Janet Goodall, Associate Professor, Swansea University, UK
When I was asked to write the editorial for this issue of the Chartered College of Teaching’s journal, I was flattered and very happy to do so, having been an advocate and supporter of the Chartered College since its earliest days. And the topic, of creating effective learning environment for all the young (and not so young) people within our educational systems, may never have been more relevant than it is today.
In examining the idea, or indeed, the imperative, of creating effective learning environments, we are immediately confronted not with solutions, but with a series of questions – the answers to which will, if not lead to a solution, at least set the parameters within which the solution(s) may be found.
The questions which occur to me all centre around definitions. The first is what we mean by ‘learning environment’, and this is closely followed by what it means for such a thing, once we have defined it, to be effective. Who defines effectiveness in this area, and on what basis? We can’t answer these questions, however, until we have answered a more fundamental one – what do we mean by learning?
Learning is one of those concepts which, like love, justice, truth and beauty, is easier to point out than to define; this has not, of course, stopped scholars in their attempts to find a definition. The fact that there are still ongoing debates about what learning is (Singh and Thurman 2019; Cronje 2020; Taie et al., 2021) points to the fact that we do not have an agreed, simple definition of the term. Most of us can recognise learning when we see it, we can plan for it and aim for it, but we can’t quite catch hold of it. In fact, after thinking about this for many years, I tend to return to the idea of learning not as a set instance or experience, but as a process; I agree with Dewey, who holds ‘…. education, therefore, is a process of living and not a preparation for future living’ (Dewey, 1897).
This definition, however, leaves us without a way to determine if learning has taken place, which is not helpful if we’re seeking to understand how learning can be made more efficient. We might do better to add other work around learning, and note that this process of living is one of change in the learner (De Houwer et al., 2013) and, for the purposes of deciding what is effective, this change should be somehow demonstrable and measurable.
This is not the end of the story, though, particularly when we are talking about learning in the realm of education (or, more narrowly still, in the realm of schooling). As Biesta has pointed out, ‘The educational demand is not that students learn, but that they learn something and they do so for particular reasons, that is, with reference to particular intended outcomes’ (Biesta, 2012, p. 583).
The particular outcomes in much of the discussion about learning are, of course, standardised measures – test scores, GCSE and A level marks, degree classifications, Pisa scores. However, the title of this editorial has an extra phrase: ‘post Covid’. We’ve learned a number of things over the last two years, and I’d like to argue quite strongly that we don’t lose sight of our own learning.
We’ve always known that learner wellbeing is important, but the focus on wellbeing has rightly intensified over the past two years – and not only on learner wellbeing, but family wellbeing and (importantly, but not enough yet) on teacher wellbeing. A focus on wellbeing is not necessarily in tension with academic achievement and the pursuit of measurable outcomes, but I would argue that learning needs to be not only for a particular end but also geared towards the wellbeing of the learner, those supporting learning and society more generally. This expands the scope of learning beyond what can be measured by simple scores, but I suspect comes much closer to the concept of learning that led most of us into this profession in the first place.
We’ve also learned, very clearly, that learning need not be tied to the classroom. In theory, of course, we’ve always known this but the past two years have demonstrated that learning can take place outside of the classroom and, perhaps more importantly, can be supported beyond the classroom.
You’ll note that I’ve not used the phrase, ‘school closures’ here as I feel that term is remarkably unhelpful – many schools didn’t close physically and almost none stopped supporting learning – while some of the buildings may have closed, the work of the schools most certainly went on. And while there are definite values to be had in returning to physical classrooms, we must not lose sight of all that we have learned about supporting learning outside of the classroom, and about supporting others, particularly parents, carers and family members, to support learning.
I think we are closer to a definition now – an effective learning environment, post Covid, is one which is focused on learning rather than on place (e.g., it is where the learner happens to be); it is one that enables a wide range of people (teachers, other members of staff, parents, carers, grandparents, sports coaches – the list goes on) to support learning. And it is most definitely an environment that has the wellbeing of all involved at its very heart.
This is actually quite a challenging vision – it starts by asking not, ‘How will we know what is learned?’ but rather, ‘What impact will this process of learning have on the learner and those around them?’. This vision challenges us to see learning, and the work to support learning, as part of a much greater whole.