Debate Magazine

A Great Learning Environment is Not Hard to Create

By Stevemiranda

Yesterday, I wrote about two assumptions we make when forcing students into required classes: 1) because they’re taking the class, students will therefore learn the material, and 2) there is no backlash, and the requirement is strictly a value-add proposition. I argued that both of these assumptions are false.

Tonight, I want to write about a third false assumption: if we don’t require students to take classes, they’ll just sit around and do nothing.

In truth, however, this is only partially false. Let me explain.

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In a poorly managed environment, it’s entirely possible that most students would simply sit around and do nothing. If the adults present were not interesting or they had adversarial relationships with students . . . if learning were a solitary pursuit and the student had to overcome major obstacles to obtain the necessary resources . . . if kids did not feel emotionally safe, like they’re at risk for experiencing humiliation or shame on a moment’s notice . . . then I suspect many students would not want to engage in the learning process. They might sit around and do nothing.

But a great learning environment isn’t hard to create. In fact, millions of parents do it every day for their babies and toddlers. They fill their child’s room with all kinds of toys and then let them explore. The child will constantly, relentlessly demand that mommy or daddy read them a book, because words and stories are fascinating to them. We don’t need to take toddlers to walking school, we just watch for signs that they’re trying to figure it out and cheer them on, occasionally holding out our hand in case they need support.

Human beings are born wanting to learn things. We’re hardwired for it. It’s one of the evolutionary advantages that got us here.

A great learning environment for teens is not much different. Hire talented teachers and give them the autonomy they need to share their gift with kids. Create a culture of emotional safety so that kids are free to be themselves. Constantly, relentlessly expose them to new experiences and interesting people. Finally, hold them accountable for the things that really matter, like honoring one’s commitments, persisting through obstacles, and setting high standards for one’s self.

If you immerse a teenager in a rich learning environment like this, she’s going to want to learn. And if for some reason she doesn’t, it’s hard to imagine that forcing her will get you the outcomes you desire—remember, just because you require her to take the class does not mean she will learn the material.

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I’m lucky enough to work at a school that provides a rich learning environment. We don’t require students to take any academic classes, and we don’t give anyone grades. And yet, every school day, students—from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds—show up for classes ready to engage.

* * *

There is one story I like to tell that illustrates the point. A few years ago, I was chatting with a senior who had gotten into the college of his choice and had earned all the credits he needed for a diploma. I knew he didn’t enjoy writing, and had acknowledged to me that it was one of his least favorite activities. Yet, I noticed he was enrolled in a course called “Academic Writing.”

I asked him, “Dude, why did you sign up for this class? You told me you hate writing.”

He replied, “Steve, I’m going to college next year. This is one area where I still need to improve my skills.”

He walked away, and I thought, “That’s exactly what a grownup would say.”

When you don’t require students to take a prescribed academic program, but instead provide a rich environment in which they learn to pursue opportunities that serve them, you teach them the most important lesson of all: they are in charge of—and responsible for—their own education.

You teach them that they are in charge of—and responsible—for their own life.

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