The School as a Learning Environment

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A positive learning environment can be described as an environment in which a community of learners consisting of children and adults work together to provide, promote and sustain their own and one another's learning (Barth, 2001:31). In this essay the author, drawing from professional experience in an Irish primary school context and referring to relevant literature, will outline the key characteristics of schools that are positive learning environments. It will be outlined how devolved leadership involving all teaching staff; providing pupils with a voice regarding school policies and their own learning; a physical environment which enables and encourages learning; promoting continuous teacher professional development through collaboration; and measures to involve all parents in the organisation of the school and in enhancing their children's, and through the process their own, learning are key characteristics of schools that are positive learning environments. It will also be highlighted how factors such as resistance to change among school personnel, dysfunctional staff relationships and recent Irish Government policies are common obstacles to realising such environments.

Teacher Leadership

With a constantly increasing workload and responsibility "the demands and challenges of leading schools are simply too great for any one person (the principal)" (Stoll, 2009:122). As Barth (2001) notes principals need help in "fulfilling this impossible job description" (p. 84). One possible solution to this situation is devolved leadership whereby teaching staff are provided with leadership roles and responsibilities in the running of the school. Much has been written in educational literature advocating this involvement of teachers in leadership roles (Callan, 2006: 214; Harris, 2008:31; Sergiovanni, 1992; Stoll and Fink, 1996:52; The Teaching Council, 2010; Tuohy, 1999:166). Instances in which teachers can lead include participating in the creation of a school vision and associated policies, shaping curriculum for the school, planning and leading staff development activities, engaging in decisions about how funds should be allocated and hiring new teachers (Barth, 2001:88). The author's school has started this process of teacher leaders with greater responsibility being given to the in school management team, which consists of teachers who hold Posts of Responsibility, regarding decisions about school policies, but this is only a first step as in order for schools to achieve maximum beneficial outcomes "all teachers must lead" (Barth, 2001:85).

This teacher leadership can lead to a positive learning environment in numerous ways. It can help to sustain and promote teacher commitment and motivation to the school as they are involved in making decisions which affect them (Fullan, 2003:38), which can also encourage teachers to change their classroom practice which is crucial to school improvement (Fullan and Hargreaves, 1991:23). This leadership role can prepare teachers for the role of principal rather than suddenly placing them unprepared into this position later in their career (Fullan and Hargreaves, 1991:20) and enable these teacher leaders to learn as they can learn through the experiences of leadership (Barth, 2001:82). It has been argued that if teachers are provided with leadership roles they in turn will provide leadership roles for pupils turning the school into a more democratic environment with less discipline problems and higher pupil achievement (Barth, 2001:80) and that better decisions are made as a result of dispersing decision making regarding school issues such as discipline procedures and professional development (ibid:82). This leadership role also adds variety to the teacher's role and can enable them to influence the lives of adults as well as pupils (ibid:83). Sharing leadership can also enable the principal to become a learner in this learning environment as he can learn through collaboration with these teacher leaders (Fullan and Hargreaves, 1991:122). As Barth (2001) notes "A school culture hospitable to widespread leadership will be a school culture hospitable to widespread learning" (p. 81).

Pupil Voice

As well as providing teachers with greater responsibility through leadership roles another key characteristic of a positive learning environment is one in which pupils are given greater responsibility by allocating them a voice regarding school policy and their own learning. The United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child (1989) states "States Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child …." (Article 12). Irish Policy recognised this right with the publication of the National Children's Strategy (2000) which aims to create "An Ireland where children are respected as young citizens with a valued contribution to make and a voice of their own …." (Department of Health and Children, 2000:10). An obvious context for children to exercise this voice is regarding their school experiences as a result of the large portion of their lives they spend in school (Devine, 2004:112).

Opportunities for pupils to be given this voice in school include involving them in constructing and participating in their own learning by providing feedback to teachers on lessons regarding how pupils learned and ways the teacher could make the lesson more challenging or enjoyable (Claxton, 2008:157) and by setting up student councils to discuss school policies and procedures (McLoughlin, 2004). This voice can even go as far as teaching teachers as Barth (2001:3) describes a school in which pupils provide instruction to teachers regarding information communication technology skills. This author's school has begun the process of providing this voice to pupils through the establishment of the Green Schools Committee in which pupil representatives from every class meet on a weekly basis to discuss school environmental procedures.

