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EdTech & Design, Engagement, Opinion, Promising Practices

Wanted: Quality Learning Environments

Redesigning the Work of Schools

Let me begin by acknowledging the elephant that has been lurking in the room for sometime now:

Schools are not the best place for kids!

A rather odd statement I know, but look at it this way: If we were to take everything we know about cognitive, emotional and social development, about how people learn and under what conditions and we used that to develop a place where children could be nurtured into a life of happiness and meaningful participation, do you think it would look anything like the schools of today?

Most people recognize that there is a wide gap between the schools that we need for the 21st century and the schools that we currently have. Although the problem of how best to bridge the gap is a complex one, and even a little scary at times, we have to start somewhere and we have to start soon.

In the next couple of entries, I would like to do some thinking out loud about a possible starting point that has been recognized by many as the one that holds great promise.


If the movie Waiting for Superman presented me with any ideas worth pursuing, it was the one that claims that schools are really about the adults. I’ll massage that point a little and say that, from my experience, our schools are really designed for teaching and not for learning.

Don’t believe me? Take a closer look at the current education reform discourse that is being used in our schools. So much emphasis is being placed on effective teaching practice: strategies and approaches that teachers can use on their students that will, if performed correctly, result in higher achievement. (My own home bookshelf boasts 32 books on “strategies that work”—all of them written within the last 5 years.) The most popular courses at faculties of education are the ones that deal with effective classroom (read student)  management techniques. Lesson plan templates are strongly geared to the things that teachers are going to do to students in order to get them to learn. Professional development programs in many jurisdictions are limited to those approaches and methods approved by ministries of education and school districts.

And last year, a ministry-appointed trainer came in and presented teachers at our school with a scripted literacy program to use with our students during the first 20 days of school! It was at that point that I realized that the elephant in the room was actually sitting squarely on the school improvement agenda, and we weren’t going to be moving anywhere very quickly!

It was then that I began to realize that we need a narrative turn in the story that we tell ourselves about school and I believe that the most important thread in this new story is this:  these buildings to which we force our children to come day after day, year after year are really about them and not us. Our public schools need to become primarily places of learning, not teaching. In schools, the word student and all of the metaphorical implications with which it has become infused, needs to be replaced by something that will force us to pay attention to the needs, challenges and possibilities of the young people that walk into our midst each day. For now, let’s consider the word learner.

In redefining what we mean by effective, successful schools our starting point should be a serious examination of the heart of the school experience: the type of “work” in which learners are engaged on a daily basis.

Imagine if all educators–not just teachers–committed significantly more time to designing the tasks and experiences in which learners were going to be engaged than we did to writing the lesson plans, preparing for tests, marking work, and trying to rush through curriculum expectations. Imagine if deep and transferable learning were the new standard for achievement and success. Imagine if learner engagement was an essential criterion for evaluating teacher effectiveness, more essential than test scores.

So, how do we begin to make our imaginings come to life?

Well, I think we can begin by trying to think back on those times when our classrooms really hummed—a time when learners were turned on so much that the recess bell seemed like a rude interruption. For those of you who are not educators in the formal sense, you may recall times in your own schooling where you just couldn’t wait to get to school in the morning, or you didn’t want to leave in the afternoon.

I’ve thought about those times in my own educational career and I’ve come up with a list of ten criteria that might get the conversation going. Here goes!

You know you’re really on to something when:

  1. the activity connects with the world of the learner; it is engaging because they can relate to it.
  2. the activity comes from the learner’s own input; it is engaging because they helped to design it
  3. the activity is based on the freedom to choose; it is engaging because they selected it
  4. the activity is meaningful; it is engaging because they feel that they are contributing something to their school, their community or the world
  5.  the activity is challenging; it is engaging because there is a real problem to be solved
  6. the activity draws the outside world in; it is engaging because it is rooted in the non-school world
  7. the activity is awe-inspiring; it is engaging because it encourages learners to look at their world in a different way
  8. the activity is interesting; it is engaging because it forces the learner to say “huh!”
  9. the activity is interdisciplinary; it is engaging because it involves ideas from a variety of traditionally separate curriculum areas
  10. the activity is expansive; it is engaging because it offers the opportunity for further investigation and learning

 I realize that, in this brief space, I’ve just begun to explore the question of what makes for a powerful, high-quality learning environment. But it’s a start!

I would love to get your input on the list—things that could be added, taken away, expressed in a different way. I would also like to hear about those experiences that you’ve had where learning has been particularly powerful. What made it memorable?

I believe that, despite the complexity of our current situation, we can begin to design and create schools that are full of life, of excitement and wonder. I’m hoping that something about this issue might capture your imagination and allow us to continue the conversation.

Stephen Hurley
stephen.hurley@sympatico.ca

Meet the Expert

Stephen Hurley

Stephen Hurley

Education Consultant, Catalyst, voicED Radio

Stephen Hurley is a recently retired teacher from the Dufferin Peel District School Board in Ontario. Stephen continues to work to open up public spaces for vibrant conversations about transformation of education systems across Canada.

Stephen Hurley est un enseignant récemment retraité de la Dufferin Peel District School Board en Ontario. Stephen continue de travailler à ouvrir des espaces publics pour des conversations dynamiques sur la transformation des systèmes éducatifs partout au Canada.

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