What Creates A Great Learning Environment?

What do children think makes a great school?

Teachers and researchers are normally pretty good at telling each other what qualities make an effective teacher or a great learning environment. They also can’t agree.

But what happens when we ask children? What do they think? Kate Parker’s article in the Tes gives us some pretty interesting insights about what primary and secondary children think. They asked a range of schools from across the UK and here’s what came out in the top 10:

Primary top 10

  1. “Kind teachers who listen, care and love us”.
  2. Extracurricular activities.
  3. Friendship.
  4. Creative, fun and exciting lessons.
  5. Good outside environment to play and learn in.
  6. Vibrant learning environment.
  7. Keeping healthy and fit.
  8. Happy children and happy teachers.
  9. Engaging reward systems.
  10. Safe buildings.

Secondary top 10

  1. Range of extracurricular activities.
  2. Great and supportive teachers.
  3. Safe and supportive community.
  4. Great facilities.
  5. Enjoyable, personal and practical lessons.
  6. Mutual respect between teachers and students.
  7. Great pastoral care and extra support.
  8. Diversity, equality and inclusion of the student body.
  9. Range of subjects.
  10. High aspirations and encouragement to get the best result.

Should we take note of these findings? Well, they are an insight, nothing more. Only 47 schools were sampled and there are over 32,000 in the UK so opinions will inevitably vary and a different top 10 could easily be produced by asking different schools.

But nevertheless, they tell us plenty about what some children see as being important. What stands out for me is the importance pupils place on being supported and cared for. This might not be much of a surprise but this reminds us all that teachers are trusted adults who really make an impact and our pastoral responsibilities are awesome.

All you need is love

A love of children is what teachers need first and foremost but how many teachers are there that don’t actually like children?

Quite obviously many children are not blessed with secure backgrounds where they are loved by attentive parents. Some children have such troubled situations that their teachers are the only positive adult role models in their lives. Schools have to be places where children can feel loved and secure. If you don’t love children then you shouldn’t be in the profession.

Teachers who can relate effectively to their students and who provide them with a warm and loving learning environment can have a profoundly positive effect on their social and academic lives.  As de la Rosa (2005) found

The ultimate and singular quality that is called excellence in teaching is all about loving, that is, loving the students, loving the teaching process and loving knowledge, which is concurred with in general by the participants in this study.

For many parents, the academic side of school is obviously important but personal development, emotional health, behaviour and welfare are crucial. When primary pupils talk about teachers who “love us” they mean that – some see their class and school as a family and community so teachers who respect them and show them compassion, kindness, empathy and warmth are teachers that they like.

Teachers can feel wary of the word ‘love’ around children but pedagogical love translates as professional care and support, being a constant in a child’s life and having a “diet of positive resonance“. Teachers and children spend more time together than with their own families so naturally bonds will develop whereby children come to see their teachers as part of their family.

Mary Dennis (2012) found in her research that love has to be present in a classroom and without it children don’t do as well. She found the teachers she studied all said “showing affection and making personal connections with students were vital in a child’s success.”

She studied what it means to love a child in the context of the classroom and found it a multi-dimensional concept that presented itself in a variety of ways – see page 65 and Figure 7- Ways in Which the Participants Exhibited Love. The diversity of pedagogical love makes it hard to define but Dennis refers to Joan Wink and Dawn Wink (2004) in their book Teaching passionately; what’s love got to do with it? who say

What does the face of love look like in a classroom? It turns out that it is highly diverse. The face of love in a classroom can be deep and abiding respect for people and for learning; it can demonstrate safety. It can radiate a freedom to think, to grow, to question. The face of love for learning can be quiet, thoughtful, and reflective. Love can also be lively and fun. Love in the classroom is as diverse and complex as the learners and their needs and the perspectives, experiences and philosophies of the instructor. Love can connect the teacher, students and curriculum.

So the bottom line is actually all about pedagogical love and being “affective pedagogues” (Patience, 2008). You’ve got to love your pupils and love your job – if you don’t then it shows. As Dennis (2012) argues, we don’t get training in pedagogical love but if it was offered to all trainee teachers then it would likely have “a transformative effect on education”.

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