and there was a final boss-fight type activity per level. They had to advance through the levels and earn badges along the way in team and individual activities. Eventually, students began helping each other in a true collaborative spirit.

Seeing how the students responded so positively to the adjustment makes me believe that this is a strategy that could be successful when students need to learn material that they might not be motivated to learn. Even the students that said they did not consider themselves gamers appreciated the construct and the boundaries provided by the game strategy.

In order for this experiment to happen, my partner and I had to be ok with not being in control. We had to be ready to set the game in motion and see what happens. We will let go again in January when we allow students to explore research and present an argument for a dress code that can be agreed upon by both students and administrators. (This is a hot topic among our students and something they have begged to be able to do since we suggested it might be possible.) Teachers will have to learn to adapt to a new learning environment where they need to be able to anticipate the skills to frontload and be able to navigate curricula in a different way. We fully anticipate being able to target a number of standards as required, while also giving students the freedom to explore, collaborate, and express their own voice. Our jobs as teachers are evolving and understanding how to create a significant learning environment is critical to that process.

(More on the dress code project in the future.)


T. (2012, September 12). A New Culture of Learning, Douglas Thomas at TEDxUFM. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lM80GXlyX0U&feature=youtu.be

Thomas, D., & Brown, J. S. (2011). A new culture of learning: Cultivating the imagination for a world of constant change. CreateSpace.

N. (2015, May 08). Creating Significant Learning Environments (CSLE). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eZ-c7rz7eT4&feature=youtu.be

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