The first LQ Topic Review – LQ and the School Environment.

school environment

How we manage the school day, the environment that creates and the impact on the learner.

Schools are a solution to a problem but no solution is without compromise. So let us start by exploring the design specification for schools before we seek to explore the compromises and the impact they may have in making the school environment so debilitating for some learners.

  • Schools must cater for large numbers of pupils of various ages and find a way of managing them that makes teacher/learner interaction possible in a meaningful way.
  • A variety of learning content needs to be broken down into manageable elements and presented for learning in a manner which provides for progression in terms of skill and understanding.
  • It is necessary to monitor the progress made by learners in order to inform further teacher/learner interaction and keep records for reference and reporting.
  • The environment should provide for the wellbeing of the learner including such aspects as shelter, lighting, sanitation, and safety.
  • Resources to support learning need to be available and accessible.

From this specification we can imagine all sorts of schools from a gathering under a bridge [i] to the most sophisticated hi-tech modern buildings[ii]. Each is a solution to the problem based on the specification and each creates its own learning environment (not just the space but everything that provides for an element of the specification). These environments suit some more than others and some do better in such environments than others. The solutions become more complex the more learning variables we try to accommodate within the environment. There are a number of common solutions to this specification familiar to almost every person who has been to school. These include:

  • a timetable of some form, at least a start and end to the school day and perhaps breaks between learning sessions
  • learning topics broken down and presented as discrete subjects such as maths, the native language, science etc.
  • groups of learners of approximately the same age (within a chronological year for most schools, smaller schools may have broader age groups) and given the term “class”
  • a director of learning who manages the class, normally referred to as “the teacher”, who also monitors progress and keeps records of achievement.

There are exceptions to this model but they are not the majority. For most this model represents the best way of doing things and has been constantly refined and added to over the years. Is it the best model to provide a learning environment suitable for every learner though and is it possible to do such a thing? This question is at the very heart of the concept of LQ.

Let me give you an example of how this model can result in a learning environment that is at least debilitating for some learners and possibly toxic for others.

Born out of compromise perhaps here is the result.

What was once the “working week” will be replicated by the “school week” and consist of five days. The length of the school day will be based on the working day and be of such length as to occupy children from early morning to late afternoon. What is to be learnt will be broken down into subjects and each subject will be allocated a percentage of the school week (a number of lessons) depending on some form of hierarchy of importance. A timetable will be devised to match teachers with learners and provide suitable accommodation in line with the subject requirements. Learners will be expected to follow the timetable and arrive at each lesson with the necessary personal resources to engage in the learning. At key points assessments will take place to determine who has learnt what. Departments will be formed and consist of teachers of the same or allied subjects and areas of the school will be nominated as bases for these departments.

Now I want to stop and consider the impact on the learner of this compromise learning environment. To do this I am going to describe a small scale piece of action research I carried out in a school not too long ago. My aim was to determine what impact this type of environment had on the learner and to see what could be done to improve the learning outcomes.

Firstly I chose a learner based on conversations with teachers and something called CAT’s, a form of cognitive test which eliminated prior performance in providing an indication of potential. I was looking for a learner who was  underachieving but who was not demonstrating any challenging behaviour either. They could be described as a “compliant under achiever” perhaps. (see the article “Is Compliance a Learning Disability?”)

Having found such a person I arranged to follow their class for the entire school day. I arranged the day so that no individual (student or teacher) felt as though they were being observed directly or individually and no notes were made during the periods of observation. The day started with registration with the first teacher of the day, the Form Tutor. After registration the class were sent off to make their way to the first of four lessons which made up the morning period. Logistics played an important part in the day, getting from classroom to classroom on time and with the appropriate resources. The problem was there was no time allowed within the timetable for “travelling time.” Not everyone arrived at the same time making a prompt start for the teacher difficult. The class were settled down and the rigor of the lesson started. There were learning objectives to be explained, tasks to do and notes to make. The teachers had carefully planned their lessons and almost every minute was accounted for. Things happen though, they always do in lessons, and on occasions the carefully planned activities ran a little late. On occasion homework was hastily written down as the class were leaving. It was important not to be late to the next lesson. A morning break and short lunch period provided the only time the class were not with a teacher.

A typical day for a learner so what happened to my compliant under achiever. Well they managed to get through most of the day without too much trouble. They lost their pen after the first lesson and so had nothing to write with and when they asked to borrow one they were admonished in each lesson thereafter. No lesson ended in a way which prepared them for the next one and so stress levels built as the day progressed. The overall impression of the day was one of rushing and segmentation. In the space of 10 minutes the learner could go from thinking about maths to drama. They received little interaction with the teachers, as there was no obvious need; they did as they were told. However not all the work was complete or even scrutinised in any meaningful way (from the learner’s perspective). The teachers were not “poor” teachers; they prepared well, had suitable resources, and managed the class effectively. The day focused on learning subject materials, as we would expect in such a model. At some point no doubt there would be work handed in, scrutinised and marked giving feedback and comment to aid further learning.

