The Three Es Needed to Optimize Learning
Teaching is an art form.
Though possible to subdivide into minute parts, each to be attacked with skill and precision, I believe educators must understand the whole first. Before mastering their content, refining their pedagogy, and designing powerful curriculum, a fundamental question must first be asked - and answered.
What are the optimal learning conditions?
Consider a farmer who haphazardly sows seed all across his land. Not paying attention to seasons, soil conditions, or even irrigation, the farmer randomly walks across his land casting seeds. That farmer, most would agree, is not likely to succeed. Some would even call him irresponsible, assuming that others are depending on the produce of his land. If anything happened to grow, it would be by accident rather than by design.
Preparing the Soil - Environment
The first thing that teachers must attend to is the environment within their classrooms. Like farmers that properly fertilize and de-weed their soil, teachers attending to culture understands that everything happens within a context. The environment that exists within the four walls of their classroom has the ability to foster productive struggle or stop it in its tracks. Before jumping into content, knowledge, and skills, the first questions to answer must, by necessity, relate to the environment.
Do I feel safe? What kind of support do I have? What happens when I make a mistake? Am I encouraged or supported? Am I a member of a community? Does my teacher see me?
Positive environments exist at the intersection of classroom structures and student needs. The former refers to a variety of factors, ranging from physical to procedural. Is the grading system designed to capture mastery when it occurs or punish those who do not learn according to the proscribed timeline? Does the layout of the classroom invite collaboration and relationships or isolation? What kind of behavior management system is in place? Are the teacher's expectations and procedures clear and concise?
The latter, student needs, looks more at the makeup of learners. Psychology, social cognitive theory, and neuroscience have come a long way in recent years. There now exists a wide body of research that spells out how to meet the academic, motivational, social, and emotional needs of students. Is the classroom environment shaped to fit student learning needs or are students expected to conform to the environment?
Planting the Seed - Engagement
Once a positive, supporting environment has been established, work turns to engagement. Just as farmers know that they have an ideal season, climate, and soil conditions in which to plant their seeds, teachers know that learning sticks when students are engaged. An old question asks if a tree falling in the forest still makes a sound when no one is around to hear it. Likewise, teachers must ask themselves if they ever truly taught if there is no evidence of student learning? Engagement is the second key to optimal learning conditions, and answers the following questions.
Am I interested? Do I feel able to complete the task? Is my voice heard? How is this relevant to my life? Do I have to? Why should I?
Student engagement exists when student needs meet instructional design. To become an active learner, students need to be triggered by at least one, though hopefully more, motivational facets. The first is competence, which simply means their expectancy of success. Students are more inclined to engage when they feel able to complete a task. The second is relationships, because human interactions matter, and the third is autonomy, because voice and choice are key to intrinsic motivation. The fourth motivational facet is value, for students who find no relevance in the content will likely disengage. Finally, emotions envelop everything, dictating so much of how students interact in the classroom.
The other half of the equation, then, is instructional design. When teachers personalize their instruction to meet the diverse cultural, learning, and motivational needs of students, they become active learners that use much deeper processing skills. Additionally, students like having fun. Teachers that key into emotions, making their lessons interesting, exciting, or enjoyable, find much deeper retention of knowledge. There is a strong and direct relationship between the engagement level of students and the probability of success when planting seeds of knowledge.
Harvesting the Crop - Empowerment
After the soil has been prepared and the seeds planted in the ideal time, the final step is to harvest the crop. Once sufficient time has elapsed, enjoying the fruit of your labor still requires one additional step. For too many teachers, simply teaching the lesson is their penultimate goal. For optimal learning conditions to be met, for the fruitful bounty of education to be enjoyed ten- or hundred-fold, one final push needs to be made to answer these questions.
Who's responsible for learning? Do I have agency? Can I set and meet goals? Can I reflect on my areas of strength and weaknesses? Am I truly a life-long learner?
This final component, empowerment, is the rarely glimpsed golden country at the junction of instructional design and classroom structures. Referring again to classroom structures, is the grading system set up for mastery or compliance? Do students have enough autonomy within the classroom to take charge of their own learning or are they simple widgets moving down a conveyor belt? With behavior management, is it designed to be inclusive and give students needed social skills or is it instead designed to weed out deviant behavior?
Across the aisle, how instruction is designed also plays a large part in moving students toward empowerment. It needs to not only be engaging but rigorous. Fun instruction that does not meet high standards may be enjoyable but it doesn't put students in a place to ultimately succeed. Along with rigor, quality curriculum design is integrated both vertically and horizontally. It's aligned between grade levels so that instruction builds from year to year. It also is cross-curricular, taking content out of silos and incorporating it into real-world scenarios that are complex and multi-layered.
When students are put in a place that provides them with high-level instruction within a supportive classroom culture that meets students' needs, optimal learning conditions are achieved. Teachers can finally reap the bounty of their educational harvest.