Providing pupils with this voice can create a positive learning environment in a number of ways. The positives of giving pupils opportunities to contribute to school policies such as the code of behaviour are outlined by the National Education Welfare Board (NEWB) noting that:

Students are more likely to support a code of behaviour when they have helped to develop it. Relationships of trust between teachers and students can grow through the process (NEWB, 2008:16).

Children can also learn skills of listening, negotiating and managing differences through active engagement in a social context (NEWB, 2008:16). Providing pupils with this voice can motivate them to come to school by showing them that both they and their opinions regarding decisions that affect them matter (Stoll and Fink, 1996:139). It shows children that the school will treat them justly as Devine (2004:122) notes children feel that schools treat them unfairly when schools exclude their views. Children's ability to learn about issues such as democracy, justice and inclusiveness can be made more effective as children experience these rights first hand through practice and participation (Devine, 2004:124). In his study of a student council set up in a primary school McLoughlin (2004:132) noted positive learning outcomes for the pupils involved including happiness and pride as a result of being involved, a sense of belonging, increased confidence and a growing sense of partnership with school personnel. Claxton (2008) notes that setting up student councils to discuss issues of real importance enables participants to "know that what they learn by tackling these issues will serve them well in later life" (p. 149).

Resistance to Change

In order to include these relatively novel concepts of teacher leadership and pupil voice as outlined above schools have to overcome the common obstacle of resistance to change. As Eisner (1992) notes "It is much easier to change educational policy than to change the ways in which schools function" (p. 610). This resistance can come from teachers and principals. This resistance to change is an obstacle to realising a positive learning environment as Stoll and Fink (1996) note:

A school is either improving or it is getting worse. It cannot stand still because its context is constantly changing (p.42).

Many teachers may resist change as they fear new innovations that they feel might expose their own perceived inadequacies (Stoll and Fink, 1996:50), feel a sense of loss leaving a set of familiar set of behaviours behind and fear the future and the unknown (Tuohy, 1999:27). Experienced teachers may resist change as a result of familiar routines they have built up which require minimal effort on their part (Eisner, 1998:159).

The author experienced this resistance to change on several occasions. One such occasion was when the author displayed a poster stating to pupils "You have the right to give your opinion, and for adults to listen and take it seriously", adapted from Article 12 of The United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child (1989), in his classroom. Several of the author's colleagues expressed their disapproval of this message being displayed to children due to its 'inappropriateness' on the grounds that pupils should do exactly and without question as they are instructed to by teachers as has always been the case. This mindset seriously restricts the potential to provide a voice to pupils as outlined above. This author has also witnessed teachers teaching the same content using the same methodologies year after year regardless of changes in national or school policies.

Callan (2006) in researching the School Curriculum Development (SCD) initiative in twenty Irish secondary schools notes that principals can also resist change stating "Accordingly, one learned in the process of this initiative that one could not assume that there was a readiness, willingness, or a capacity among school principals to alter their role"(p. 107). Possible reasons for this include principals wanting to hold on to power and control and to be at the centre of making decisions regarding everything that happens in their school (Barth, 2001:108). This has an obvious detrimental effect to the goal of providing leadership roles for all teachers.

Physical Environment

Cohen, McCabe, Michelli and Pickeral (2009:3) highlight the importance of a school's physical environment noting that the environmental-structural dimension of a school including its cleanliness, space and materials and aesthetic quality is one of four essential dimensions regarding the quality and character of school life. Research has shown that the first change the majority of newly appointed principals make upon starting in the role of principal is a deliberate change to the school's physical environment (Stoll and Fink, 1996:51). Marie Stubbs when appointed principal to St. George's Roman Catholic Secondary School in London, England transformed the struggling school which was on the brink of closure from the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) into a positive learning environment which went on to be nominated by Ofsted as a national example of good practice. One method she adopted to achieve this was by making several changes to the school's physical environment. These included painting each floor of the school a different bright colour making the school more visually appealing and welcoming to students, changing the schools atrium by putting in new comfortable chairs making it a more comfortable and inviting place for students and putting up noticeboards containing pictures and information about students and their activities, including birthday notices, to show them they were valued (Stubbs, 2003). The recently appointed principal in the author's school has also made several changes to the school's physical environment including the creation of a new computer room which enables pupils to learn, and hopefully teach, information communication technology skills.

