Conditions for Learning
By JEFFREY L. MITCHELL
What do you hold sacred about your children’s education?
Of course, it varies among parents. But are there commonalities regarding what parents hold in high regard?
Throughout the 2018-2019 school year, based on my experience as an educator and parent, I’ll explore what I believe are critical overarching features of a quality educational experience. I’ll cut a large swath across the educational landscape, in the exploration of what I think are the essential features of a quality education.
The previous three articles in this series have focused on care / connection, mission and communication. This fourth article focuses on optimal conditions for learning.
I never teach my pupils, I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.
― Albert Einstein
Volumes have been written about the classroom conditions under which optimal learning occurs. Yours truly even spent several years working on his doctoral thesis on this topic. With the recognition that I can only hope to scratch the surface in this article, I will highlight a few conditions that optimize learning.
The reader should be aware that the quality of the teacher herself will not be considered in this piece but assume that all the “conditions” mentioned below depend mightily on the quality of the teacher.
Conditions for Learning: Individualized Attention
Learning is optimized when teachers truly know their students. Teaching is a highly relational profession and success hinges on the quality of the relationship teachers establish with their students.
Individualized attention starts with knowing every student’s name but also includes — knowing every student. At Currey Ingram, I like to talk about how the faculty and staff not only know student personalities but also know their students’ brains. That is, we have a deep understanding of how they think and thus how to configure instruction to accommodate them.
Individualized attention would necessarily and comprehensively improve if the number of students in the classroom were reduced. All other things being equal, a revolution in education and society would occur if we reduced the number of students in classrooms … not easy by any stretch of the imagination due to the front-end costs of staffing. However, these costs must ultimately be compared with the back-end costs of students not maximizing their potential.
Maximizing individual attention via smaller class sizes is aspirational, systematically incorporating an evidence-based approach as a condition for learning is well within the grasp of most educational settings.
An evidence-based approach is one that ties instructional practice directly to well-established research. You might think schools are always doing this but that it not always the case. We, including me in my career, sometimes latch onto the latest fad or trend in education because it sounds interesting or unique. For example, a lot of the technology-related instructional interventions have not proven to be truly evidence-based.
On the other hand, high-quality, specific feedback in the educational setting, whether teacher-to-student, school-to-parent or administrator-to-teacher, has proven to be a powerful evidence-based condition for learning. In fact, improving feedback is among the most impactful ways to improve the educational outcomes of students (see John Hattie’s work).
Executive Function Skills
Executive functioning describes processes involved in planning, selection and execution of actions that are purposeful and adaptive, goal-directed and future-oriented, and socially informed. Executive functioning is the liaison between the potential of people and ultimate outcomes. In short, very important.
There are three general categories of executive function skills: cognitive, emotional and interpersonal. Cognitive executive function skills include planning/prioritizing, organization, time management, cognitive flexibility, self-advocacy and critical thinking. Emotional skill development includes impulse control, empathy and stress tolerance. Finally, interpersonal skill development includes understanding social cues, decision-making, leadership and adaptability.
Just by listing some of the elements of each of the executive function skill areas you get a sense of the important role they ultimately play in all personal and professional facets of life. More and more schools are recognizing the importance of these executive function skills and intentionally and explicitly establishing executive function instruction as a condition of learning.
What do you think are the most important conditions of learning? I welcome your thoughts on this or any other Extra Credit topic.
Dr. Jeffrey L. Mitchell is head of school at Currey Ingram Academy in Brentwood, Tennessee.