Keys to Creating Significant Learning Environments

Dear Teachers,

This week I’m wrapping up everything I’ve learned in the “Creating Significant Learning Environments” class that I’ve been in the past month or so. It’s been a great class, and I want to share with you what I’ve learned.

I. A Growth Mindset

Most of us know someone who has at some point said, “You know, I’m just not very good at math.” I KNOW that that statement does not convey a growth mindset. I KNOW that people who say that, likely had a bad experience with a math teacher or were taught math in a way that didn’t work for them. I KNOW that I would never let someone get away with saying, “You know, I’m just not very good at computers.” (I’ve even written about that mentality in the past here.) So I’m a little embarrassed to admit this to you, but I still view myself as someone who is Not Good at Math. I try to fight that perception, but it’s there.

My mother married my stepfather when I was 13. My stepfather was a math professor at a local university, and I was just starting 8th grade Algebra. I was a kid for whom learning (read: good grades) had come very easily when I was in elementary school, and to say I didn’t know how to deal with it when math became challenging is a huge understatement. I was awash in my own feelings of failure about math, and also in my own desire to please the new stepfather, who I was quite sure wouldn’t like me anymore when he realized how fundamentally DUMB I was. Clearly, I could have used a dose of the growth mindset way of thinking, and of the power of the word yet – but if anyone thought about those things in the early ‘70’s, they didn’t trickle down to my neck of the woods.

“Yet” is such a simple but profound word. Yet communicates faith that learning can and will take place. Yet is full of possibility! If anyone had just said to me, “You don’t understand algebra yet,” that could totally have changed my own view of my mathematical abilities. (Years later in a Child Development class, I learned that the Piagetian view of abstract thinking kicks in at around age 12-14. I’ve wondered if I had waited a year to start Algebra, whether my opinion of my math skills would be far more positive than it is today.)

I’ve certainly grown up a lot in the multiple decades since my math self-esteem began its rather hasty descent, but I still fall into the old fixed mindset habit from time to time. According to Carol Dweck, there are four steps to changing a mindset. The first, recognizing the fixed mindset voice, encourages us to simply be aware when we are engaging in self-talk that perpetuates the “you can’t do algebra” kind of voice. The second step is acknowledging the choice we have in how we view setbacks or perceived failures. Third, talking back to the “fixed mindset” voice with alternative narratives can combat its sway. Finally, take the growth mindset action: the one that adds the word yet, the one that encourages learning from a setback and trying again, and the one that accepts responsibility and takes action. This kind of mindset also encourages asking a question that became my favorite from a previous course’s readings, “What am I pretending not to know about my role in this situation? ” (Patterson et. al., 2011) – a very powerful and profound way of owning our own responsibility in pretty much any situation.

Applying these four steps to developing a growth mindset to my innovation plan for improving digital literacy through student-created content, I want students to be aware of the power of yet both when they are creating their own videos and when they are viewing others’. As they are creating content, it’s not likely that their first attempts will be their best, so teachers will need to encourage their students’ efforts and help them think through what would make their creations better. And as end users, students likely won’t be able to use every tech tip right away; they’ll need to pick and choose which content would be most helpful to them and come back to the site if they need a refresher on how to do something.

Developing a website of student-created content for the benefit of others is a completely new endeavor, and getting if off the ground isn’t easy (I just got a vision in my mind of the Wright brothers’ early flight attempts). I have just received attorney approval for the project, along with a quite lengthy and dense lawyer-generated release form that sounds to me like its purpose is to actively discourage parents from allowing their students to participate in the project. I’ve gotten some feedback from parents (ones who haven’t even seen the permission form!) who indicate they wouldn’t want their kids spending time on content creation either during class or after school. They don’t see the value in the project or the benefit to their own kids and wouldn’t want either instructional time or homework time “wasted.” Yet.

I remain undaunted. Okay, maybe I’m a little daunted. But my own growth mindset is keeping me optimistically forging ahead, confidently believing in that beautiful little word yet and focusing on the wonderful group of teachers who are already working to help me realize this crazy dream of mine. I hope I have conveyed adequately to each of you who are invested in this plan how very much I appreciate you all and your own belief in its merit. It will be a beautiful thing when we reach the yet.

