Orchestrating the Environment for Learning

I like to use the term orchestrating to describe teachers’ behaviors especially relating to the creation of a learning environment. When you consider the musical conductor of the orchestra, they have their back to the audience, don’t have an instrument to play, and yet they have a major role in the music created. I believe that successful teachers are often not front and center and, sometimes, not even present when quality learning is occurring, yet if we explored deep enough or far enough off stage, we’d find the teacher’s orchestration.

Creating an environment for student trust and risk taking is key to student learning. When examining how teachers create that trust, I often compare it to how folks learned to ride a bike. Most learn with someone holding the seat. I ask, “Did they ever let go?” and get a resounding, “Yes!” Then I ask, “How can you trust them?”

I‘ve identified three kinds of trust that people connect to their bike riding experience.

Totally Safe

These folks tell me someone was holding the seat and they knew the person would let go, but they knew the person would catch them if they fell. Thus, making it totally safe. Some students need this assurance before they are willing to attempt a learning task. A math teacher early in the year helps students during their first several tests to make sure they all pass. After passing some tests with his help, he looks for them to attempt on their own.

Safety Net

These folks tell me they knew the person was going to let go and they might not be able to catch them, but they would pick the right place to let go…a grassy knoll, maybe a tree, but no trucks on the road. In other words, failure won’t be fatal. Some students come to our classrooms bringing their safety nets from home. They are confident and resilient and see a failure as a way to learn. Other students need teachers who build safety nets into their instruction. Working in cooperative groups can provide a safety net. I can check my thinking with a peer before sharing it with the class and teacher.

Push Off the Cliff

These folks tell me they knew the seat holder would let go and trusted that they’d know the rider was ready. Even if the rider was unsure, they trusted the instructor. Most teachers have students who are ready for higher learning, more challenging tasks, but who won’t go there voluntarily. The teacher needs to trick or tug, thus “push off the cliff”. A special education teacher takes the first chapter of a novel she wants the student to read and prints it out in large type. After the student successfully reads the chapter and asks for more, she hands him the book. He says he can’t read that book and she informs him he just did. He wouldn’t have tried, had she started with the book.

I recently came across two articles that illustrate educators orchestrating environments for learning.

The first illustrates totally safe as students at Baker Middle School in Damascus, GA read to Canine Assistants, dogs trained to sit quietly while students read aloud. Click here for article.

Recently the students sat on couches and chairs in the media center and took turns reading to Amelia while they petted her. They sat quietly and listened to each other read. If the students asked for help reading a word, teacher’s aide Deborah Volley gave them the answer. “It is awesome,” said Juan Pablo, a sixth-grader. “She doesn’t care if you accidentally read a word wrong. Sometimes you read a word wrong and [people] just start laughing at you. She doesn’t laugh at you. She stares at you, waiting for you to start reading again.” 1

The second has many elements of “safety nets” and push off the cliff”.

In Prince William County,VA, Osbourn Park High School Earth Jubilee science celebration required 320 high school freshman and sophomores to be teachers with lesson plans presenting information and activities to 500 first through third grade students. Click here for article. The high school biotechnology program combines English, social studies and science and requires students to take rigorous courses and do science-related volunteer work. Notice the orchestration in these comments:

“We make believe we are doing it only for the little kids, but we are doing it for us, too,” said Larry Nemerow, biotechnology program coordinator. “There is no higher form of learning than teaching. You can learn something for a test, but then you forget it. Here, they had to become experts on a subject, and the information will stick with them a lot longer.”

Sixteen-year-old Kelly Greico, who was working the chemistry booth, said it was hard to come up with ways to teach a challenging topic to young minds. The demonstration, she said, was something her team knew would catch their eye. “It was interesting to try and come up with what to say at their level,” she said. “The topics we presented we just learned sitting in chemistry class, but we had to come up with hands-on [activities] and different ways to get the kids to learn them.”
Students said they were given a list of topics in January and received little guidance from teachers. It was up to the students to figure out how to keep a young crowd engaged. “I liked the fact we were able to do stuff on our own with no one breathing down our necks,” 15-year-old freshman Taylor Owens said.2

1 Washingtonpost.com, For Young Readers, an Audience With a Cold, Wet Nose for Books
Middle School Students Say Program Has Helped Them Improve
By Titus Ledbetter IIIGazette Staff Writer Thursday, June 5, 2008; Page GZ05

2 Wadhingtonpost.com, High-Schoolers Teach and Learn at Science Fest
Hands-On Fun, Exhibits Engage Young Crowd,
By Jennifer Buske, Washington Post Staff Writer Sunday, June 1, 2008; Page PW03

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