The effects of the learning environment on children

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Before talking about procedures for developing language skills, when referring to effective teaching, a more essential factor comes into question and that is the learning environment. At an early age, children learn constantly, at home, from their parents, siblings, neighbours, family friends and many others, and at school from their teachers and colleagues. People, as well as other components of the learning environment - space, time and things - are or have to be available for every child because they contribute to and facilitate learning.

Space can be planned to increase the child's natural distractibility or to reduce it. Properly planned space promotes suitable conditions for learning. The design of the classroom space can make communication possible, and allow each child to develop his ability to finish tasks and achieve satisfaction in doing so. (Nash, 10)

On can say that the first thing any teacher has to do at the beginning of a new school year is to set up the classroom space. Of course, this should be done according to what utilities the school offers. And since not many schools in Romania provide a separate classroom for the learning of English, a teacher should try to set up the classroom space by always keeping in mind that other subjects are taught in the same room and its arrangement should somehow be universal.

SETTING UP THE CLASSROOM

To start with, it has become clear that students that sit in the front and centre rows of desks participate more to the lesson than those who sit in the back of the classroom. Even though desks in rows are still seen as very effective - for all students are facing the teacher and the blackboard and have little chance to talk to one another - there is place for improvement. For instance, in a U-shaped desks arrangement, there are no students sitting in the back, hiding themselves from the teacher. In this way, students face one another and the teacher and are involved more in the lesson. Still, this kind of arrangement requires a large space and is impossible to achieve in a small classroom, because there should always be some space left for student movement and equipment.

Placing the teacher's desk is not as important as it would seem to be. Whether it is placed in the back or to one side of the classroom (student-centred environment), in the front or in the centre (teacher- directed environment), a teacher should pay great attention to how it looks:

A neatly arranged desk with interesting objects, such as a plant, a pencil holder, or a family picture, sends a clear message to students that you value neatness and order and that you are willing to share some personal aspects of your life. A disorderly desk piled high with books, papers, and other "stuff" sends a clear message that you are not well organized and may not hold students accountable for neatness in their work. (McLeod et al., 10)

Desk and classroom furniture arrangement is thus the first step in creating an effective learning environment for elementary school children. It may not be easy for the English teacher to always make the changes that he or she considers suitable for a classroom, which is why an English laboratory is advisable in every school.

As for the regional environment, there is one problem that persists in Romania in that a school is mostly regarded by pupils as separated from the outside world. In "Education and child development", the author uses an example:

I recall visiting a school in Montana where outside the windows were mountains, vari-coloured rocks, wild flowers, fossils, and so on. But none of these were in evidence within the classroom. Some aspects of the immediate surroundings of a school should be brought indoors to make the school more continuous with the environment. (Wal, 258)

As this is clearly also the case in Romania, children often go to school as if they went to a place that they see as a prison in which they have to stay six hours a day. The ten-minute break they have is obviously not enough for them, considering their energy and eagerness to play and have fun. But, by somehow trying to include in a classroom various natural elements, such as hamsters, flowers, fruits or maybe little trees, this problem would be solved. It will be ideal to achieve a classroom that would be in the eyes of a child as appealing as nature or home. And there is no need to mention that a classroom that presents no interest for pupils will make them always look outside, getting distracted from the lesson.

According to the 20th century Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget, a classroom should encourage figurative, operative, and connotative learning for children in order to achieve an active participation on the part of the children. When referring to classroom arrangement, replacing the usual rows of desks with child-sized tables and chairs seems to be a good idea, facilitating mobility and flexible grouping. But a teacher will soon notice that elementary school children tend to take full advantage of the desks' mobility and will push or move their desks several times during the class so as to be closer to a colleague or just as a result of the energy in which they abound.

It is clearly not easy to decide on what bests suit the needs of pupils, but even clearer than this is the fact that, because of the difficulty they are face, teachers often tend to let things as they are.

The process of learning can be encouraged by different things. The next subchapter will deal with selecting the best materials to become part of the classroom space.

THINGS

Again according to the Swiss psychologist, figurative materials could include English reading books or exercise sheets. Operative materials include materials brought to school by pupils themselves, material that, at least during the English class, will be thought of as having an English origin: shells, pine cones, leaves, stones, and others. Connotative materials could include pretty much everything from paints, displays, sculptures to flowers and animals.

