Powerful Learning Environments, In Theory and Practice: An R&D Agenda for the Next 50 years
We all want our students to become knowledgeable and resourceful thinkers and problem solvers, to develop productive dispositions and habits of mind, and to contribute meaningfully to their classroom communities and beyond.
I will argue that achieving these goals calls for reframing how we think about teaching, teacher knowledge, and learning environments. To begin, I want to refocus the way we typically look at classrooms. Rather than the starting point being a focus on the teacher, I propose we begin by focusing on the learner. The first question then becomes: What are the attributes of learning environments that support students in becoming powerful thinkers and problem solvers? And, how can such environments be characterized in ways that are “actionable,” so we can help teachers create them?
We have made significant progress in addressing this question. The Teaching for Robust Understanding (TRU) Framework identifies five key dimensions of practice: (i) the subject matter, including both content and disciplinary practices; (ii) opportunities for sense making and productive struggle; (iii) equitable access to core ideas for all students; (iv) fostering student agency, ownership of ideas, and identity; and (v) formative assessment as the glue that holds these together. Evidence indicates that if these five dimensions of classroom practice go well, students will emerge from the classroom as powerful thinkers and problem solvers; if any are problematic, they will not.
In typical hydra-like fashion, however, solving one problem creates more. The next set of questions then becomes: What kinds understandings enable teachers to craft powerful learning environments, and what kinds of tools and professional development will support teachers in developing such Teacher Knowledge? Note the capital T and K. Successful teaching rests on a foundation of personal, social, and institutional perceptions, understandings, skills and proficiencies that we have barely begun to understand and theorize, and classical conceptions of (small k) knowledge are not up to the task. We need to reconceptualize knowledge and work to support teachers’ development of this reconceptualized version of the underlying proficiencies for teaching. This is a massive R&D project.
I very much look forward to exploring these issues with you, in my Jubilee presentation and over the years to come.