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Chapter 7: A-1. A positive classroom climate/environment for learning

April 19, 2005


Recent developments in neuroscience have shown the connection between cognition and emotion (LeDoux, 1996), the interconnectedness of mind and body (Pert, 1997) and the potential, negative effects of longterm stress on memory and learning (Sapolsky, 1998). We now recognize the brain as a complex organism in which various systems, including memory, thinking, and emotions function simultaneously, along with physiology, to interact with the environment. We draw extensively on the work of Caine & Caine (1997, 1994) who have studied the implications of neuroscience research for education.[1]

Emotions have a powerful influence on thought and shape the learning stored in memory - in fact, are critical to learning (Pert, 1997). Complex learning is inhibited by threat, whether physical, social or emotional.

We also recognize that language - and knowledge - is constructed in a social context (Vygotsky, 1986), strongly implying the social nature of the brain. One of the primary driving forces for children to attend school is to socialize, to be with their friends. This represents a tremendous energy source that can be harnessed for learning. Developing relationships, whether with adults or with peers, is powerful in the search for meaning. So often have we heard young people express an interest in a particular subject, only to find out that it was the teacher rather than anything intrinsic to the subject that had initiated the child's interest in that field of study.

Learning is most effective when it is embedded in meaningful activities, when students are able to recognize the larger context of the topic they are studying, rather than doing something because it is "make work." When students feel that their efforts will make a real contribution or are truly valuable, learning becomes meaningful. Complex learning is enhanced by appropriate challenge.

We have now come to understand that much learning goes on unconsciously, and for this reason, perceptions may be more important to learning than reason. What we communicate to students non-verbally through gestures, tone of voice, eye contact and other indicators, is more powerful than what we express verbally. Students will always put more faith in their perceptions of a teacher and her behavior than what the teacher might say verbally.

Classrooms are very public places (Erickson, 1998) - everyone knows who does what and how well or how badly. According to Erickson, performing in school is "risky business," especially for students who do not do well. They have a number of ways of responding, including withdrawing, not trying, or becoming the class clown.

All these issues point to the importance of developing a positive environment in learning, a climate in which children (and adults) feel secure and willing to engage in appropriate risk-taking and know that they will be supported in their efforts. ESL students, for example, need to feel confident that their mistakes will not be laughed at. We suggest that within a positive environment, learning should be viewed as knowledge construction, rather than simply the acquisition of skills or of facts. While both skills and facts are important in the schooling of all children, it is through knowledge construction that students and teachers alike will find increased opportunities for meaningful learning.

Sample strategies for developing a positive classroom environment for learning are described below. Susan Winebrenner (1996), in Teaching Kids With Learning Difficulties in the Regular Classroom also presents specific activities and suggestions to create a welcoming environment for all students.

  • Ice Breaker Activities: Various activities fall under this category and although normally introduced at the beginning of the year, can also be used to introduce a new topic or unit. Some teachers feel uncomfortable with what may appear to be frivolous activities, but ice breakers serve very important functions in the development of a class esprit de corps: they initiate a sense of membership within a group and immediately set out the expectation of participation from everyone. Additionally, ice breaker activities can be used to recognize - and address - student emotional concerns; student expectations for the class or subject can also be elicited.

    A resource book of ice breaker activities that also promote team building can be found in Newstrom and Scannell's (1998) The Big Book of Team Building Games. Some ice breaker activities include the following:

