Understanding the Environment For Effective Learning

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Donald Schön's (1983) notion of the reflective practitioner is based on challenging the traditional understandings of both theory and practice, in order to improve the performance of said practitioners. The concept of the reflective practitioner is based on notions of self learning, with reflective practitioners being those who will look back at their previous experiences and understand what caused them to unfold as they did, hence using this to improve their performance in similar situations in the future. As such, the reflective practitioner sees their current situation as a test of their knowledge and skills, as well as a way to improve them and develop them further. This can be achieved through the application of theories to actions, whilst recognising the tenuous nature of such abstract knowledge, and also through productively framing situations to identify good practice. Ultimately, this hinges on the view that 'knowing in action' can only be achieved through practice, and specifically through 'reflecting in practice' in order to continually improve on knowledge, skills and good practice (Schön, 1983).

In the context of the teacher, reflective practice is vital for improving the quality of teaching and teaching strategies. This is because teaching can only take place in the context of students' lives, and the future opportunities that learning and education will offer for students (Stivers, 2000). As a result, the teacher needs to develop teaching strategies and practices that actively engage students in the learning and teaching process. This is a vital part of successful teaching, but needs to be accomplished in different ways for different students groups. For example, some students may learn better from activity based teaching whilst others will learn better when provided with traditional lectures and classroom teaching. Regardless of which teaching method is used, students need to be engage through the practice of loosening students' thinking to make the receptive to new knowledge, followed by tightening said thinking to embed the new knowledge.

This obviously creates a wide range of potential teaching strategies and student responses to them. As such, the only way a teacher can effectively select the correct strategy is through reflective practice. This implies that all teachers need to consider their previous experiences with students, how these students best learnt, and what problems were encountered. By doing this, teachers will be able to develop a better understanding of how students should be taught to boost their openness to new knowledge and learning as well as how to best embed this knowledge so it can be accessed and used outside the classroom environment (Novak and Gowin, 1984) . This will include a better understanding of best practice in terms of the specific techniques such as active and passive learning and how to best deliver lectures to different groups. In addition, teachers will be able to understand what the best approach is for dealing with difficult or unruly students, and how to avoid the behaviour of these students affecting the rest of the class. Finally, teachers can also better understand the third of the reflective practitioner pillars: understanding when different techniques should be used, both in terms of the time of day and week, and in terms of the degree of progression that has been made in teaching a particular subject.

Indeed, Stivers (2000) argues that in order for teachers to achieve best practice, they need to consider three factors which are all linked to the reflective practitioner concept. The first of these is that simply following a prescribed teaching style or using certain methods and activities is not sufficient to embed learning in the minds of students. Instead, the teacher needs to establish authenticity and meaning their teaching activities and engage students by demonstrating the value of the knowledge they are imparting. This is often difficult for students who see little value in learning concepts they may not use later in life, and teachers need to reflect on their experience in order to add meaning to their future lessons. The second important factor is that teachers need to understand that both they and the students are learning: the students are learning to learn and the teachers to teach. As such, it is important for teachers to reflect on previous experience in order to improve as teachers. Finally, teachers need to ensure that their engagement communicates the nature of their subject to students. This is an important part of ensuring true understanding, both on the part of the students and the teacher, and again requires reflection on the teacher's part (Stivers, 2000).

Fortunately, the fundamental role of the teacher tends to involve a significant amount of activities which are conducive to reflective practice (Novak and Gowin, 1984). Teachers are generally required to complete significant amounts of paperwork on each of their students, ranging from marking assignments and tests to writing reports. This can be turned towards reflective practice by the teacher considering not only the progress of the student, but how the teacher has contributed to this progress, and how the teacher could improve in terms of connecting, motivation and engaging the student. In addition, the teachers themselves can collect data from the students such as asking them how they feel about a subject, and whether they believe it makes sense. Again, this can play a vital role in the teacher's reflective learning as it will allow them to self appraise themselves using their students' feedback. Also, as teachers primarily deal in academic and theoretical concerns, they will be better able to conceptualise learning theory perspectives and apply them to their own situation. This will help them to understand the various teaching techniques they use, and why they may work in some cases but not in others. Again, this is a vital part of effective teaching and reflective practice in the teaching environment.

