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Learning-enabled design and architecture - a new paradigm

Raghav Podar
21st Mar 2017
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If students have the fear of exams instilled in them and have been pressurised to believe they are the be-all end-all of their lives, we have set them up for failure, not success.

The Union Budget for 2017–18 has asked for learning assessment in schools. This is the best news we have heard in a long time. But to ensure learning assessment is indeed possible, we need to structure a learning environment that supports optimal learning and its measurement.

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The philosophy behind all these heavy words is simple — children don’t flourish in environments they don’t like. In fact, they don’t even learn in environments that are inhospitable. ‘Priming’ the mind for an activity is a much researched subject in Ivy League schools across the world.

I often ask the audience in my education workshops, generally school leaders, what they think is the right mood for a child to be in when they’re beginning a lesson. Typical answers range from the child should feel positive/happy/ should not be hungry/should not be sleepy etc. While all these are important criteria, the most important is that the child’s brain must feel challenged, curious, and must see a purpose to the lesson.

If a child’s brain is not in this state of mind when entering a lesson, you can rest assured the ‘teaching’ is not going to result in much ‘learning’.

A child does poorly in two Math tests and starts believing he’s no good at it. Yet, he fails 15 times at a video game but still tries to conquer it the 16th time. This is because his brain is still challenged, curious, and left with the purpose of wanting to go to the next level.

So let's understand what this learning-enabled design and architecture really is.

Developing the correct learning environment is a cultural and technical science, vital to student success, which impacts students in many ways. As Peter Drucker says, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast!” Hence, a school that pays attention to the learning environment is creating a conducive physical, psychological, and instructional atmosphere that goes beyond student-teacher ratios, avant-garde furniture, etc.

Strategy is a statement of intention, and hence schools can strategise all they want, but if they don’t focus on developing a positive culture, they are missing the wood for the trees!

Let's look at three things:

  1. The physical atmosphere includes the use of space, how the furniture is arranged and organised, how materials are stored and maintained, how clean the classroom is, and the overall colour and brightness.
  2. The psychological atmosphere includes the teacher’s calm, patient demeanour and is focused on helping students learn, both intellectually and socially; maintaining positive control of the classroom by being a role model for kind words and actions. She knows that students react negatively when they feel things are unfair, unclear, or are worried about getting in trouble.
  3. The instructional environment is the setting for all teaching. This includes factors such as how teachers plan their instruction to make sure students are able to comprehend by using different teaching practices such as lecture, hands-on activities, collaborative learning groups and plenty of small groups, and individual practice.

Such a balanced learning environment provides self-fulfilling, secure experiences where, in the process of reaching the learning outcome, the child builds self-confidence, self-esteem, critical thinking, and all other essential life skills.

Such a learning environment could be a classroom, a laboratory, a garden, or even the stairs, where the child’s brain is engaged. It is the intangibles — those that cannot be touched or seen, but only felt — that actually define the learning environment, also known as the school’s culture!

A study was done in schools across the UK to decipher what percentage of students enter the right mood before 1) A sporting activity 2) An exam or a test 3) Homework

The results were not surprising, but yet demand an urgent call to action.

  1. 90–100 percent of the students surveyed were in the right mood while entering a sporting activity.
  2. This fell to 10–20 percent for students entering an exam or a test.
  3. It fell even further to 0–10 percent of students while starting their homework.

I am afraid the numbers in India would be around the same, if not worse. If students have the fear of exams instilled in them and have been pressurised to believe they are the be-all end-all of their lives, we have set them up for failure, not success! By stressing them out, we have got their bodies to release the chemical cortisol, the body’s natural response to stress. Cortisol in small doses is fine, but with the amount of stress kids are put through, unhealthy levels of cortisol flood their brains, specifically the pre-frontal cortex, or what I call the CEO of the brain as it controls the executive functions of the body.

What results is sub-optimal performance. In the mundane rigmarole of strategising classroom designs, student-teacher ratios, procuring student-friendly and ergonomic furniture, and securing the most qualified teachers, many schools have missed what truly defines the school learning environment. It’s about time we woke up and started focusing on what’s actually important — developing the school culture!

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