Creating High Performance Learning Environments

The importance of setting high expectations for all students is a critical, and under-discussed aspect of high performance learning. In addition to setting high expectations, teachers need to be equipped with specific strategies to bring these high expectations to life for all students. Below, three videos have been selected, each showing a different strategy for creating a high performance classroom.

The first video is an excellent resource for STEM teachers looking for a creative way to teach physics. Using foam and marbles and other friction generating materials, the teacher engages students in the creation of “roller coasters” to learn key concepts of physics. The first thing that struck me about this task is that it looked fun, and it is clear that the students are enjoying the experience. At the same time, there is deep learning going on, as evidenced by the level of discussion the students are having, and the questions they are asking. Key to deeper learning is reflection, which the teacher cultivates through the “chime” strategy. Teams of students share their frustrations and struggles with completing the roller coaster, while other students “chime” in, first recognising the challenges shared by the first speaker, and then sharing the struggles they have also faced. Such a strategy not only reinforces deeper learning through reflection on the process of learning, it cultivates an atmosphere of empathy, as students are acknowledging each others struggles and triumphs.

The second video comes from a third grade Chinese language class. The teacher uses a call and response method, infused with a bit of humour and clapping, To judge from the level of proficiency of these youngsters, her strategy is highly effective. What struck me about the video is that it appears most, if not all, students are engaged and performing at a high standard. It makes me wonder what sort of norms are in place that can foster such an inclusive environment for learning. In the third video, based on the ‘Whole Brain’ approach to teaching, the teacher utilises movement and repetition to teach students Geography concepts. While this approach contrasts starkly with my own style and personality, I am intrigued by the strategy of having students embody concepts, such as longitude and latitude. What is also clear in the Chinese and Geography lessons, is that all students are focused on the task at hand. The strategies thus serve a behavioural as well as an instructional purpose.

Setting high performance expectations for my students

As alluded to previously, certain strategies seem to be personality dependent. While I respect the Chinese and Geography teacher for fostering an atmosphere of inclusivity and high performance, I relate much more to the “roller coaster” task, as it seems to me more student-centred, unpredictable, and fun. This may also have to do with the fact that, while I teach students ages 12 to 18, the classes are small, and the students are generally motivated to learn. Classroom management does not need to be a dominant feature of my lesson planning, or rather I pre-empt behavioural disruptions by consciously designing a classroom environment in which students move around, discuss ideas with each other, and use technology in creative ways. I am also a proponent of open-ended, inquiry approaches to learning, and the subject I teach–Humanities– lends itself perfectly to such an approach. If I were a language teacher, perhaps the call and response method used by the Chinese teacher would seem more attractive.

In sum, strategies to foster high performance classrooms are often dependent on the learning objectives, and the strengths and challenges of the specific students we teach. At the same time, common denominators for high performance learning environments do exist, and these videos suggest some of the features– keep learning active, driven by high level questions, with embedded reflection, don’t shy away from repetition if the learning objectives demand it, and engage the body as well as the mind.

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