Learning Environments

The Skinner Box is an ideal learning environment–for certain kinds of learning:

It’s safe to say that liberal learning, complex critical thinking, innovation, indeed all the higher-order thinking skills vital to the 21st century, are not well served by the behaviorist psychology represented by B. F. Skinner’s famous box. Yet as education has scaled up along industrial lines within a paradigm stressing ideas of management, our learning environments have come to bear a striking and disturbing resemblance to that infamous “learning environment” above:

Dr. Christopher Dede of the Harvard Graduate School of Education sums the issue up with this stark indictment of the boxes we’ve built for learning:

Learning is a human activity quite diverse in its manifestations from person to person. Consider three activities in which all humans engage: sleeping, eating, and bonding. One can arrange these on a continuum from simple to complex, with sleeping toward the simple end of the continuum, eating in the middle, and bonding on the complex side of this scale. People sleep in roughly similar ways; if one is designing hotel rooms as settings for sleep, while styles of décor and artifacts vary somewhat, everyone needsmore or less the same conditions to foster slumber.

Eating is more diverse in nature. Individuals like to eat different foods and often seek out a range of quite disparate cuisines. People also vary considerably in the conditions under which they prefer to dine, as the broad spectrum of restaurant types attests. Bonding as a human activity is more complex still. People bond to pets, to sports teams, to individuals of the same gender and of the other gender. They bond sexually or platonically, to others similar or opposite in nature, for short or long periods of time, to a single partner or to large groups. Fostering bonding and understanding its nature are incredibly complicated activities.
–Chris Dede,  “Theoretical Perspectives Influencing The Use Of Information Technology In Teaching And Learning,” in International Handbook Of Information Technology In Primary And Secondary Education, Springer International Handbooks of Education, 2008, Volume 20:1. Ed. Voogt, J., Knezek, G. Url: http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/978-0-387-73315-9_3 Doi: 10.1007/978-0-387-73315-9_3

In his presentation of this argument at the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative in January, 2007, Dede delivered a stinging conclusion in language more vehement than one normally finds in scholarly discourse:

We treat learning like sleeping. But everything we know about learning suggests that it’s like bonding, or at least like eating. And yet the very, very best of our high-end learning environments have less variety than a bad fast-food restaurant.

(Hear the excerpt from the original presentation by clicking here: “Our Assumptions About Learning Are Fundamentally Flawed.”)

It follows that learning environments should be more habitat than habitrail. Even the largest lecture halls should convey the expectancy of a drama not only witnessed by co-created by students. Learning technologies ranging from augmented reality to multi-point projection to online backchannels can begin to move our learning environments toward a richer, more personalized experience for learner and instructor alike.

We should also remember that lighting, temperature, seating, sight lines, even the art on the walls are themselves technologies, and play vital roles in shaping and enhancing the learning experience. Merely retrofitting a fixed-seat, generic-looking room with an LCD projector addressable only by the person at the front of the room is not a major step forward, and may in fact reinforce the worst of instructor-centered learning paradigms.

In The Invention Of Air, Stephen Johnson notes that the scientific revolution spread not merely through classrooms and lecture halls, but through coffeehouses, letters, and travel. In a lovely phrase, Johnson describes Joseph Priestly as “socializing with his own ideas.” Our 2020 learning environments should focus less on management and more on intellectual society, the connections within and among learners, customized and dynamic, that will stimulate and harness the best possible “connectome” in each learner.

As we consider how we at VT might build toward 2020, here are some possibilities:

  • Scale-up type learning spaces (of various sizes) on campus should be the norm in 2020.
  • The Math Emporium on steroids could be a 2020 model for a learning space that allows for both self-paced engagement with modules (part content delivery and part problem-based learning), both individually AND, equally important, with teams of learners—working together at a pod of computers—all prior to working with the faculty, who then mentor, suggest applications, and help students not only solve problems but find them (i.e., learn to ask better questions).
  • We need to build informal learning spaces more intentionally, and ensure they are placed where they will be most useful to learners. Part of this process will involve careful observation of learners over time, perhaps with a team of anthropologists. Of course such a process will need to be repeated regularly, so the infrastructure supporting these environments must be flexible and highly (re)configurable.
  • Faculty are a crucial part of the successful learning environment, but they will need to become more agile, creative, and learning-centered. All of these needs must be supported by organizational and professional structures and communities of practice, including the important elements of reward and recognition.



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