Why then did the student I was following end the day by having a fight with a classmate over a pen? Even more importantly why were they underachievers?  Essentially I would conclude that they did not have the skills or understanding to manage their learning environment to meet their learning needs. The result was a student stressed enough to hit another student and who made little progress throughout the day. In many senses of the word they were just “coping” with school.

What would I do differently and how can LQ help? Two good questions to which I would like to give you the answers but I am not! Ask yourself what were the environmental conditions that could be alleviated and how would you go about it. Secondly put yourself in the shoes of that learner and think what strategies you could use to overcome the environmental learning limitations. Sometimes the answers are rather simple, like carry two pens not one! Sometimes they are a little more complicated and require the application of attributes and attitudes associated which are part of LQ.

What this means for the Teacher

Whilst lessons must have objectives think about the learning day and not just the lesson. Plan to include a welcoming start and an end that prepares the learner for what comes next. This requires a view of the learning day as a whole rather than a subject based view and consideration of the impact on the learner of the learning environment. Two of the “Teaching Ideas” series cover these points[iii].

Breaks of sufficient length are required between learning activities. Such breaks are effective in setting the pace of the day and no one learns if they are stressed. If you do not recognise this then I suggest you arrange to follow a student for a school day.

Have a discussion with colleagues about how effective the timetable is in managing the learning environment. Perhaps there are other ways or at the very least things that can be done within the present constraints to help in improving the learning environment.

Be flexible, if there is not enough time to deliver a lesson according to your plan – improvise.

Plan lessons not only according to content but also to accommodate the periods in between learning. The time needed for reflection and internalisation of learning is as important as the act of being engaged in directed learning. Standing back and observing is as important in teaching as lesson planning. This can be summed up as the “BME” (Beginning, Middle, and End) approach. The teacher is responsible for and directs these key times in a lesson, at all other times it is the learner’s responsibility and the teacher adopts the role of observer, guide, or coach. It is not the quality of the planning that counts, it is the quality of learning that takes place as a result of the planning!

Be prepared to get involved in the development of the timetable if you have one. It should not be a top down but a bottom up model. The timetable should serve the needs of the learner and not the other way around.

What this means for the Learner

When getting ready for school think about the whole day rather just about the lessons. Think about how you will get from place to place and how to arrive on time to each lesson. Try to arrive ready to learn.

Use breaks to unwind and forget about the lessons. Time away from learning is as important as the act of learning itself.

Be prepared to:

  • be late to lessons – stay calm
  • lose something – have a backup if you can
  • forget something – it happens so stay calm and think of a solution
  • explain yourself clearly when things go wrong. Take your time don’t rush what you say
  • spot the signs of getting stressed by things that happen during the school day and plan for ways of dealing with it. For example use your break period to chill out or chat about other things.

Use the two second rule. It takes only a second or two to break the effects of emotions on your behaviour. If you are feeling “up tight” then say to yourself “Only a fool breaks the two second rule because… .” Fill in the last bit with whatever is winding you up.  The delay between how you are feeling and any reaction will now involve your thinking part of the brain and not just a reflex response.

Finally a comment about timetables and the learning day.

The formal learning environment is something every learner needs to manage and, in some cases, overcome in order to meet their learning needs. As teachers we should be mindful of this fact and plan not only lessons but the learning day. We need to remember that the timetable has a major impact on the quality of the learning day both for the teacher and for the learner. The stresses that can build from a poorly designed timetable are significant. Sometimes what is best for the timetable is not the best in terms of providing a suitable and effective learning environment. The pace of the school day can be slowed or hastened by the timetable arrangements. Breaks are an important part of learning and there are a few myths that need to be dispelled regarding the length of breaks. I have heard arguments about shortening the mid-day or lunch break because students are bored or get into trouble towards the end. In an attempt to eliminate student incidents I have seen 10 minutes or 15 minutes shaved off the length of this break. Only to see the incidents occur again in the latter part of the break and a further reduction of time applied to solve the problem. It does not. Suddenly there is no time to have a proper break and both teachers and students are caught up in a rush to eat and get to the next lesson. In my opinion, and where I have experienced a much better learning day, we need to adopt the opposite strategy. Consider lengthening the mid-day break and planning for it, not just letting it happen.

Interested in a discussion about how LQ can help you manage the learning environment in a more productive way or perhaps in exploring a different approach to timetabling?

I am available for conferences, workshops, plenaries, online training, course design, webinars, and consulting. Your organization can reach me at kevin@ace-d.co.uk to discuss arrangements.


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About 4c3d

"4c3d" (AcEd) is the abbreviation for Advocating Creativity in education, a company I set up to challenge how we think about and deliver education. The blog champions my concept of Learning intelligence, how we manage our learning environment to meet our learning needs.

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