The Characteristics Of A Highly Effective Learning Environment

10 Characteristics Of A Highly Effective Learning Environment

by Terry Heick

For in-person professional development from TeachThought on how to create an effective learning environment in your classroom or school, contact us today.

Wherever we are, we’d all like to think our classrooms are “intellectually active” places. Progressive learning (like our 21st Century Model, for example) environments. Highly-effective and conducive to student-centered learning.

But what does that mean?

The reality is, there is no single answer because teaching and learning are awkward to consider as single events or individual “things.” This is all a bunch of rhetoric until we put on our white coats and study it under a microscope, at which point abstractions like curiosity, authenticity, self-knowledge, and affection will be hard to pin down.

So we put together one take on the characteristics of a highly effective classroom. They can act as a kind of criteria to measure your own against–see if you notice a pattern.

10 Characteristics Of A Highly Effective Learning Environment

1. The students ask the questions—good questions

This is not a feel-good implication, but really crucial for the whole learning process to work.

The role of curiosity has been studied (and perhaps under-studied and under-appreciated), but suffice to say that if a learner enters any learning activity with little to no natural curiosity, prospects for meaningful interaction with texts, media, and specific tasks are bleak. (Interested in how to kill learner curiosity in 12 easy steps?)

Many teachers force students (proverbial gun to head) to ask questions at the outset of units or lessons, often to no avail. Cliché questions that reflect little understanding of the content can discourage teachers from “allowing” them. But the fact remains—if students can’t ask great questions—even as young as elementary school—something, somewhere is unplugged.

2. Questions are valued over answers

Questions are more important than answers. So it makes sense that if good questions should lead the learning, there would be value placed on these questions. And that means adding currency whenever possible—grades (questions as assessment!), credit (give them points—they love points), creative curation (writing as a kind of graffiti on large post-it pages on the classroom walls), or simply praise and honest respect. See if you don’t notice a change.

3. Ideas come from a divergent sources

Ideas for lessons, reading, tests, and projects—the fiber of formal learning—should come from a variety of sources. If they all come from narrow slivers of resources, you’re at risk of being pulled way off in one direction (that may or may not be good). An alternative? Consider sources like professional and cultural mentors, the community, content experts outside of education, and even the students themselves. Huge shift in credibility.

And when these sources disagree with one another, use that as an endlessly “teachable moment,” because that’s what the real world is like.

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4. A variety of learning models are used

Inquiry-based learning, project-based learning, direct instruction, peer-to-peer learning, school-to-school, eLearning, Mobile learning, the flipped classroom, and on and on—the possibilities are endless. Chances are, none are incredible enough to suit every bit of content, curriculum, and learner diversity in your classroom. A characteristic of a highly-effective classroom, then, is diversity here, which also has the side-effect of improving your long-term capacity as an educator.

5. Classroom learning “empties” into a connected community

In a highly-effective learning environment, learning doesn’t need to be radically repackaged to make sense in the “real world,” but starts and ends there.

As great as it sounds for learners to reflect on Shakespeare to better understand their Uncle Eddie—and they might—depending on that kind of radical transfer to happen entirely in the minds of the learners by design may not be the best idea. Plan on this kind of transfer from the beginning.

It has to leave the classroom because they do.

6. Learning is personalized by a variety of criteria

Personalized learning is likely the future, but for now the onus for routing students is almost entirely on the shoulders of the classroom teacher. This makes personalization—and even consistent differentiation—a challenge. One response is to personalize learning—to whatever extent you plan for—by a variety of criteria—not just assessment results or reading level, but interest, readiness-for-content, and others as well.

Then, as you adjust pace, entry points, and rigor accordingly, you’ll have a better chance of having uncovered what the learners truly “need”.

7. Assessment is persistent, authentic, transparent, and never punitive

Assessment is just an (often ham-fisted) attempt to get at what a learner understands. The more infrequent, clinical, murky, or threatening it is, the more you’re going to separate the “good students” from the “good thinkers.” And the “clinical” idea has less to do with the format of the test, and more to do with the tone and emotion of the classroom in general. Why are students being tested? What’s in it for them, and their future opportunities to improve?

And feedback is quick even when the “grading” may not be.

8. Criteria for success is balanced and transparent.

Students should not have to guess what “success” in a highly-effective classroom looks like. It should also not be entirely weighted on “participation,” assessment results, attitude, or other individual factors, but rather meaningfully melted into a cohesive framework that makes sense—not to you, your colleagues, or the expert book on your shelf, but the students themselves.

9. Learning habits are constantly modeled

Cognitive, meta-cognitive, and behavioral “good stuff” is constantly modeled. Curiosity, persistence, flexibility, priority, creativity, collaboration, revision, and even the classic Habits of Mind are all great places to start. So often what students learn from those around them is less directly didactic, and more indirect and observational.

Monkey see, monkey do.

10. There are constant opportunities for practice

Old thinking is revisited. Old errors are reflected on. Complex ideas are re-approached from new angles. Divergent concepts are contrasted. Bloom’s taxonomy is constantly traveled up and down, from the simple to the complex in an effort to maximize a student’s opportunities to learn—and demonstrate understanding—of content.

