Engaging All Learners

Environment As the Third Teacher

by Flannery Burke, Associate Professor in the Department of History

Preschool might not be the first stop for most university educators when evaluating their own pedagogy, but it was for me when I encountered CTTL’s Learning Studio.

First, some background: My son went to a pre-school that follows the Reggio-Emilia method, a pedagogical philosophy that encourages experiential learning, collaborative work, and intellectual curiosity.  One of the principles underlying Reggio-Emilia pedagogy is the idea that after parents and the classroom teacher, the “environment is the third teacher.”  Reggio schools take full advantage of natural light, often decorate with plants and vines, and foster communication among students through thoughtful and reflective deliberation over classroom and school design.  Children’s work, often displayed on reflective or light-filled surfaces, appear at key entry points in schools, classrooms, and even hallways.  Upon entering my son’s school, a visitor might find a mesh hanging dotted with student-made wire and button insects.  Descend the stairs to a hallway, and the visitor could browse transcripts of student conversations held during a navigation exercise in Forest Park.  I was not surprised to see in the school’s promotional literature the observation that the building itself works like that of the learning brain.

When I first saw the light-filled Learning Studio, I found myself thinking that the room itself might teach.  It wasn’t just that the room was nice and the equipment new, though that mattered too.  I knew from conversations with scholars of education policy how a space can telegraph to students their value.  “When you’re visiting a new school,” my colleagues advised, “check out the bathrooms.”  In struggling schools, you sometimes won’t find stall doors.  Clearly the Learning Studio was on the opposite end of the spectrum.  Everything was state-of-the-art.  The tables and chairs were durable, but also easily reconfigured into individual desks or tables for groups.  Students could face the front of the room or each other or a screen or a white board.  The screen could show up to three sources at once.  For example, students could simultaneously observe a powerpoint presentation, an image from the web, and, using networked iPads available in the classroom, students’ own work.  A “learning bar” at the back of the class provided a higher perch from which to observe the class and a separate gathering spot for the classroom.  Smaller, rolling white boards allowed students to keep track of their thoughts as they worked in groups.  Boards along the back of the class provided a spot to showcase student work.  Along with the tall windows, the room sent the message that the students who learned there mattered.

But what did students learn there?  It might seem self-evident, but the ability to move the tables and chairs greatly fostered collaborative work.  My class began with a syllabus “election” in which students voted for one of two syllabi that we would use for the rest of the course.  In just a few minutes before class the TA, instructional designer, and I could throw the tables together into the students’ syllabus “parties” so that students could get to work using the rolling white boards as soon as they stepped into the room.   A sizable number of students instantly adjusted and leapt to the white boards to keep track of their work.  In later group activities, which crossed syllabus “party lines,” students were already acclimated to the idea of working with each other to solve assignments and jump-start class discussions.  As one student put it when describing the class election: “I liked that in the end it brought us all together and allowed us to work with one another throughout the semester.”  The ease with which students could sit across the table from their classmates facilitated that transition from isolated to collaborative learning.

Similarly, the multiple screens and the separate white board incorporated students into their own instruction.  A common set-up in my class was to provide a powerpoint and then use the whiteboard to assemble student reactions to the material.  We might, for example, review a powerpoint tracing a traditional chronology of the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to urban northern cities.  Then, through student suggestions, we created our own class chronology on the white board.  Such activities allowed the students to make their own historical arguments about the starting and ending points of key events in history, a process historians call periodization, and a sophisticated skill, especially for survey students.

By the end of the semester, my TA and I would regularly ask students to “throw on the screen” what students’ work with the iPads had revealed.  They might share a website describing comics of the 1930s or an eyewitness account of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire or even a paragraph they wrote describing the context for white flight from urban centers following World War II.  As students claimed the screen, they made historical thinking the subject of conversation.  They spent less time reciting and more time engaging one another in conversation and debate over the meaning of the past.  It helped certainly that we had ready access to the names, facts, and dates necessary for such discussion.   More and more when such questions arose (When was the Food and Drug Act passed?  Who was President in 1926?) students would jump online, confirm the answer for themselves, and then jump back into the discussion with evidence to “throw on the screen.”

If the technology and classroom design make it so easy, do teachers even need to be there?  I think that they do.  Students still need to see teachers modeling how they use their classroom environments.  As they move into independent thinking, they need practice reflecting on how their learning environments affect their own education.  With content so easily accessible, they need assistance sorting relevant from irrelevant information. The environment is the third teacher, not the first.  The classroom is just one piece of the puzzle of effective education, but it’s a piece that I felt very lucky to have.  It was well worth returning to pre-school to find it.

Flannery Burke is an associate professor in the Department of History. She specializes in environmental history, the history of the American West, cultural history and gender history. She loves history and does her very best to develop a passion for the subject in her students.