    • A Grounding[2] : Based on a North American Indian tradition implemented at the beginning of group meetings, A Grounding asks each participant to declare basic information, including personal experience of the topic, expectations, and feelings for the meeting. A Grounding always begins with the individual furthest away from the front of the class, and as each person speaks, all other members make eye-contact with the speaker and no interruptions are allowed. It is important that the Grounding include an emotional component (how the students feel about the subject or topic). In this way, any negative feelings can be identified and addressed. The Grounding also allows the teacher a window into commonly held expectations of the class.
    • Business Card: On index cards, each student writes a business card with information about him or herself to be shared with the rest of the class. In each corner of the business card, information such as countries the individual has lived in, favorite foods, best activity or particular talent may be written. On the back, the individual's expectations for the course might be stated. Individuals then introduce themselves to the whole group, disclosing information they wish to share. We have found that when students open themselves up in this manner, trust is created and the self-disclosure is respected by other students.
    • Crest Activity (adapted from Newstrom & Scannell, 1998): Similar to the business card but on a crest or shield divided into sections, students draw information about themselves in response to prompts posed by the teacher. These might include: 'Draw something you are very good at'; or 'How do you like to spend your free time?', 'What is your favorite saying?' Students then find a partner who will guess the contents of their crest. Partners will then introduce each other to the whole class. This activity focuses on the positive attributes and strengths of each individual.
    • Say Hello to Someone Who . . . (from Winebrenner, 1996, p. 6): On a sheet of paper headed with the title for this activity, set up a 4 x 3 matrix with a descriptor in each cell, such as: "Stayed in town all summer," "Is new to our school," "Wears contact lenses," "Has an unusual pet," etc. Students spend 10 minutes identifying other members of the group who would be able to fit specific descriptors.
    • Say Hello to Someone Who . . .

      Stayed in town all summer

      Is new to our school

      Has an unusual pet

      Has an August birthday

      Loves to eat pasta


  • Assumption Wall[3]: On colorful "bricks" of construction paper, students write their assumptions on a given topic in response to a question posed by the teacher. As students finish, they tape their "bricks" one by one onto a display space, thus building a "wall of assumptions." Although not strictly speaking an ice breaker, this activity helps to elicit student assumptions and emotional concerns about a topic so that they might be addressed during the course of the unit.
  • Small Group Work: Many exceptional students have difficulty socializing with peers and may feel intimidated when asked to participate in whole class activities. Structured, small group, cooperative techniques alleviate much of the anxiety of participation and also provide opportunities for exceptional students to practice social skills. When mutual goals are established, and ideas, material and information are shared, a collaborative partnership also develops in which students learn how to learn with one another. For an excellent review of the importance of small group work as well as for sample techniques, see Teaching Secondary Students Through Their Individual Learning Styles, by Dunn and Dunn (1993).

Teachers will need to make decisions about group size and composition, and consider how specific students might work together. Often, the task will dictate the optimum size for each group, but generally, three to five students per group are manageable for ensuring participation from all members. Students will probably need training in cooperative and small group work.

A valuable reminder comes from Coreen Sears (1999), author of Second Language Students in Mainstream Classrooms (1998), to take the time to explain our expectations for small group work to parents of ESL children. Particularly for those adults from more traditional school settings, small group work and the concomitant expectation of constructive language interaction within the group may appear frivolous and lacking in seriousness and discipline.

Examples of small group techniques follow:

    • Team Learning (Dunn & Dunn, 1993): This is a peer-oriented, small group technique developed by the Learning Styles Network to introduce new and/or difficult material. The class is divided into groups of four or five and a common text is assigned for learning. Following the text, three levels of questioning are assigned that reflect low, medium and high level cognitive processing. Students work as a team toward completion of all the questions, after which there is group discussion and comparison of answers.
    • Brainstorming (Dunn & Dunn, 1993): Many teachers now use brainstorming to develop multiple answers to a single question or alternative solutions to problems. In small groups of four or five, a recorder writes student responses on a single, large sheet of paper. The recorder's job is to synthesize, summarize and/or paraphrase contributions of the group. Rules for participants are:

       1. Concentrate on the topic—"storm your brain."
       2. Fill the silence - call out what pops into your head.
       3. Wait for an opening - don't step on someone else's lines.
       4. Record the thoughts in short form.
       5. Record everything - no matter how "far out."
       6. Repeat your contribution until it is recorded.
       7. Be positive - no put downs, negative body language, or editorial comments.
       8. Stay in focus - no digressions.
       9. Use short time spans - one to three minutes.
      10. Analyze later - add, subtract, plan, implement.
      11. Brainstorm from general to specific subsets (p. 136).

