Designing a positive learning environment

The role of teachers is changing. With the access to information available to students online, our primary role is no longer a content delivery system. Rather, we are now tasked with cultivating literacies associated with “whole-child” development. In addition to the traditional emphasis on cognitive development, we now support students to develop affective traits such as “grit”  and “mindfulness.” On paper, the task is clear. However, there are very few teachers with a background in child psychology, or who are well-versed in theories of human development. Adding to these challenges are the processes of Globalisation which have resulted in classrooms with vastly different beliefs, experiences, and interests. Creating a classroom climate that values this diversity is a challenge, though not one that a bit of creativity can not overcome.

Differentiated instruction is essential. In practice, this can mean arranging your classroom in a way that allows for both collaborative discussions and individual projects. It also means designing tasks that allow meaningful access to students with a range of strengths and interests. Designing assessments in a “one size fits all” format is easier for the teacher, but it fails to recognise that each student is unique. A third form of differentiation which is not discussed as much is the differentiated use of technology. Yesterday I assigned an Infographic to my grade 9 students. On the task description I asked them to use the application ‘Piktochart’ as I’m familiar with it and can therefore offer support for students who need it. Several students asked if they could use alternative applications, such as Canva. My first reaction was negative…”why not just use Piktochart? I’ve shared a youtube tutorial blah blah blah..” There was no sound reason for this response. Students were ultimately given their choice in applications as they should have been given from the start. Student choice is essential for a classroom climate that respects all students.

In addition to differentiated instruction, assessment, and technology, it is important for students to be exposed to acts of tolerance and intolerance, to be able to recognise them when they happen. My Grade 10 students are currently engaged in a unit on Genocide. The focus has been on understanding Genocide as a process that begins with an “us and them” worldview, and then advances to acts of discrimination. Grade 9 is doing a comparative study of the Jim Crow South and Apartheid South Africa. Again the emphasis is on identifying prejudice as it appears on a daily basis, the imperceptible and thus most dangerous forms of prejudice. The director of the Hong Kong Holocaust Tolerance centre has generously offered time and resources to co-teach the unit on Genocide. Last week someone who had lived in South Africa as Apartheid was being dismantled joined our class to share his experiences. Both of these guests impress upon the students that these horrific events are not sealed away in some distant, uncivilised past, but are rather possibilities for any age that lacks the courage to stop it.

The inquiry statement for the unit on Apartheid is “overcoming systems of oppression requires activist inspired change.” This is another important aspect of cultivating tolerance. Students need to feel empowered to make meaningful change. However it is hard for them to identify with Ghandi or Rosa Parks. It is important to highlight courageous acts that students engage on a daily basis



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