Creating Significant Learning Environments

If you want to be an effective teacher you need to have a significant learning environment.  “Why Are you doing this? How does one create a significant learning environment? What tools are required? What ideas need to be built upon to give students the best opportunity for learning?”  The argument presented in A New Culture of Learning is that the Arc of Learning revolves three ideas.  The first idea is play, which is the tension between the rules of the game and the freedom to act within those rules.  The second idea is that learning needs to be cultivated in a structured environment.  Finally, the writers argue that there should be a massive information network (the internet) that provides unlimited access and resources to information.


Behaviorism is the first learning theory that I want to look at. On its surface, it is the easiest learning theory to understand, because of its basic principle.  This theory of learning states, “all behaviors are learned through interaction with the environment through a process called conditioning. Thus, behavior is simply a response to environmental stimuli” (  The teacher provides the stimulus and the student learns based on their interaction with the environment.  According to prominent behaviorist Albert Bandura, students learn from modeling and observation.  Behaviorism is also focused only on the answer and not the process.  In the classroom, this can be seen with rote memorization.  As well, true behaviorism has a system of rewards. For example,  if you promise one of your classes that you will bring them donuts if they do well on a particular assessment, that is an example of behaviorism.  


Cognitive theorists such as Piaget  argue that learning takes place in relation to the total learning environment.  According to, “Cognitive learning theory explains how internal and external factors influence an individual’s mental processes to supplement learning.”  The focus on internal and external factors is more commonly known as nature vs. nurture. Cognitive theorists focus on comprehension, making connections with previous information, and application.  In short, cognitive theorists expect students to not only know the answer, but be able to explain how they got it; explain how it works within their frame of reference; and apply the information in life situations.


Constructivism is “an approach to learning that holds that people actively construct or make their own knowledge and that reality is determined by the experiences of the learner” (Elliott et al., 2000, p. 256). There are a few ideas that are central to the constructivist approach. First, educators have to believe that “Knowledge is therefore actively constructed by the learner rather than passively absorbed”(Cognitive Constructivism | Gsi Teaching & Resource Center, 2021).  Jean Piaget was a Swiss child psychologist. His research, which examined cognitive development, led “Piaget [to] reject[ed] the idea that learning was the passive assimilation of given knowledge.”(Cognitive Constructivism | Gsi Teaching & Resource Center, 2021). The Montessori method is an example of active learning  (Exploring the Pros and Cons of Montessori Education, 2019). The students learn to use hands-on assignments while moving to various learning stations. John Dewey, a major theorist of the constructivist method, would agree with the Montessori method in that he argued that students learn by doing and having rich, memorable experiences (The Difference Between Projects and Project-based Learning, 2019)  

The second constructivist idea is that all knowledge is socially constructed. Learning takes place within the confines of social activity, meaning we learn together “rather than an abstract concept” (Dewey, 1963).  Lev Vygotsky argued that all knowledge is socially construed, and the community helps the learner make meaning out of the information (Vygotsky, 1978).  The community is made up of the ‘More Knowledgeable Other,’ which is a mentor that guides the learner (Sprouts, 2020a). When the learner is properly guided by the ‘More Knowledgeable Other,’ the learner can reach the ‘Zone of Proximal Development’ (Vygotsky 1978). Dewey corroborates Vygotsky in that he makes the same argument that the teacher should be more of a facilitator/guide rather than the main focus.

The final idea that needs to be discussed regarding the constructivist theory of learning is COVA.  COVA has been researched by Harapnuik, Thibideaux, et al.  COVA is a student-centered methodology that focuses on student choice, ownership, voice, and authentic assessments.

 Now that we’ve gone through a brief explanation of some of the different learning theories, as well as the foundational principles found in a new culture of learning, let’s see how we can apply these ideas to the classroom to create a significant student-centered learning environment.   It should be noted that in the student centered significant learning environment classroom you will see pieces of each theory being applied.  Do I side solely with one view?  The answer is no, I think the best classrooms take pieces from each theory in order to make the best possible learning environment for the student. 

If we consider the classroom, the environment is set even before the students come into the classroom. The teacher provides the stimulus, and the students provide the response.   In a significant learning environment, the teacher greets the student at the door. I’m not saying that you have to have a special handshake for every student as they come in, but as your students enter into your classroom you need to make some type of small talk with them, give them a fist-bump, or compliment. 

