Charting the Scope of Teaching and Learning Environments

To the teachers, students, parents, school leaders and administrators, and community members of Winooski and Burlington: Hello, and welcome back to school!

My name is Amy Dickson, and I’m the Teaching and Learning Environments fellow for the Partnership for Change this year.  I am thrilled to be back in Chittenden County after ten years living in the Boston area; I grew up here in Burlington, and am a proud graduate of BHS (class of ’95).  I’ve spent most of my professional career at Prospect Hill Academy, a racially and socio-economically diverse public charter school based in Somerville and Cambridge, MA.  In my nine years there, I taught high school biology, led the science department, and coached new math and science teachers.  I’m now delighted to be home and to have the opportunity to dive into the innovative, collaborative remodeling efforts of Winooski and Burlington high schools.

I spent the summer thinking a lot about how to define the focus of my fellowship year.  My guiding question is, How do we create teaching and learning environments that provide ALL students with the skills and mindsets that they’ll need in order to thrive, in their careers and in their communities?  But when I consider how to begin answering this question, the focus on teaching and learning environments is dauntingly broad.  It seems to encompass just about everything related to school, and to overlap significantly with several of the other fellowship areas.  I came to this fellowship with many of my own interests and passions related to teaching and learning, and also with a deep commitment to having the needs and interests of WHS and BHS teachers and students to be the primary guides for my work.  How would I sort out the top priorities and find a more specific focus for my fellowship? Conversations with some of the people who are already deeply immersed in this work have helped me to begin organizing my thoughts.  Five key elements that shape teaching and learning environments have emerged: space, time, people, resources, and culture.

  • Space – the physical environment where teaching and learning occur. Experimentation with physical teaching and learning environments is already happening in both high schools:
    • In BHS’s ninth grade academies, English and social studies classes are held in adjacent classrooms with removable walls.  This physical change is allowing teachers the flexibility to use team teaching strategies that have many positive outcomes: teaching interdisciplinary units that dissolve the (often artificial) boundaries between the two disciplines, which allows students to develop skills in more real-life, complex settings; and permitting flexible groupings of students that break down the barriers between honors and college prep level classes.
    • The new WHS iLab was designed from scratch to be a place that encourages student autonomy and engagement.  Based in part on brain research showing that people learn more when they are physically comfortable, the iLab room offers many seating options – chairs at a table or a desktop computer, chairs with individual desks, two comfy couches, and an array of brightly colored beanbag chairs.  All of these furniture elements are moveable, encouraging students to find the configuration that works best for whatever individual work or collaboration they’re engaged in a given moment.  The impact of this physical design was evident on the first day of class in the iLab, when one of the first questions students asked was, “Can we work in here after school, or during a study hall?  This space is just so calm, and comfortable, I think it’s really going to help me stay focused.”
  • Time – the scheduling of teaching and learning during the day, the week, and the year.  Is the one-size-fits-all model of the 8 am to 3 pm school day the most effective for engaging all students?  Or could more flexible timing provide more effective structures for ensuring that all students learn the skills they need?  Ideas for more flexible timing include options for late-start, late-end school days for interested teachers and students; online learning opportunities that students pursue on their own time; and weekend and/or summer opportunities to support students’ progress toward achieving graduation expectations.  The BHS YES program, designed by BHS teachers, is one example of a shift in the school year calendar that promotes student-centered, interest-driven, often community-based learning opportunities for students.
  • People – the groupings of students and teachers that form each teaching and learning environment.  What classroom groupings of students are most effective at promoting the maximal growth and engagement of all kids?  How can teacher teams promote better support systems for each student, and richer opportunities for interdisciplinary work?  The 9th/10th grade humanities teams at WHS, and the 9th grade academies at BHS, provide excellent places to look into the effects and possibilities of teaming.  At BHS, it has also raised some challenging questions.  What would it look like to move to a system of heterogeneous grouping for 9th graders?  How could this happen in a way that provides appropriate supports and challenges for all students?  This is a complex and often divisive issue, one that challenges my own thinking about the purpose of schooling and the best ways to achieve equity.  But this makes it all the more interesting, and important, to explore.
  • Resources­ – the materials for teaching and learning.  What are the “texts” from which we teach and learn?  Where do we go for information, and for problems to solve?  How can we best use textbooks, other print resources, electronic devices, people and places outside of the school walls… in order to find information, gather evidence, create academic work, and share it?  Because of the 1:1 technology initiative that is part of the Nellie Mae grant, I’m particularly interested in how to use laptops and iPads as tools to enhance student-centered and proficiency-based learning.  Already in my first few weeks at BHS, I’ve seen BHS biology and chemistry classes using this technology for student exploration and presentation – so the science department is one place I’ll start in learning more about this initiative.
  • Culture and Mindset.  All of us who’ve ever been students know that even when all of the above are held constant, different classroom environments can have incredibly different feels, and can promote incredibly different experiences for students.  This comes from a less tangible, but arguably even more important aspect of teaching and learning environments – their culture and their mindset.  What do students and teachers believe is their purpose and their responsibility in the learning environment?  What do students and teachers truly believe about the potential for growth and achievement of each student?  The communities of BHS and WMHS are already exploring several great resources for shifting classroom culture in ways that promote student growth, engagement, and proficiency with 21st century skills:
    • Design Thinking provides a structure for real-world, problem-based, and often community-based learning that can be incredibly engaging and empowering for students while giving them authentic experience in building their problem-solving, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration skills.  Dov Stucker (BHS teacher and CBL Fellow of 2012-13) has written about design thinking in previous blog posts and crafted a YES course about the future of Burlington’s waterfront that used this pedagogical model.
    • Carol Dweck and others’ research on the growth mindset can have a profound effect on students’ and teachers’ views of each person’s potential for learning.  BHS teachers read Dweck’s book over the summer and discussed its implications for teaching and learning during inservice training a few weeks ago.  I have seen the power of this mindset in action (and have a related blog post in progress – stay tuned!)
    • Proficiency-based learning, which is a Partnership focus area all on its own, is intimately connected to teaching and learning environments.  When teachers and students buy in to the notion that every single kid must gain proficiency in a set of essential skills and understandings, everyone’s sense of responsibility for that learning deepens in a fundamental way.  Proficiency-based learning was the focus of a Partnership trip this summer to Eagle Rock School, and this prompted teachers at both BHS and WMHS to make commitments to piloting proficiency-based learning in their classrooms.  (I’ll write more on this in the coming weeks!)

Finally, a word about teachers.  As I consider all these aspects of teaching and learning environments, I think not only about how they impact student learning, but also about how they can shape teachers’ experiences of working in our schools.  How do we create school environments that nurture teachers’ creativity and insight, that feed our need for professional growth and development, and that provide space and time for true collaboration? I know there’s no way I can even begin to tackle all these aspects of teaching and learning environments during my fellowship year.  Nor do I want to.  What I’m looking for is this: within this framework, what are the highest-impact areas of inquiry?  Where is there energy, interest, or need for further investigation and action research?  Already, conversations with WHS and BHS teachers and administrators are helping me to identify key issues.  If you have ideas or suggestions to add, send me an email (amy[at] or comment on this post.

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