DEVELOPING A CULTURAL ISLAND

As said above, since most Romanian children at the primary level learn in the same classroom different subjects, it is difficult to have learning objects that could facilitate exclusively the learning of English. But what a teacher can do is to make use of what a classroom already has and help children see an object from different points of view. Thus, having all the equivalents of the classroom objects in English, students can easily make the transition to the cultural English background. Or another method would be personalizing at least one area of the classroom, area which will receive an English name and various items (flag, map, pictures with English pictures) are to be constantly changed. When teaching new English words, all these materials are very useful, since children will find it easier to relate new words to actual things that they are surrounded by.

"Decorating" the classroom or a part of the classroom with different works done by the pupils as the school year progresses (drawings, written work or other projects) gives the children a sense of aesthetics and it lets them feel that all they have been working on is worth seeing by others. Making children believe in the importance and worthiness of their study is something that many teachers ignore.

Encouraging the students to transform an ordinary classroom in their own by contributing to its decoration will also give them a sense of responsibility and sharing. Colourful wall decorations, visual aids, live plants that are to be taken care of by pupils and many others contribute to the physical effectiveness of the classroom.

And then, having the classroom space all set up, it is now time for the teacher to give the setting an English background. Every single material surrounding the pupils is from now on to be seen as English. Of course, during the English class, English is to be used as much as possible so as to encourage and help children react to words such as "look", "listen", "repeat", "say" and "answer". As said above, "the foreign language period should constitute a complete immersion in the foreign language and culture" (Finocchiaro, 96). Romanian is to be used only to clarify instructions when no other means of conveying the meaning to pupils has proven to be successful.

There are several ways in which one can create a cultural island in the classroom. For example, inviting a native English speaker, to whom children can address questions about a certain topic of interest, and to the gestures and facial expressions of whom they can relate the things they have learned about the English culture. Children should also be given and use their equivalent names in English during class. Or teachers may advise pupils to choose an English name for a doll (for girls) or a robot (for boys) they have at home, and to imagine that English is the only language they can speak. In this way, the cultural island is somehow maintained at home. The more contact with native songs, poems, and dialogues children have, the more authentic the English class period will be, because "children must be given the feeling and the conviction that language is a functional means of communication and not a school exercise. Anything that can be said in their native tongue can be said as well in the foreign language" (Finocchiaro, 97).

PEOPLE

CHILD - TEACHER RELATIONSHIP

The child with a close and positive child-teacher relationship can use the support provided by this relationship to explore and master school learning tasks. In contrast, the child with a conflictual child-teacher relationship cannot use that relationship as a base of support and may be anxious or fearful about going to school. (Howes & Ritchie, 21)

Every teacher should possess: "an understanding of children, a mastering of curricula, skill at assessment, and caring for and commitment to children" (Wal, 260). If we focus on the child and teacher, a pleasant relationship between them is essential and can be achieved by:

using the "you approach", which means relating parts of the lesson to personal experiences of the pupils: to themselves, to their friends, parents, relatives, to the clothes they are wearing (so as to teach colours or fabrics), to their age or height (so as to teach numbers), to the things by which they are surrounded. The teacher is thus able to get to know as much as possible about every child, about his or her family, not only so as to relate these facts to a particular lesson, but to be able to create a warm relationship.

calling on a child by name, which students, even at this early age, expect the teacher to do, because they are called by their names by their parents, relatives, friends, and colleagues. By not doing so, the teacher gives them the idea that who they are is not important to the teacher, who prefers calling a child by "you, in the back row". The teacher should also present himself or herself and let the student know how he or she would like to be addressed (first name or last name).

using praise as much as possible, but only when there is a reason to do so. Every correct answer the child gives has to be acknowledged by the teacher by simple saying "Good" or "Very good", so as to be clear to the other pupils that the answer was correct. Poor performances, on the other hand, are obviously not to be praised, and in this case, what a teacher has to do is encourage the child that gave a wrong answer to think until he or she is right.

using the students' talents and abilities (singing, painting, writing and others). This not only makes the learning process more enjoyable for them, but it also motivates the pupils to learning, by making them feel that hobbies and talents, on the one hands and school, on the other hand, can go well together.

These are only some aspects to which the teacher should pay attention. A pleasant relationship in class is sure to contribute to the process of teaching and learning a foreign language and is also the foundation on which student' and teacher's motivation is laid.

