Modern Learning Environments – The Underlying Philosophy To Success

pic2By Karen Tui Boyes.

Modern Learning Environments (MLE) are all the talk in educational circles right now. Schools around the world are knocking out walls and creating bright, stimulating classrooms with multi-purpose furniture and giving students access to technology. On the surface it looks fantastic, however, without a big pedagogy shift, students will simply be learning the same way many teachers have been teaching – just in bigger classrooms with new furniture. MLEs are so much more than the bright new furniture and the technology. What makes an MLE work, and in fact ANY successful classroom, is the relationship between the teacher and student and the underlying ethos of learning to learn.

When moving from a structured and often heavily teacher-dominated classroom to a less formal student-led environment, it is paramount that students understand their role and responsibilities as learners and indeed the learning process. It is totally unrealistic to say to students, “Here are your tasks, now go do them”. Teaching students to be independent and self-directed learners needs to be at the centre of a successful MLE and this does not happen overnight. It requires scaffolds, stepping-stones and a safe environment.

Here are five considerations that are vital to address for success.

  1. Teachers need to be clear on their underlying philosophy of learning

In a busy, overcrowded curriculum, it is important for teachers and students to consider what they believe about learning. Here are some questions for both teachers and students to consider:

  • Can all students learn?
  • Is learning enjoyable?
  • Is learning always a simple process?
  • What happens when learning is hard?
  • How is learning defined?
  • How is it known when something has been learned?

It is important to understand that learning is finding out what someone does not know; learning it is often hard. The mantra ‘everything is hard before it is easy’ is a fundamental idea key to successful learning. What do students do when the task gets hard? How do they handle situations when the answer is not immediately apparent?

An important piece here is to understand and discuss with students the work of Carol Dweck and the role of Mindset. Do teachers and students fully understand that intelligence is not fixed and can be developed? Teachers should explain to students that their job is to cause learning to happen and this will not occur if they are given easy work. However, teachers must also give students the skills to cope with the hard tasks; students need to be able to persist, think flexibly, be creative and take responsible risks.

A personally liked metaphor is that of the butterfly emerging from the chrysalis. It is the struggle that makes the wings strong enough to fly; if the butterfly is helped to emerge it will die. The same can hold true in the classroom. Teachers should allow students to have time to work out their own challenges, rather than jumping in and rescuing them. Students should not be left to drown; however, in an encouraging way, explicitly teach them how to solve their problems effectively.


  1. Create a safe environment by redefining mistakes and failure

Part of this learning philosophy is also about creating a space where students are free to give new ideas a whirl, make mistakes, fail and use what they know. Redefining mistakes and failure is crucial. If students are fearful of making a mistake or scared of being wrong, then they are less likely to push themselves to their learning limit and more likely to stay within what is conformable and known. Again, a great metaphor is to talk to students about learning to walk or ride a bike. To learn both of these activities one has to ‘fall over’ or ‘fall off’ and get back up.

Steve Gurney, nine-time winner of the NZ Coast to Coast race, a gruelling multi-sport event says, “I never learned from winning, except to increase my ego. I learned most from losing.”

Teachers need to create an environment in the classroom where it is okay for students to make mistakes and fail. FAIL stands for: First Attempt In Learning. Take time to discuss what went wrong and celebrate the failures, so they will not be repeated. Of course, if someone makes the same mistake more than once, it simply means they did not learn the lesson the first time.


  1. Teach students to take ownershippic-1

So what do students do when they make a mistake or get things wrong? Do they automatically become a victim or a victor? Victims choose to blame others for their mistakes and failings or make excuses. Common phrases of a victim include, “She made me do it” or “He is doing it too”. They might also often choose to put heir head in the sand and pretend the result did not happen or choose not to see the consequences of their actions – the ‘I do not care’ attitude.

On the other hand, victors are able to take ownership and admit they have it wrong and go about working out how to fix the problem or remedy the result. A key to hearing this dialogue is that victors will use the word ‘I’ in their explanation, demonstrating they are taking responsibility.

  1. Ensure students know the learning process

A teacher’s job is to take students to the edge of their comfort zone and invite them to step out. Teach students about James Nottingham’s The Learning Pit. Often, when students start a new project, they seem to be clear on the task and have a positive outlook towards the completion. However, somewhere along the learning journey, they get stuck, unsure, confused and the work gets hard. These are signals to suggest learning is about to occur! At this point the key is to teach students the strategies to get themselves out of ‘the pit’.

This may include persisting, thinking flexibly, using past knowledge, using their senses, finding humour, asking for help, working with others and questioning. These are some of the thinking dispositions that are the rungs of the ladder used to climb out of the pit. Once out of the pit and the project is completed, it is important for students to take time to reflect on the journey and the next steps.

  1. Celebrate the learning – not the end resultpic3

As teachers, take time to celebrate the learning in the classroom. Have conversations about the steps and not just the end result. Display the work in progress and not just the final result. Ask students to hand in their drafts, attached to the final copy, with evidence of growth and learning. Invite students to reflect on the process and what they might do differently next time.

Once students understand the learning process, what to do when they are stuck, how to deal with failure and have a big-picture view of learning, working in an MLE is sure to be easier. Students will not be so reliant on teachers and will be able to work effectively independently.

Winner of the NZ Educator of the Year 2014 and the NZ Speaker of the Year award in 2013, Karen Tui Boyes is a sought-after speaker who continually receives rave reviews from audiences around the world. Her dynamic style and highly informative content –which turns the latest educational research into easy-to-implement strategies and techniques – sets her apart from others in her field. Visit for more information.


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