II. A New Culture of Learning

I briefly reviewed The New Culture of Learning  by Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown. The main points struck me as rather profound: “(1) The old ways of learning are unable to keep up with our rapidly changing world. (2) New media forms are making peer-to-peer learning easier and more natural. (3) Peer-to-peer learning is amplified by emerging technologies that shape the collective nature of participation with those new media (location 577).” We live in an age where information is easy to come by, and it’s the evaluation and use of that information that is so much more important than any one disparate fact. And things change daily! Updating my phone or just accessing a social media site always reminds me how very quickly things can change, and that I shouldn’t get too attached to any one user interface. Peer-to-peer learning is at the heart of my innovation plan for improved digital literacy through student-created content, and it’s exciting to see that concept validated in Thomas & Brown’s work.

III. My Learning Philosophy

The basic points of my learning philosophy, outlined in more detail here, are:

The person doing the work is the person doing the learning. All learners must be willing to ask the questions, do the work of learning, have the requisite mindset, and be willing to grow and change. The “work” of learning must be firmly in the learner’s own hands.
Learning is a social endeavor. Learners who talk things out and work things out together cement learning in ways they could never do on their own. Collaboration always leads to better results than solitary brilliance.
Deeper learning occurs when learners have opportunity for reflection. Reflection is a huge part of developing a growth mindset, thinking through what one has learned, and goals for future learning.
Learning should involve choice, ownership, voice, and authority. Giving the students the opportunity, within certain parameters, to choose how they will demonstrate their learning empowers learners.
Teaching and learning is a partnership based on relationships. I have always believed that the foundation of any good teaching has to start with relationships. Good pedagogy and a solid curriculum can’t be ignored, of course, but at the end of the day, most people probably remember more about how a teacher made them feel than any particular things they learned.
In the information age, no one can know everything. Everyone has a piece of the information puzzle, and this collage of knowing presents opportunities for anyone to learn from anyone else, anywhere. I’m as likely to learn something new from my grandkids as I am to learn from a colleague or a professor.

IV. BHAGs and Fink’s 3-Column Table

At the same time that students are busy creating content for a website, I also want to have a course in digital literacy and digital citizenship for the grownups in our district. As I thought about what this course could look like, I considered how significant learning experiences can be planned with the help of backward design principles that keep the focus on the end goal. So I used Fink’s taxonomy to plan out what a course would for adults would look like and created a Big Hairy Audacious Goal. My BHAG for a course on digital literacy and digital citizenship for the teachers in my district is that Learners will be equipped with tools to improve their own digital literacy and digital citizenship, and will create authentic opportunities for their students to develop positive digital habits. Even though I just kind of doubled my own work load on the whole digital citizenship thing by adding this component to my innovation plan, I’m very excited about how all the pieces are coming together. We NEEEEED to get everyone on board about digital literacy and digital citizenship, y’all. Like, yesterday.

V. Understanding by Design

Another way to plan significant learning experiences for a digital citizenship course from a backward design perspective is by using Wiggins and McTighe’s Understanding by Design framework. The same overarching goal (the BHAG above) applied in my UbD plan. I’ve always liked UbD for its emphasis on transfer goals, because if a learner can apply something learned to a new situation, then that is certainly a growth mindset in action! My wheels are turning, thinking about how I can use both Fink’s taxonomy and the UbD framework to design a course for which teachers could receive professional learning credit.

I continue to think about what it really means to create significant learning environments, both for my particular passion project and just in general. My growing understanding of significant learning environments today includes having a mindset full of possibility and the word yet; encouraging students to learn from one another and to use all available resources to access new information; and planning thoughtfully, with the end results and goals in mind. But mostly it means focusing on the learners and on their needs to work for and own their own learning, to discuss and reflect on their learning, and to give them a voice in how they express that learning. Imagine what the world of education could look like if every teacher in every classroom tried to create learning environments like that!



Patterson, K., Grenny, J., McMillan, R., & Switzler, A. (2011). Crucial conversations. McGraw-Hill.
Thomas, D., & Brown, J.S. (2011). The New Culture of Learning. CreateSpace Independent Publishing.

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