Claxton (2008) identifies additional physical features of a learning school including displays which show the journey of learning as well as the end product, such as a pupil's different attempts at creating a painting, demonstrating to them "We are as interested in the travelling as in the arriving" (p. 145). He also states that "One of the ways you can recognise a learning power culture is by looking at the objects and displays that teachers have chosen to 'decorate' their classrooms…." (p. 145) encouraging displays that develop pupils' "learning muscles" (p. 148). He recommends a classroom layout which encourages pupils to move around and learn from each other in a social context (p. 148). Such a layout can enable pupils to learn through the social process described by Vygotsky where with help from someone more knowledgeable and skilled in a co-operative setting, the learner is able to achieve more than he could alone (Stoll, Fink and Earl, 2003:38). A school physical environment which both enables and encourages learning is therefore a key characteristic of a positive learning environment.

Continuous Teacher Professional Development through Collaboration

As well as encouraging pupils to learn, positive learning environments encourage teachers to learn. Stoll and Fink (1996) highlight a significant reason for this stating:

a crucial contributor to pupil learning is teacher learning. When teachers are professionally fulfilled, demonstrate job satisfaction, skills and knowledge, and have a strong feeling of efficacy around their practice, they are more likely to motivate pupils to want to learn (p. 152).

Another factor in teacher learning encouraging pupil learning is the example this sets for pupils many of whom will seek to emulate their teacher's example (Barth, 2001:28). In order to provide a positive learning example, teachers can be seen by their students to be trying out ways of becoming a better teacher. In doing so they are modelling someone who is constantly looking to get better at what they do (Claxton, 2008:157). It has also been argued that teachers become better educators when they constantly learn how to teach (Barth, 2001:28).

The Education Act (1998) refers to the significance of teacher learning noting the importance of "a school environment which is supportive of learning among students and which promotes the professional development of teachers" (section 23-2c). The key issue is how the school supports this development. This development should be continuous and constant because there will always be a need for teachers to improve (Fullan, 1991:344) and "When teachers stop growing, so do their students" (Barth 1990:50). Many educational writers advocate the importance of collaboration between teachers as key to their professional development (Callan, 2006: 71; Lieberman and Miller, 1999:69; Palmer, 2007:146; Stoll and Fink, 1996:54). As Stoll et al. (2003) note "If systems to support professional growth are intended to sustain their learning, they must however, help schools develop as learning communities where educators collaborate to enquire critically about their own practice" (p. 173).

Methods of teacher collaboration currently used by the author include team teaching, in which the mainstream class teacher and resource teacher prepare and teach lessons together and joint planning, where teachers of a specific year group plan lessons together on a monthly basis. Other methods, not yet utilised in practice by the author, include mentoring, in which a senior member of staff provides feedback to a recently appointed teacher regarding lessons, lesson preparation, resources and planning; collaborative action research, in which teachers examine a specific area of the school such as methodologies used in teaching problem solving skills in mathematics; and mutual observation and feedback of lessons in which 'critical friends' observe each other's lessons and provide critical feedback regarding strengths and weaknesses in teaching methodologies employed (Stoll et al., 2003:94). In attempting to create a collaborative learning environment it is important that teachers are shown that collaborative work can take many diverse forms and empowered to select practices which suit them best rather than one particular approach being forced on them (Fullan and Hargreaves, 1991:123/124).

These collaborative environments can help teachers to learn in various ways. As Rosenholtz (1989:85) notes they can enable teachers to acknowledge that teaching is difficult and that it is important to seek help from colleagues. In communicating more with colleagues, teachers can become more confident and certain about what they are trying to achieve and how well they are achieving it. Just as it has been noted that pupils learn better in a social context from each other the same can be said about teachers. As well as teacher collaboration improving teachers' opportunities to learn it can do likewise for pupils as "you cannot have students as continuous learners and effective collaborators, without teachers having these same characteristics" (Fullan, 1993:46). It also enhances the school's overall ability to improve as a high level of shared vision and teamwork is required to bring about significant change (Tuohy, 1999:179).