In The Classroom

Once in the classroom, the classroom set up helps to set the tone for significant learning environment. From the behavioral  theory of learning, classroom setup can help your students be successful, or unsuccessful if the environment is not suited to learning. So for example we’ve all seen the movies and which the teacher stands at the front of the class and there are 15 kids in a row. that environment is not conducive to  student learning for those students are who are in the very back of the classroom.

What elements of actual classroom activities make up a significant learning environment?   if I was a constructivist, I would argue that project-based learning, group activities, educational play, debates and the inquiry method wouldn’t make my learning environment a place where students can thrive.   If I was a cognitive learning theorist, I would argue that lecture, peer tutoring, self-directed experience, and outside experiences would make my classroom a significant learning environment. Finally, if I was a behaviorist I would argue that students reading, writing, experiencing knowledge transfer, and doing activities such as maps would make my classroom a significant learning environment.

Let’s examine these various types of learning activities through the lens of COVA.  COVA is focused on student Choice, Ownership, Voice and Authentic assessment.  Some of the activities that fall under the choice category, would include inquiry, group work and even readings while preparing for debates.    Student ownership would be found in self-directed activities and experiences also and group work and in peer tutoring.   in a significant learning environment students can find their voice through inquiry, debates, group work, and play.   Authentic assessments would be found through project-based learning, play, as well as analysis.  It must be pointed out that COVA does not address teacher-directed activities, which include lectures, reading, writing and general knowledge transfer. 

My argument is that the significant learning environment contains all of these activities mentioned above and more. The significant learning environment classroom has to have elements of all three learning theories.   For instance, a true constructivist teacher would give their students a project that does not have boundaries. However, this is not practical in our current learning environment. As a result when giving projects, I use an idea that is presented in A new Culture of Learning.  Projects fall under the definition of play.  Thomas and Brown define play as the tension between the rules of the game and the freedom to act within those rules. A true constructivist theorist would not agree with boundaries. 

I would also argue that there are some items that have not been addressed so far in class, but they have to be present in a significant learning environment.  Trust! There is no significant learning environment that can be built without trust. The students have to trust that the teacher has their best interest at heart. Proof? We need only to go to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs; if the students’ physiological and safety needs are not met, their minds will not be prepared to learn. In our program we’ve made a big push regarding the Growth Mindset as set forward by Carol Dweck. I read the Mindset and I agree with the book, but I think that she leaves out trust. Here’s why this trust is pivotal.  If you tell a student that I need to fail forward, I’m not going to trust you because I have to get a passing grade. I do not want to internalize or hear anything about the Growth Mindset, feedforward or failing forward. However, if I trust that you have my best interest at heart, and I can make up the work that I didn’t do well on, then the Growth Mindset might be appealing to me.  If I don’t trust you, I am more likely to not respond, or be driven by my own motivations. Both of those choices won’t bring about a significant learning environment.  If you want to learn more about the Growth Mindset,  follow this link.  

What are the major issues that creating a significant learning environment will present? Organization on behalf of the teacher. There are numerous activities that hit on all three of the major learning theories, and the COVA corollary within constructivism. However, having my classroom organized well enough to do all of the activities previously mentioned, and many others will be tough. Secondly, while variety is the spice of life, as a teachers we get into the rut of doing the activities that we like over and over again. “Creating” means that we have to be open to experimentation. Thirdly, people who are great at what they do are weird. If you want to maintain the status quo, or continue to be average, then you will do what you’ve always done.  In order to “create”, you have to be willing to fail.  You have to be willing to be talked about.  You have to be willing to be an outcast. If you’re not willing to separate yourself from what the other people are doing in your department, or school, or PLC; you will only be as good as the people that you are following. Consider Goodlad’s thoughts about the classroom from 1984.  He recommended that classroom instruction time be changed from 70% of the class time that we use to transfer information in our classes to 70% of class time being focused on situations that involve acquisition of higher-order thinking skills and processes. If you told other teachers that this is your plan, they would make fun of you. 

So why should we create significant learning environments?  They will make our school sites better.  If our students went to 6 classrooms where they trusted the teacher, and they were involved in activities in the classroom that made them better learners, the entire school would improve. If we gave our students the opportunity to acquire tacit knowledge, that is learning by doing, and be in classrooms were there is passion and boundaries as pointed out by Thomas & Brown, the entire school improves. If our students went to 6 classes that allowed students to  make digital connections with curriculum that is technology enriched, the school would improve. Take a moment and look at my Innovation plan, that details how this significant learning environment can be created by using the flipped classroom and project-based learning.


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