    • Jigsaw (Aronson, 1999): Developed by social psychologist Elliot Aronson soon after mandatory racial desegregation of schools in the United States, the jigsaw technique serves to promote cooperation and interdependence within members of a group. Sections of text are divided among all the groups in class and each group then becomes expert in the one section of the assigned text. Following an appropriate amount of time for study, students are re-distributed to form new groups so that the composition of the resulting groups is made up of experts from each of the original ones. Thus every new group has all the necessary information to complete an assignment, but group success relies upon the participation of all individual 'experts.' Thus, regardless of the individual's place in the social structure of the class, each person has an important and indispensable role to play in completing the assignment and is unable to opt out of participating.

    • Think, Pair, Share: Students have time individually to respond to a question. After some time, they turn to a partner to share and discuss their thoughts. A variation of this is known as "Pairs Squared," in which two pairs get together for a discussion on the same topic.

    • Group Write: Students in the group produce a single piece of writing that reflects their collaborative efforts. Students then sign the paper to indicate their agreement and participation in the effort and a group grade is assigned.

    • Numbered Heads Together: In teams of four, students number off and then listen to the question posed by the teacher. All students discuss the answer to ensure that every group member is able to respond to the question. The teacher calls a number and every student with that number stands ready to answer the question. A variation of this strategy would be to have students write the answer so that everyone standing can respond simultaneously.

    • Grouping Strategies: There are a number of methods teachers can use to group students, and there will always be occasions for which ability grouping or friendship grouping may be desirable. We suggest, however, that when teachers use varied grouping strategies for small group work, they will be setting the expectation that every member of the class will, at one time or other, be expected to work with everyone else.

      Varied grouping can be done in a number of ways. For example, students may line up in order of birthday, or by height, or by proximity of birth to the present location, and then "count off" by the total number in the class divided by the desired size of the small group. This random grouping gets students mixed out of friendship and self-selecting ability groups. 

  • Student Feedback Sheets: Periodically requesting student feedback on lessons provides a valuable opportunity to "take the pulse" of the class. Written responses to questions on the content and delivery of a unit give students a chance to think about their learning and to inform the preparation of future lessons. We have often asked students for comments on specific aspects of our pedagogy, e.g. the pacing of a lesson, in order to adjust our planning for the next class. This type of student-teacher collaborative relationship models for students that everyone in the class is a learner.
  • Signal Time[4] : Our perception of time grows faster as we grow older, and as teachers we frequently expect students to complete assignments long before they are ready. This simple technique puts control of time in the hands of the students and serves to reduce threat and anxiety by reminding students to stay on task and focused for the time remaining in the activity. The process works by asking students to signal with their fingers the number of minutes they require to complete the assignment. After a quick review of the numbers of fingers raised by each group, announce the average number of minutes the whole class requires to complete the task. An extension of this strategy is to announce to students that '5 minutes are left' before the assignment comes to a close. This allows everyone an opportunity to prepare for the change in pace or class activity.
  • Student Work: Teachers in other international schools have suggested that student work can be effectively used to promote a positive class climate. Photographs of students engaged in activities and student selected exhibitions of work are both effective bulletin board displays that communicate the value of students within the classroom.

[1] Please see Chapter 4 on The Inclusive Classroom for a more detailed reflection of Caine & Caine's 12 principles of brain based learning.
[2] A Grounding and the Assumption Wall were contributed by our friends and colleagues, Arthur Costa and Robert Garmston (1994) from their work on Cognitive Coaching.
[3] See previous note.
[4] Again, we thank our friends Arthur Costa and Robert Garmston (1994) for this strategy, taken from their work on Cognitive Coaching.

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