Dysfunctional Staff Relationships

An obstacle to teacher learning, especially in terms of collaborative learning, and therefore to realising a positive learning environment is dysfunctional staff relationships. It has been noted that negative school environments have actively hostile relationships among staff (Peterson, 2002). The author, through experience of teaching in a school with over thirty teachers on staff, has seen dysfunctional, and even hostile, staff relationships as a result of subcultures or 'cliques' of teachers forming, a process described as "Balkanization" (Fullan and Hargreaves, 1991:72). In the author's experience members of various subcultures had no interest or desire in working with yet alone collaborating with members of other subcultures. This subculture mentality, and hostility which sometimes accompanies it, also provides a poor example to pupils who often strive to emulate their teacher's example. In addition as Fullan and Hargreaves (1991) note:

Balkanization may lead to poor communication, indifference, or groups going their separate ways in a school. This in turn can produce poor continuity in monitoring student progress and inconsistent expectations for their performance and behaviour (p. 72).

Another type of dysfunctional staff relationships are congenial relationships as opposed to collegial ones (Lieberman and Miller, 2008). These congenial cultures can restrict teachers' potential to learn through collaboration as although relationships are amiable and compatible they do not involve the conflict or risk needed to bring about effective critical collaboration and learning among teachers, such as critical feedback regarding lesson observations, as teachers are overly concerned regarding their popularity (Lieberman and Miller, 2008:18).

In the author's experience dysfunctional relationships can also exist between principals and teachers around issues such as workload, recognition, respect and responsibility assigned to teachers by principals. This has a negative effect on positive learning environments as Barth (2001) notes a common characteristic of a troubled school is "troubled, embattled, or antiseptic administrator - teacher relationships" (p. 105). These dysfunctional staff relationships can therefore seriously hinder a school's potential to become a positive learning environment and as Stoll and Fink (1996) note "Until climate and collegiality issues receive attention, teachers in schools experiencing difficulties often show little interest in development of teaching and learning strategies" (p. 78).

Parental Involvement

Educational literature has noted the positive benefits, such as creating a sense of community belonging, which can accrue from involving other adults in the local community besides teachers in schools (Fullan, 1993:84; Stoll et al., 2003:73; Tuohy, 1999:89). Involving the most significant adults in pupils' lives, their parents or guardians, can become a key characteristic of a positive learning environment. Parents can be encouraged to become involved in the organisation of the school by making costumes for school plays, providing assistance in classrooms, supplying resources, giving talks on areas of expertise, coaching sports teams, serving on school committees and the Board of Management of the school, collaborating with teachers regarding their children's learning and contributing to the development of school policies.

This involvement can have several positive outcomes. The National Education Welfare Board (NEWB) (2008) outlines the significance of involving parents in developing the code of behaviour school policy for a school by drawing on their expectations, insights and experience which may offer the school a different perspective. Possible positive results include equipping parents to reinforce to their children the messages about learning and behaviour that are conducive to a positive school, giving parents an insight into the requirements for teachers to teach effectively and helping parents to have a strong sense of pride and ownership of the school's work (NEWB, 2008:16). In addition as Stoll and Fink (1996) note "The fact remains that parents and teachers need to be 'reading from the same page' to promote pupil learning and development" (p. 135). It has been noted that most parents have a significant desire for schools to be positive learning environments as they want their children to learn to their full potential (Barth, 2001:168). By collaborating with parents regarding their children's learning teachers can find out a wealth of information concerning these pupils such as their interests enabling teachers to structure lessons based on these interests which can increase pupil motivation.

Schools can also adopt measures to involve parents in enhancing their children's learning at home. In researching international studies from twenty nations on school - family - community partnerships, Sanders and Epstein (2005:208) discovered this was the area most families in most nations requested support and guidance in. This can be achieved by schools conducting programs and practices, such as workshops and home visits, to strengthen parenting skills and help parents provide home environments to support their children's learning. Research suggests these measures can promote a positive learning environment as a result of positive influences on families' practices at home, parent and pupil attitudes about schools, pupils' academic achievement and teachers' attitudes towards parents (Sanders and Epstein, 2005:208). Parents can also be encouraged by teachers to speak to their children regarding their own learning in their everyday lives. As children often look to their parents as role models this can stimulate children's learning and enable them to see the importance of lifelong learning (Barth, 2001:24). Sanders and Epstein (2005) also discovered "Studies across nations indicate that students benefit when they interact with family members about topics they are learning in class" such as in reading, spelling, literacy and mathematics (p. 217). In carrying out the approaches outlined parents can also become learners in this learning environment and understand the changing nature of schools and learning.

