45 Minutes, 28 Teachers, 76 Questions: Creating an Environment & Climate Conducive to Learning

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Chris Thinnes


If it is in fact true that transformative change in our schools will emerge from the ground up, rather than from the top down — if it true, as Sir Ken Robinson affirms, that we are ‘the education system’  — then the basic principles of how best to develop our school’s teaching practices are simple. This week, I got to take the first step on a collaborative journey with our faculty towards developing new criteria and protocols for faculty evaluation and collaboration, which will be developed with and by the faculty as an expression of teachers’ shared commitments, strengths, and goals — rather than by the imposition of an accountability framework from ‘above.’

For a variety of reasons, I have been inspired for a number of years by the idea that our teachers’ professional learning and collaboration should be governed by the same principles and objectives as our students‘ learning and collaboration. To that end, each of six domains from the framework of our Goals for Learning (Create – Understand – Reflect – Transmit – Include – Strive) will be invoked as we establish language to articulate our core commitments to effective teaching practice; design driving questions that will facilitate further inquiry among our teams; identify teaching practices that should be visible to teachers, learners, and observers; explore resources drawing on a wide range of expertise outside our community; and create our own rubrics for self-assessment, reflection, goal-setting, peer observation, instructional coaching, and administrative evaluation.

At our first inservice faculty meeting, I had the pleasure to facilitate a first session using the Right Question Institute’s ‘Question Formulation Technique’ — a fantastically powerful facilitation protocol that invites collaborators to formulate, analyze, prioritize, and activate driving questions that democratically identify the intersections of individual interests and shared priorities. Given our collective commitment to intentional practices that best invite students into a meaningful engagement with their learning — and the timing of this activity in preparation for our first week back with children — our first ‘Question Focus’ prompted a great exchange:

A teacher creates an environment and climate conducive to learning.

Within a ten minute span, mixed-grade level teams had generated 76 questions for crucial exploration on this seemingly innocuous but deliberately provocative statement, all of which I’ve shared in image files below. Following the analysis and prioritization of these questions, each group reported back on its three most important questions, leading to a list of 12 questions we’ll use as an anchor for our work on this project in the weeks to come:

  • How do you create the environment?
  • What constitutes ‘learning’?
  • How would the learning environment differ between teaching style and student needs?
  • How are different children’s needs met in such an environment?
  • Do teachers inadvertently affect the learning environment by their behavior towards the students?
  • What tools best provide a creative environment conducive to learning?
  • What does that environment look like?
  • What is the role of students/parents/school?
  • How do you know that learning has happened?
  • Whose responsibility is it to create the environment?
  • What does that environment look/feel/sound like?
  • How does the teacher ensure that the environment is conducive to every student’s learning?

I also exercised my option as facilitator to ask for permission to include a 13th question. This item spoke to a pattern among at least ten questions from various groups, each of which implied a lack of clarity or common understanding about physical/spatial elements of ‘environment’ versus social/relational elements of ‘climate’:

  • What are the key factors in creating an ‘environment’ and creating a ‘climate’ conducive to learning?

Following the further exploration of these questions by grade level teams and specialist departments in the weeks to come, as well as peer and administrative observation with the express purpose of examining these questions in support of our collective project, we’ll reconvene to identify some more concrete indicators of teaching practices that help ‘create an environment and climate conducive to learning.’ The goal is that these should emerge from the shared commitments and practices that have been defined inside our learning community on the basis of our collective experience and strength, rather than imposing indicators from an outside framework and, in effect, trying to take our temperature with someone else’s thermometer. The same will be true as we reiterate this process with each of the five other ‘domains’ of our emerging Goals for Teaching framework over the year.

I can’t wait to dig further into this work with our faculty in the weeks and months to come — and just wanted, for now, to memorialize this first contribution towards a project I hope to report on again in the months to come.

Now, after posting the images of our teachers’ great questions, I’ll return to the unmitigated joy and lunacy of the opening days of our year.

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You can follow Chris Thinnes on Twitter at @ChrisThinnes