Creating High-Achieving Learning Environments
School leaders need to help teachers create high-achieving learning environments for all students, where the most advanced curriculum and instruction techniques combine to support learning. In a high-achieving learning environment, teachers engage students in complex problem solving and exploring ideas and issues, and classroom activities draw on students' culture, experiences, and knowledge. At-risk students, in particular, need environments that engage them in authentic tasks and offer them significant opportunities to develop knowledge.
Many students are trying to learn in traditional learning environments that emphasize fragmented knowledge and basic skills separated from higher-order thinking skills. Their teachers do not believe that all students can learn, do not have high expectations for all students, or do not understand the culture and needs of diverse students.
In high-achieving environments, teachers have high expectations for all students and provide an enriched curriculum.
High-achieving learning environments involve students in a variety of learning activities that are challenging and aligned with learning goals, promote engaged learning, and draw on the culture, life experiences, and knowledge of all students. They allow students to discuss, argue, and analyze issues and concepts. Students explore, solve problems, and construct knowledge rather than just memorizing it. Their work is authentic, engaging, and important, and it builds understanding from in-depth investigation.
• Instructional strategies teach all students both basic skills and demanding, higher-order thinking skills.
• A new view of at-risk students challenges the deficit model often applied to urban learners.
• Students have the opportunity to construct knowledge - not just memorize it.
• Culturally responsive curricula and instructional practices foster understanding of and respect for students of different cultural backgrounds and make use of students' culture, language, and prior experiences.
Active, engaged learning tasks motivate as well as teach.
• Classrooms and schools are heterogeneously grouped and tracking is avoided.
• Groups of students work together on projects that explore ideas and information.
• Instruction accommodates students' learning styles.
• Instructional uses of technology promote engaged learning, rather than rote, skill-driven, or low-level instruction on computers.
• Elements that promote high performance and successful learning include interactive instruction, focus on in-depth understanding, self-regulated learning, and higher-order thinking.
• Traditional tracking is replaced by a "culture of detracked" schools (Oakes & Lipton, 1992) that:
1. Recognize that tracking is supported by powerful norms and assumptions that should be acknowledged and addressed as alternatives are created
2. Broaden the reform agenda so that changes in the tracking structure become part of comprehensive changes within the school
3. Engage in inquiry and experimentation that is idiosyncratic, opportunistic, democratic, and politically sensitive
4. Change teachers' roles and responsibilites to include new ways of working with other adults in the school
5. Involve risk-taking leaders who guide schools toward a focus on scholarship and a commitment to democratic values
• Encourage teachers to use new approaches in the instruction of at-risk students.
• Develop professional development activities, classroom instruction, and schoolwide programs that go beyond the surface in celebrating cultural diversity. Students' learning experiences must be transformed to nurture relationships among culturally diverse students by face-to-face contact or via technology and to build upon students' culture, language, and experiences in reading, writing, and content area instruction.
• Promote efforts to reshape the curriculum and encourage the development of in-depth curricular offerings as described by the new standards being developed in several disciplines, such as math and science.
• Explore authentic instruction and provide students with tasks that allow high levels of thinking and engagement.
• Make higher-order thinking, problem solving, and the construction of knowledge available to all students.
• Replace homogeneous grouping and tracking with heterogeneous grouping to serve all students.
• Complement teacher-centered instruction with cooperative learning and small group activities.
• Replace norm-referenced assessments with authentic assessments.
• Explore new instructional frameworks for producing high- achieving learning environments.
• Establish faculty teams to examine alternative ways to organize instruction, such as longer class periods, new scheduling formats, and cross-disciplinary programs.
• Acquire funding and support for technology that is needed in the classroom to prepare students for the demands of a predominantly service-oriented, high-technology workforce.
• Contact schools, programs, and organizations that can help your school implement culturally responsive practices throughout the school.
• Stay up-to-date on the latest research in effective teaching practices by reviewing journals, research-based educational materials, and so forth.
• Increase teacher engagement (which leads to greater student engagement) by creating a professional, collegial atmosphere that encourages teachers to work together in teams.
Karen Seashore Louis, associate dean for academic affairs, University of Minnesota, describes the effects of high levels of teacher engagement and peer pressure on teachers' motivation to work hard, and clarifies the relationship between teacher and student engagement. Excerpted from NCREL's Urban Education monograph, Teacher Engagement and Real Reform in Urban Schools (NCREL, 1995, forthcoming).
• Document and evaluate the norms of experience of students in your school in order to make informed decisions about instructional practices, programs, and policies.
• Discuss new initiatives with parents and community members when implementing new grouping patterns and new forms of instruction and assessment.
• School districts and staff often do not have the skills and knowledge needed to implement new forms of instruction and assessment. Program planners and staff need to consider important issues in redesigning educational programs for educationally disadvantaged students.
• Extensive staff development may be necessary to institutionalize new instructional approaches.
• It is important to understand the complexities of the change process when initiating major improvement efforts. If school leaders do not acknowledge and address the challenges of substantive change, staff and community may resist change and retaliate against it.
• Rigid and entrenched policies of districts and schools are among the factors that inhibit the implementation of high-achieving learning environments.
• Teacher schedules often do not include time for professional development - to discuss, learn, and plan new instructional approaches.
• There is a danger in introducing new instructional programs without buy-in and real commitment among classroom teachers. Teachers may perceive these new programs as the latest fad rather than making lasting changes in instruction.
DIFFERENT POINTS OF VIEW:
Some writers still believe that curriculum should focus on the dominant Western European culture. They contend that factual knowledge should be a core element of classroom work and that students should be organized according to ability.
The early effective schools programs and some state efforts emphasized basic skills learning. Many of these early initiatives are being redesigned to focus on higher-order thinking, problem solving, and an indepth curriculum. Some groups worry that basic factual knowledge will not be addressed or learned through these newer instructional approaches.