Creating a Safe Environment for Students to Fail and Learn

By Jonathan C. Erwin, M.A., author of The School Climate Solution

Creating a Safe Environment for Students to Fail and LearnAs a former middle and high school English teacher, I love metaphors. And actually, metaphors are very practical: They are a wonderful teaching tool, helping people clearly see that which otherwise may be obscure. One of my favorite metaphors relates to teaching:

Educating students is like growing a garden.

Imagine an empty lot, one that we want to transform into a lush flower garden. As those responsible for this garden, we might begin by hiring a well-respected landscape architect to create a design for it. In education, we, as a nation, have spent billions paying teams of experts to create federal, state, and local curricula. Once we have our garden design, we might then hire a knowledgeable landscaper to plant, fertilize, water, weed, and nurture our new garden. Similarly, in schools, we hire the best teaching candidates, expecting them to use the most effective instructional and classroom management practices available so our students learn and grow to their potential.

In time, we will need to evaluate our garden based on how we originally envisioned it. After our evaluation, we may need to make adjustments—moving a plant into a sunnier spot, watering more or less frequently, and so on. Similarly, in schools, educators use a wide variety of assessments to evaluate students’ learning: formal, informal, formative, summative, standardized, teacher-created, and more. As in the gardening scenario, the results of the assessment may call for adjustments or improvements. In such cases, educators may reexamine and revise curriculum, instructional or classroom management practices, and/or the assessment tool, in hopes of better scores on the next assessment.

Common sense tells us that these three elements—planning (curriculum development), planting and nurturing (instructing and managing), and assessing and adjusting—are everything we need to create a beautiful garden (educate our students).

However, a fourth element, which seems so obvious that we may not even consider it, exists: the climate in which we attempt to grow our garden. If the landscape architect, who is from the American Southwest, doesn’t consider the climate of our garden—say, southern Quebec province—many of the flowers and fruit trees he plants won’t survive the harsh winter. His design will fail. No amount of tending will make much difference.

Similarly, if we don’t attend to the climate in which our students are “planted,” we, as educators, will also fail—no matter how well-designed the curriculum or how effective the teaching.

Of course, it’s true that some varieties of plants can thrive in a wide variety of climates, just as many students can learn and thrive in almost any learning environment. However, just as the vast majority of plants thrive only within a limited range of temperature, rainfall, and other climate factors, most students require specific school climate conditions in order to reach their “growing” or learning potential.

If we do not seriously consider the climate in which our students and educators are striving to meet the highly challenging Common Core State Standards, we are doomed to repeat the pattern of examining and revising our curriculum, instruction, and/or assessments while continuing to achieve the same unsatisfactory results. Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results: Isn’t that the definition of insanity?

Gardeners have found ways to control the physical climate in which they garden—greenhouses, artificial light, automatic watering, and so on. They understand the specific needs of the plants they are trying to grow and adjust their environment to meet those needs. As educators, we too can have a profound, positive impact on the climate in which we educate our students. By understanding what students need and intentionally creating a needs-satisfying classroom and school climate, we can create a learning environment in which all students can thrive.

The Components of a Positive Classroom and School Climate
Based on over 50 years of research by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, and research conducted by the National Center for School Climate, we know three conditions are needed for students to thrive and learn.

1. Safety and Order
Students need to know that while they are in the classroom, they are both physically and emotionally safe. Here are some ways teachers can create a safe and orderly environment:

  • Provide clear behavioral and academic expectations from the very beginning.
    Teach effective procedures for practical tasks and instructional time that provide a sense of order. Examples include getting students immediately engaged upon entering the room, taking lunch count, transitioning between topics or activities, collecting student work, distributing and collecting materials, cleaning up, moving from place to place in the building, and so on.
  • Teach students that it’s okay to fail—that unless we fail, we can’t learn to our potential. Discuss the process of learning to walk or learning to beat a video game. Multiple failures are necessary in order to achieve our goals. Teachers need to provide multiple opportunities to succeed. Mastery or competence-based learning is based on the reality that students learn at different rates, but all students can learn.
  • Hold conferences with struggling students. To return to the garden metaphor, when we have a tomato plant that is struggling, we don’t yell at it, punish it, bribe it, or deny it plant food or water while praising and rewarding the plants that do grow. Instead, we try to discover what the tomato plant needs and provide that. With a student, instead of using extrinsic motivation to make the student comply, have a conference with the student and discover the underlying cause for his or her poor performance. It could be she or he has a fixed mindset (“I’m just not good in math”), is missing important background knowledge, doesn’t want to appear stupid in front of peers, has problems at home, or any number of issues. If you discover the underlying concern, you can address it directly instead of continually using coercive techniques.

2. Positive Relationships
An optimum learning environment is built on trusting relationships not only between students and their teacher, but also among the students in the class. Try these ways of creating a sense of community:

  • Share appropriate personal information with students.
  • Attend students’ sporting events, plays, concerts, and other extracurricular activities.
  • Establish healthy boundaries. Explain what students can and can’t expect from you and what you will and won’t expect from them.
  • Integrate team-building activities and games into the classroom.
  • Hold regular community meetings.
  • Smile before the holidays (as opposed to the old cliché that urges teachers not to do so).

3. Social-Emotional Learning (SEL)
Responsibility, empathy, honesty, perseverance, and self-control are essential characteristics of students in an optimal learning environment. These traits don’t just happen naturally by hanging posters about them or by naming hallways in our schools (Respect Avenue). They must be intentionally taught and integrated into the curriculum. There is not enough space in this blog to describe all the ways we can teach the skills and sub-skills needed to demonstrate these traits. However, many excellent SEL resources are available from CASEL (the Collaborative for Social Emotional Learning), Free Spirit Publishing, and my book The School Climate Solution.

Research shows that classrooms and schools that intentionally focus on creating a positive climate demonstrate significant improvements not only in student learning and achievement, but also in attendance and graduation rates; student behavior; student attitudes toward school, others, and themselves; teacher retention; and incidents of school violence. It’s time to stop our obsession with curriculum, instruction, and assessment, and focus on creating a climate in which every student, every individual flower, if you will, in our classroom garden can thrive.

Author Jonathan C. Erwin, M.A.Jonathan C. Erwin, M.A., has been a secondary English teacher, professional development specialist, college professor, and director of training and curriculum for a federally funded character education program. His previous books include The Classroom of Choice (ASCD, 2004) and Inspiring the Best in Students (ASCD, 2010). Jon is currently an independent educational consultant, a senior faculty member at the William Glasser Institute, and a trained HealthRhythms facilitator. Jon’s work focuses on providing research-based approaches to teaching, managing, counseling, and training that appeal to intrinsic motivation and help children, adolescents, and adults develop physically, intellectually, emotionally, and socially. A musician and martial arts enthusiast, Jon has earned a second degree black belt in karate and a first degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do. He lives in western New York.

The School Climate SolutionJonathan Erwin is the author of The School Climate Solution: Creating a Culture of Excellence from the Classroom to the Staff Room.


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