The author has witnessed only limited parental involvement confined to fundraising duties through involvement in the Parent Teachers Association. Even in this limited involvement parents from ethnic minorities groups, disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds and the Traveller community are not included which appears to be the norm in many Irish schools (Lodge, Devine and Deegan, 2004). Schools therefore need to involve all parents in the organisation of the school and enhancing pupils' learning as "Most children learn academic subjects in school, but how they learn, what else they learn, and why they learn are influenced by schools, families, communities and their connections" (Sanders and Epstein, 2005:214).

Government Policies

While outside partners, such as parents, can help to create a positive learning environment, external factors beyond the schools control, such as recent Irish government policies can also be an obstacle to realising such an environment. Recent Budgets have created such an obstacle. Budget 2009 increased class sizes which also led to a loss in teaching posts (Department of Finance, 2008) while Budget 2010 saw cuts made in the allocations to teacher professional development (Department of Finance, 2009) which has been outlined as a key characteristic of a positive learning environment. Budget 2011 plans to reduce teacher numbers in mainstream primary schools with the withdrawal of Resource Teachers for Travellers and reducing the number of Language Support Teachers by 500 in the next four years (Department of Finance, 2010). In doing so the Irish government are removing support structures for pupils and their parents who, as has been noted in this essay, often don't have a voice or input into schools.

The Department of Education and Science placed a moratorium on primary schools promoting teachers to posts of responsibility (DES Circular 0022/2009). In response to this measure the Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO) instructed its members not to undertake additional duties where a post/acting post of responsibility is not filled as a result of this moratorium (INTO, 2009). These combined measures, by restricting teachers' potential to take on extra responsibilities, have therefore severely hindered the capacity for schools to implement teacher leadership for all teachers as outlined in this essay.

The author's school recently underwent a Whole School Evaluation in which three departmental inspectors inspected the schools effectiveness for the duration of a week. These inspectors placed a heavy emphasis on written planning which the author felt did little to enhance the quality of teaching and learning in the school. Problems such external inspections can bring on schools include pressure to conform to the inspection model and criteria and they can inhibit creative and critical teacher reflection on the judgement and evaluation of school effectiveness (Stoll and Fink, 1996:170). The inspectorate completed unannounced (incidental) external inspections in over 450 primary schools throughout all parts of Ireland between October 2009 and October 2010 (DES, 2010). Finland, which has no national school inspections but a system of school self-evaluation (Webb, Vulliamy, Sarja and Hamalainen, 2006), was one of the highest ranking nations in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey of education performance while in both literacy and maths levels Irelands ranking declined significantly when compared to 2000 (OECD, 2010). It can be argued therefore that the current Department of Education and Skills model of school inspections can create an obstacle to realising positive learning environments.

Conclusion

As outlined in this essay, principals, teachers, pupils, parents and the schools physical environment can all play crucial roles to enable schools to become positive learning environments. The key characteristics of such a school can be described as one that provides leadership roles and associated responsibilities to its entire teaching staff; affords a voice to pupils regarding school policies and their own learning; contains a physical environment that enables and encourages learning; promotes continuous teacher learning and development through collaboration; and has measures to involve all parents in the organisation of the school and in enhancing their children's learning. As illustrated by having these characteristics the school will enhance the potential and motivation to learn in all its participants creating a community of learners.

In the author's experience while initial steps have been made Irish primary schools still have to fully realise this currently largely theoretical model of a positive learning environment. Reasons for this include difficulties in overcoming common obstacles such as resistance to change from school personnel, dysfunctional staff relationships and recent government policies. Developing the characteristics outlined is crucial to creating a community of learners as American educator Laurence Downey (1967) expressed it "A school teaches in three ways: by what it teaches, by how it teaches and by the kind of place it is".1

1 Quoted by David Hopkins Teaching and Learning as the Heartland of School Improvement Seamus O Suilleabhain Memorial lecture, NUI Maynooth, September 2001

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