Four key elements of an effective learning environment and practical strategies to achieve it in a rural environment
Axium Education is an NPO based in Zithulele, in the rural Eastern Cape. For the past two years, DGMT has supported three of its educational programmes: the Community Reading Programme (in-school early literacy support for Grade R-3), the MasaKHANe programme (after-school Maths and English support for Grade 6-9) and the Ekukhuleni programme (after-school/weekend Maths, Science and English support for Grade 10-12).
In this guest blog post, Axium shares four key elements of an effective learning environment, and practical strategies they use, in a rural environment, to achieve these goals.
For effective learning to happen, learners need a safe, active environment in which they experience a sense of belonging. Across Axium’s programmes, this is the kind of environment we aim to create – which differs significantly from the rural school environments our learners are used to. The main differences pertain to a feeling of safety: safety to talk, to get things wrong, and to feel safe from physical threat.
Challenging school environments, and the significant socio-economic barriers learners face, make it difficult for teachers to create an ideal learning environment. As a result, Axium learners move between very different learning environments on a daily basis.
Here are four ways that we’re working to create an effective learning environment, and assist learners with the transition between school and enrichment programmes.
- Speaking in the classroom
We’ve found that dialogue – among learners, and between learners and teachers – encourages original thought, confidence, and a range of higher-order thinking skills. However, when learners first join our programmes, they are reluctant to speak aloud. In their classrooms, learners raise their hands, wait for permission, and stand up to speak. This drawn out formality doesn’t encourage natural discussion. Learners also seem to fear answering incorrectly, and so they aren’t likely to suggest an answer unless they’re sure it’s right. Large class sizes mean that most learners aren’t used to being invited to speak during lessons, except in a ‘chorus’ style.
How do we encourage discussion and speaking, and create space to be “wrong”?
First, we simply tell new learners that they should feel free to suggest answers without waiting and standing. As learners spend more time in this environment, they suggest answers more freely and are more vocal. Second, we intentionally dedicate time to informal conversation. This creates a natural discursive dynamic between learners and teacher, which we are able to transfer to focused discussions. Third, Axium teachers encourage and emphasise the value of “wrong” answers. We try to give feedback on any contribution, whether right or wrong, and seek to reward courage rather than correctness. Finally, there are efforts in English classes to include a good deal of discussion-based activity and drama.
- Encouraging positive relationships and tackling inhibition
We seek to help learners develop positive relationships with teachers, and with the learning process. Some of the traditional aspects of their schooling may give learners the idea that work is done to satisfy the teacher, rather than for enjoyment or stimulation. Corporal punishment in schools creates inhibition and fear, and can result in negative relationships between teachers and students.
How do we tackle negative relationships and inhibitions?
One way in which we encourage positive associations and relationships is through the early bonds formed by the Community Reading teams in surrounding primary schools. The team emphasizes learning while having fun. Songs, games and storytelling are important parts of the programme, and the Community Readers bring a comforting and fun physical presence to the schools they visit. Even though this is often still experienced alongside corporal punishment (administered by school staff), it helps dismantle the fear many children associate with learning.
- Using the physical environment
The physical environment is an important aspect of the learning environment, although one that we cannot always control. Our programmes operate in a variety of settings, from a dedicated classroom to school fields or a tent.
When we have a dedicated classroom and can control the teaching space, we organise it intentionally. Useful strategies include:
‘Speech Bubbles’. We use blackboard paint to create “speech bubbles” on the wall, and invite learners to pose or answer written questions. It’s relatively cheap to implement, and gives learners opportunities to “write for real reasons”. Putting their ideas up on the wall also affirms learners, and makes them co-developers of their learning space.
- Reading corners. Our reading corner is popular, and often where learners go first when they arrive. A reading corner is especially important in a ‘text-poor’ environment, where learners need as many opportunities as possible to engage with texts. Since most schools don’t have libraries, we teach learners to take care of books and let them take books home to read. It’s difficult for teachers to implement something similar in overcrowded classrooms, but a ‘library on a line’ may be possible, where books are hung on a wire or string. (Teachers were enthusiastic about this idea at a recent training, though we haven’t yet seen them take it up.)
- Seating set-up. Learners sit around tables, which allows for more group interaction. At school, learners are used to sitting ‘lecture style’ – in straight rows, often with three learners at a two-seater desk. While sitting around a table sacrifices some of the ‘order’ of traditional classrooms, learners have adapted to use this productively in discussion and group work.
When we do not have permanent control over our teaching spaces, this is how we’ve tried to use the physical environment:
Outside space. We often use outside spaces as learning environments. For example, students may write stories and poetry based on things observed outside. This helps children dissociate the activities from their usual routines, sparks active participation, allows us to use the surroundings as learning stimuli, and refreshes attention spans.
Igniting creativity with props. Classrooms in our context have limited resources for teaching. We often use surrounding objects such as broken bricks, disused desk frames, sticks or chalk dusters as stimuli and props for drama pieces and stories. For example, during storytelling, children have used a blackboard duster as a cell phone and a blade of grass to represent a forest.
- Effective facilitators
Axium’s team grows and changes over time. As new team members arrive, it’s important that they understand the role of an active, safe learning environment – and how to create one.
How do we teach facilitators about active, safe learning environments?
Facilitators need to experience this kind of environment themselves, during training, team meetings and workshops, to see its positive effects on their own learning. In this way, we hope that mindsets are changed, and a new learning culture begins to take root. We want all Axium facilitators to be equipped and motivated to create a safe, active learning environment regardless of the physical setting they work in.
A final word
While the learning environment that we aim to create is very different from the norm in many local schools, we do not wish to undermine the respect that children have for their school teachers, and aim to understand why traditional pedagogy is prevalent.
Lecture-style teaching is possibly the only way to deal with the huge class sizes. Similarly, many teachers believe corporal punishment to be wrong, but see no practical alternative when it is part of the established culture and when class sizes are so large. Simply expecting teachers to stop using their traditional system would be ineffective and untactful, and would demonstrate a lack of understanding and empathy for their daily reality.
Our approach is to model an active learning environment and demonstrate that it produces results. At the same time, we aim to help the learners caught in between to navigate both of these worlds. We hope that in time, as trust and understanding develops, the positive effects of safe, active learning environments will begin to shape the way learning happens in rural classrooms – here and elsewhere.