MOTIVATION

There is almost always a certain level of motivation that each elementary school student brings to class, whether it is because of the students' natural enthusiasm about learning, or just their imagination and curiosity. It is the teacher who has to always maintain their interest in the learning of English and, despite the obstacles that may come across, it is again the teacher who should never doubt that all children are able to learn.

A purpose has to be given to the learning process, an understanding of why English is useful, and then, adding to this the positive feedback that the teacher gives to the students and thus the self-confidence and self-esteem that every student acquires, the teaching and learning are very likely to be successful. Each student will be motivated by his or her own values, needs, desires or wants and the teacher will act in according to these factors, and never try to consider a class of about thirty individuals as just one person.

In Tools for teaching, Barbara Gross Davis offers some pieces of advice to the new teachers, but also to the experienced ones who want to improve the way in which they teach. The author does not aim at a direct attack to the students' lack of motivation, but rather at a good organization of the class period and of the teaching method in general, in that a teacher could try to:

give the students a feeling of success by always telling and showing them that they can do well and by praising progress;

avoid giving negative feedback without being specific, the critics have to be made to a poor performance and not to the student as a person;

assign tasks that have a medium level of difficulty (not too easy, not too difficult);

help student understand the purpose and value of learning, so as not to study and learn just because they are told they have to do that;

focus on students' needs (for example, to perfect their skills, to overcome challenges, to be successful and others);

involve students in the learning process as much as possible;

not expect too much or too little from the students;

encourage students to set their own learning goals;

emphasize the need for self-motivation;

avoid the intense competition among students and focus more on their need to socialize;

show his or her enthusiasm about English, because if a teacher shows signs of boredom, students might as well understand that they should do the same;

focus on the students' strengths and interests, talents or hobbies;

vary the teaching methods;

not put a too greater emphasis on grades, and definitely avoid using grades as punishments or threats;

These are only some guidelines to help the teacher in class. Gradually, as the school year progresses, the teacher will notice student's "improvement in attitude toward learning and in skills mastered, perhaps slowly at first, but steadily" (Allen & Goetz, 225).

THE TEACHING OF VALUES

Why do children have to go to school? This is a major question that many Romanians still ask themselves nowadays. And the answer they think of is: to learn foreign languages, math, Romanian and so on. But is that all? Is it impossible to think that a school should only aim at achieving skills and knowledge and leave the moral aspect of education aside? Values could be a school subject the same way math is, but unfortunately they are not and they have almost always taken the form of advice, injunctions or punishments and could obviously not have a positive impact on children and their character development. Every school should provide / add to a moral model the children lack / have at home. This is basically the role of the school in children's life.

And since the focus of this paper is on elementary school students, moral education does not refer (not yet, at least) to serious conduct problems such as smoking, drinking, drug abuse, violence and so on, but to what children would seem to have already been taught by their parents: respect, responsibility, self-esteem, confidence, honesty to self and to others, tolerance, integrity, self-discipline and so many others. At 7 years old, a child can only guess what all these terms mean, and a teacher's role is not to give detailed definition on this matter, but to act according to all these values and make them the foundation of every English class.

A very good example would be this one, given by American elementary teacher Dr. Porter-Murdock:

While teaching fifth graders, one student was consistently off-task and generally disruptive. I wrote a role play about those types of behavior and placed him in the starring role. He was a ham and played it well, and participated in the discussion that followed. After, while we were putting things back in order, I overheard him say to the student next to him, "You know, I do that stuff - I do it all the time. What I should do is ______________." He identified the very things he needed to change, reacting objectively to a critique of the behavior he had exhibited without really knowing the critique was aimed at his actions. He wasn't defensive or embarrassed, and his behavior improved immensely.

And no shouting, insults, punishment were needed. This is a clear starting-point of how the English class can be combined with moral education.

Now, leaving the learning and teaching of a foreign language out of the equation, the teacher should be a human being before a teacher. I have seen teachers shouting at pupils to clean the garbage in their lunch break, while eating their sandwiches, using sticks to make silence. It does not take only parents to raise a child, but it takes any person with whom the child has contact. And if at school a teacher shows to a child that one can impose oneself through screams and through violence, then what will the child understand?

TIME

Time becomes a real factor in children's activity only when they first begin school, when they begin to realise what a schedule means, and when they have to learn how to use time to finish a task or solve a problem in class or do the homework at home.

