Dolph Petris | November 2018

Active Learning Environments for All!

In my November article for ArtsEdLab, I discussed the plethora of available information for anyone on just about anything and everything.  I talked about how this abundance, especially arts related, can easily become a very deep pool of sensory overstimulation.

These days, information overload is something that can easily creep up on us.  Especially if we are not acutely vigilant in the course of our daily lives.  However, I do believe the learning environment should have as much information available for our students as possible!

Kindergarten classrooms are typically loaded with a visual and print-rich environment.  Primary grades follow closely with the amount of displayed visual and print resources.

How we learn

Children love pictures, they love color, they love visual and audio stimulation.  Stimulation is what ignites the brain.  It is how we learn.  Without adequate and appropriate stimulation, our brains have very little to absorb and as a result, synapses in our brain would suffer the same fate of under exercised muscles… atrophy.

Think about this.  How many times have you walked into a secondary classroom and noticed less visual and print resources on display?  I find this prevalent more so in secondary school classrooms than elementary.  By no means am I attacking middle school or high school with individual classroom learning environments!  I am simply stating an opinion based on my own observation.

Just because our students become older and then move on to their next academic grade level doesn’t mean they should be any less exposed to a visually stimulating learning environment.  Nobody should!

Movies will often portray middle school and upper grade classrooms as a physically and visually bland environment.  The classrooms are full of students who are either chewing gum.  Rolling their eyes during instruction.  Sometimes they’re even ignoring the teacher outright!  We’ve all seen these movies and what’s worse: we have all been in these classrooms.

Environments as a Reflection

What is my goal?  I want to inspire all teachers to realize that a classroom environment should be a reflection of everything we want our students to learn!  How can educators ever expect to gain and hold a captivated audience of children when our classrooms are visually and intellectually dull?  Think ‘kid in a candy store’

… No one is going to make a purchase walking into a candy store if there is very little or nothing on display.

So how about going forward, thinking of your classroom and it’s learning environment akin to a candy store?  Yes, that does sound mouthwatering!  Our students see the classroom in a similar manner.  What is on our walls, and what does it look like?  How engaging for students is the material that we put on our walls?  Are we simply ‘putting stuff up’ just to satisfy District and State learning goals and requirements?  Boring.

A learning environment for everyone is one that should stimulate and ignite as many senses as possible.  It is these potential channels of sensory input that signal benchmarks of learning which remain with each and every one of us for our entire lives.

Think of the times you have walked into a ‘flashy’ environment, and you thought ‘wow!, this is so cool!’.  That coolness factor comes from your senses being stimulated.  The generation of millions of electrical neuron impulses that simultaneously fire throughout your brain at breakneck speed.

Dress It Up

Your students think exactly that, or at least we hope they do, especially when walking into your classroom for the first time.  So the question becomes, why do some of us go through the amount of effort to ‘dress-up’ our classrooms at the beginning of the year, and then not continue the same level of effort through the year’s entirety?  Or worse yet, we make no effort at all to ever do anything to the interior of our room because we think that students don’t pay attention to it all anyway.  The reality is… they DO!

Children are like dry sponges that are constantly soaking up information, whether we think they are doing so or not.  As adults, we ‘forget’, purely due to years of life experience, that knowledge isn’t inherited.  Knowledge and experience are accrued through knowledge and experience, period!  We are a product of our environment.  If our environment is bland, guess what… our output will be just as bland!  Why? As a direct result of our bland engagement and bland learning experiences.

So take a look around your classroom.  Ask yourself if what you see on the walls is something that will actively engage overall student learning.  Your classroom’s learning environment is the necessary water of life for your student’s engagement and overall learning experience.

About the Author

Dolph holds a Bachelors of Science, Product Design from Art Center College of Design and a Masters degree in Education. He has spent most of his teaching career as a 6th grade teacher in the elementary school setting with a focus on Gifted and Talented Education and is currently teaching a 5/6 combo in Fullerton, California. He and his wife have several four-legged kids: Bonnie and Clyde, Golden Retriever litter-mates, a street-rescued stray that looks like ‘Benji’ named Noel, Athena the cat, and two American Quarter horses.