For professional development around this idea or others you read about on TeachThought, contact us.

Image attribution flicker user flickeringbrad and josekevo; 10 Characteristics Of A Highly Effective Learning Environment

72 Comments
  1. deserteacher says

    Thank you for re-emphasizing practice. As in Annie Murphy Paul’s recent article, “Don’t Just Learn-Overlearn,” students receive enduring knowledge and embedded learning patterns when the old slogan ‘practice makes perfect’ means working on automaticity and fluency.

  2. OMG! says

    This helped A LOT for my project!!!!

    But it didn’t really tell me what an affective learning environment is.

    1. terryheick says

      One where all students learn deeply? ; ^ )

  3. Jim says

    How do i cite this source in MLA format?

  4. Ellen Smith Fender says

    A learning environment that is student-centered, where students feel safe to be risk takers, where respect is the rule, where students give academic feedback to one another with probing questions and/or praise giving specifics about why the answer is correct, fosters the critical thinking necessary to increase the rigor of our classrooms so crucial for the world today. These are the tenets of Visible Thinking, Harvard’s Project Zero. The 10 characteristics above totally validate the characteristics needed to raise the rigor in the classroom.

  5. Lori Grace says

    Loved your post/article !!! The tone that comes from its content is exactly the stuff I want for my own kids when they are sitting within a classroom. Each of these tenets is great in and of itself, but I really loved 7 best. Yes, we have tomes of stuff that we could try to teach students/test them on…but none of it matters if students can’t find value from it, blend it with what they think and feel good about themselves while learning it. We all purge right?! Testing has shifted for me over the years to something more about getting the kid to stop, blend old with the new and feel like they can give themselves a checkmark for the day. Who really cares if I think they did well on a test or if they know chemistry forever. I really no longer do. They go home alone and hopefully I got them to feel like they got a checkmark in whatever they found important that day. That’s all a test is…just like the article mentions…a chance to change the tone. If we change the tone, we link good feelings to learning….common goal of us all right?
    Lori Grace, Founder/President RISE Educational Systems, Inc.

  6. juel rahman says

    Most important is asked question and answers is highly effective

  7. Ade Risman Nugraha says

    As in Annie Murphy Paul’s recent article, “Don’t Just Learn-Overlearn,”
    students receive enduring knowledge and embedded learning patterns when
    the old slogan ‘practice makes perfect’ means working on automaticity
    and fluency.

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  8. Heike Larson says

    Wow: this sounds pretty much like what happens in a good Montessori elementary program every day. I can easily name dozens of examples of this experience from just the past few weeks!

    Just one recent example: My 8-year-old and some peers noticed that some playground equipment was broken at a local park–so the teachers used that as an opportunity to teach formal letter writing. They learned proper formatting, worked on spelling with a purpose, learned how to be polite and specific in what they asked for; they addressed envelopes and walk to the post office to mail them. The city maintenance manager came to school and discussed how fixing playgrounds works–and how the children can contribute to keep them working. Their teacher gave them one-on-one feedback on their writing (with removable sticky notes, not an obnoxious red pen). They experienced success and efficacy: someone acted on their letters–and the playground actually got improved.

    You can see photos of this experience–and more from a good Montessori classroom–here: https://www.facebook.com/LePortSchoolEmeryville/posts/1502657256675783

    Things like this happen in good Montessori elementary programs every day. It’s just amazing that Montessori hasn’t quite caught on like the wildfire it should be. Let’s fan those flames!

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  14. Terri Richards says

    I love the “questions are valued more than answers” ideas. It seems that it is difficult for young students to pose good questions. The idea of giving them points is one I will incorporate. I think that starting at the beginning of the year and giving points for questions that at least pertain to the current discussion and then progressively expecting higher level questions might be a good strategy to get kids really thinking.

  15. Candice says

    I really enjoyed reading this article. The two characteristics that spoke to me were number one (1. The students ask the questions—good questions) and number two (2. Questions are valued over answers). I firmly believe in this. All questions are great questions. There is no such thing as a bad question in my classroom. I praise all students that ask questions because this is how we learn, especially young ones. I teach kindergarten and encourage my students daily to ask me for any clarifications any time they are curious or unsure of what was discussed throughout our lessons. I know our curriculum specialists at our district provide us with questions to ask throughout a given story, but I prefer the questions my students actually have for me and then I like to ask them some of my own based on what they just asked. This is how I can increase the rigor in my questioning and know they are still engaged and thinking because they are questions that were posed by my students. It also helps me gain knowledge of their background experiences from their questions about particular topics that allow me to stem from there.

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  70. Maranda Magnussen says

    I found this blog so important. Out of the 10 characteristics, the one that stuck out to me the most was “Questions are valued over answers.” I strongly believe that asking questions is an important part of learning. As a preservice teacher, I have come to realize that it’s important that we lead students into thinking and do so by teaching students to ask their own questions. Asking questions allows students to be more engaged in the material they are learning and also enhances their understanding. Curiosity makes learning much more effective and curious people always ask questions.

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