THE RHYTHM OF THE SCHOOL DAY

Children, as well as adults, need a schedule to their school activities so as not to be forced to always re-accommodate to a new situation. A school schedule or a school routine that is not rigid and that focuses on what a child needs is necessary.

Most Romanian elementary school children stay in school for about six hours a day, from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Each year they have a different schedule: let us say they have one English class Monday at 9 a.m. and another on Friday at 11 a.m. On Monday, students also learn writing, German, maths, drawing and reading. When talking about the rhythm of the school day, it is easy to understand why the children's timetable should stay the same for a whole year. If it were to change - let us say - every day, an elementary student will feel very confused and disorientated. However, the schedule should be flexible when it comes to special events or parties, for "regular routines are comfortable, breaks in routine are invigorating" (Wal, 267).

Moreover, the English class is fifty minutes long. How does this feel compared to a ten-minute break? It is five times shorter. But then, can a school afford a longer break? Or, more exactly, do children need a longer break? Students will definitely agree with that, but students in general do not know what is best for them. However, there are schools that offer a twenty-minute break at 12 a.m. in which the students receive their milk and bread and have enough time to eat.

Some Romanian schools also offer the parents the possibility to choose an after-school program for their children. The traditional students' spare time is thus replaced by another couple of school hours, spent mostly (if not entirely) in the school space. A total of eight to ten hours spend in the same environment may be exhausting. Not to mention the fact that parents, being replaced by teachers, are somehow left aside their children learning process and social development. The after-school programs were meant to help working parents that could not supervise their children. Thus, the program focuses on what parents need - i.e. someone to look over their children - and not on a child needs: his / her parents.

Then, coming back to the students' break between classes, there are some teachers that tend to use the children's time because they have not succeeded in timing their teaching activities correctly. This is not advisable, since not only will children be unable to pay attention to what it is being said, but they will also feel they have the right to be late at the next class.

USING CLASSROOM TIME EFFECTIVELY

I have heard many teachers complain that fifty minutes are never enough to achieve all classroom objectives, that there is so much to do in so little time. And this is true, because a complete English class should include all four language skills: reading, speaking, listening and writing. By dividing the 50 minutes to the four main activities, the teacher can make an idea of how much time he or she can allot to each of them. Unfortunately, the content of the subject usually aims at the achievement of many more objectives than a teacher can successfully teach. And the question that arises is if a teacher should follow the curricula exactly and rush the children into learning or proceed to other materials only when the children are ready?

When referring only to the teaching of speaking, a teacher can think of various procedures so as to be sure not one second of students' time is wasted.

When assigning a task, a teacher can never really know how much time every student needs to finish it and it is not in his or her power that all students finish their task at the same time. There is always a student who finishes before another, and, finding himself or herself freer than his colleagues, will probably start acting as such. There is no need to mention that the students who still work on a task while more than half of their colleagues have already finished it are likely to lose their patience and give up working on it.

Teachers have to keep children on the alert, since they have a short attention span. Waiting is by no means keeping someone on the alert. But what about skipping the waiting part? Before speaking about a certain topic, the students are most of the time ask to write down the main ideas of what they are going to talk about. What if a teacher skipped this part?

Elementary school students have to be encouraged to listen and to speak as much as possible and using only the words they know. Thus, there is no need for some minutes allotted for students to prepare, when thinking is as good as writing down in the notebooks.

By actively engaging students in the learning process, there are fewer chances for them to be disruptive and it is less difficult for the teacher to quickly assess if the students learn and understand what is being taught.

No matter how effectively a teacher plans the 50-minute class period, it is obvious that students' learning process should not end when the school bell rings. Education and the learning of a foreign language in particular require more than a certain number of school classes a week. The main purpose of homework is to offer the students the opportunity to practise during non-schools hours what was already presented in class in order to reinforce and facilitate learning.

A teacher could try helping children make good use of their non-school time so that they do not waste time in needless activities and leave important tasks to the last minute. Pupils have to be taught how to self-appreciate the time they need to read or write an assignment.

Referring to the teaching of speaking, what homework should the English teacher give the students so as for them to practise this skill? These, as well as other activities and games that help children improve their abilities to express themselves orally in English are to be dealt with in the next chapter, which focuses on various procedures and methods used for teaching English to elementary school students.

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