When considering the importance of the classroom as an environment for effective learning, Bain (1999) argues that the classroom is too dynamic an environment to encompass all the deliberate aspects of teaching and learning. This is because teaching requires several aspects, including timing, peer teaching, assessment, interactive teaching, storytelling and writing, and the classroom does not always play a role in these activities. In addition, each lesson has to be integrated to the next, as well as having all concepts integrated within it, in order to develop the logical order and progression of thought necessary for effective learning. This requires several activities be conducted outside the classroom, including homework and reflective thought by both teachers and students. In addition, learning requires an explicit learning framework which has to be context independent, i.e. it must work in all types of classrooms and environments.

In spite of this, the classroom is still seen as a vitally important aspect of the learning process; with Sims (2004) claiming that building an effective classroom learning environment should receive as much focus as developing an effective curriculum. In particular, teachers should pay particular attention to creating an environment in which all students' ideas and opinions are encouraged, as well as allowing conversational learning to occur. Whilst the teacher will play a large role in encouraging this, having a classroom which does not have the right layout or equipment to encourage learning will act to hinder the teacher's efforts. Notably, T. H. E. Journal (2006) argues that classrooms need to provide a seamless convergence of learning tools such as the Internet, the black or white board, classroom projectors, and any other teaching peripherals the teacher may use. As such, the classroom will arguably play a vital role in integrating all the technological and visual aids into the learning process.

Indeed, Proserpio and Gioia (2007) claim that the classroom plays a vital role in ensuring the relevance of teaching to students, particularly given that the current generation is arguably no longer a verbal or a visual generation, but is in fact best defined as a virtual generation. This is due to the rapid technological and social changes that have affected students, leading them to view technology as an essential part of their lives, and to expect everything that they use and interact with to have some degree of technology focus. This implies that, in order for teachers to align their teaching styles with the learning styles of their students, they have to incorporate virtual and electronic technologies into their lessons. However, simply adding these technologies into the teaching environment may not be beneficial, as the students may then prioritise the virtual learning over the classroom learning, hence reducing the ability of the teacher to influence student perceptions of the subject and its relevance. As such, Proserpio and Gioia (2007) claim that in order for electronic learning tools to be effective, they have to be integrated into the classroom itself, so they provide a seamless method for teachers to use the technology as part of their teaching, without it acting to override their intellectual authority and act as a replacement for them.

This implies that the classroom environment is almost of equal importance to the teacher in terms of encouraging effective learning. However, Sztejnberg and Finch (2006) argue that the most effective teachers are those who adaptively use their classroom learning environment to support their teaching style, hence maintaining their own preeminent importance in the learning process. In order to achieve this, teachers have to use reflective practice techniques to develop a close relationship between their teaching style, their students' learning styles, and the classroom space as well as the different learning environments available. Indeed, work by Sztejnberg and Finch (2006) found that the classroom environment and layout tended to be a good predictor of teaching styles, and particularly of whether teachers perceived their learning environment to be more teacher- or student-centred. This implies that the classroom environment can be manipulated and controlled to some extent by the teachers in order to maximise the value of their teaching style and appeal to the learning styles of their students. As a result, whilst the classroom environment and the layout, environment and peripherals in the classroom, are important in producing an effective learning environment, an effective and reflective teacher will still have the strongest influence over the learning and development of students.

In conclusion, the role of the teacher has always been conducive to reflective practice, and the best teachers tend to be those who are best able to function as reflective practitioners (Stivers, 2000). This is because the role of the teacher includes many aspects where reflective practice is both encouraged and beneficial, and also because it is only through reflective practice that teachers can truly develop teaching methods and strategies for all students and contexts. The evidence also indicates that the classroom plays an important role in creating an environment for effective learning, in terms of integrating all teaching materials and peripherals, as well as aspects such as technology. However, the classroom itself is not a true determinant of an effective teaching environment, and the most effective teachers will be those who adaptively use their classrooms to support their teaching styles and their students learning styles, and hence maximise their teaching effectiveness (Sztejnberg and Finch, 2006).

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