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Five Research-Based Components of Learning Environments to Empower Learners

Over the last few years there has been greater attention to the need for learning spaces to reflect “real” living and working environments that promote movement, encourage collaboration, promote self-direction, and empower learners to move, advocate for, and facilitate their learning. After reviewing the research behind the ISTE Standards for Students we provide, five research-based components of learning environments to empower learners.

The idea of flexible learning spaces does not just promote cool seating options that are more akin to Ikea or Starbucks than traditional school. Rather, flexible learning environments provide students choice, use physical space in ways that promote multiple uses, and promote collaboration, critical thinking, use of multiple materials, and personalized expressions of learning.

To set the record straight here are a few definitions we lean on when we talk about learning environments and empowered learners.

Learning environments are those physical contexts in which individuals engage with and explore new or pre-existing knowledge, skills, and understandings.

An empowered learner is a student who has significant opportunities, voice and choice for purposeful engagement in deep, authentic learning.

In order for even the most flexible or traditional learning environments to empower learners research has demonstrated that there is a need for teachers to commit not just to a physical environment, but pedagogy and instruction that fully utilizes that environment.

While the definitions and bulleted points to consider are included below, know that there are more resources, explanations, and examples available through the ISTE – Metiri Digital Learning Pathway for the Empowered Learner.

Student motivation: Learning environments to empower learners. 

Motivated students invest the time, energy and intellect to learn deeply. Being motivated means that students have a reason to learn the topics they are studying. Sometimes that motivation comes from a passion or interest they have developed long before, sometimes that motivation comes from a curiosity about the topic, and sometimes it comes from recognition that the topic at hand is a stepping stone to a goal they have set for themselves, a passion or interest they have developed

Key areas to consider when reflecting on learning environment and the promotion of student motivation to learn include:

  • Accessing tools and materials.
  • Opportunities to share accomplishments.
  • Opportunities to archive accomplishments.
  • Promoting reflection.
  • Promoting quality and success among ALL students.
  • Opportunities to have choice in their learning through access to quality, relevant materials.

Access to digital tools and developing digital fluency among all learners: Learning environments to empower learners. 

Digitally fluent students continually develop and evolve their digital competency and citizenship across a broad spectrum of technologies to become informed, savvy decision-makers who strategically and ethically use digital tools to solve problems, discover meaning, analyze and synthesize information, communicate, collaborate, develop identities, think critically, represent ideas and learn.

Key areas to consider when reflecting on learning environment and digital fluency among students include:

  • Accessing smart handheld devices, tablets, laptops, or desktop computers.
  • Accessing the Internet and digital storage.
  • Accessing unique tools can be easily brought in and utilized without having to rearrange the learning space.
  • Accessing learning environments that are limited to one classroom, allowing students to make use of other spaces such as libraries, makerspaces, labs, virtual spaces, meeting rooms, and informal meeting locations that can support learning goals.
  • Opportunities for students to engage with different digital tools and resources.
  • Promoting deeper competency and understanding of digital tools.
  • Promoting engagement of students across levels of consuming, creating, and producing work using digital tools.
  • Encouraging understanding of technologies over use of specific tools.
  • Promoting problem solving, inquiry, and/or wondering, with digital tools positioned as key ways of enhancing, documenting, and extending those processes.
  • Allowing space and time for troubleshooting technologies as part of the overall learning process.
  • Promoting digital citizenship through shared understandings of online safety, privacy and security, ethics, and ownership. 

Developing social-emotional engagement: Learning environments to empower learners. 

Students who are socially and emotionally engaged have developed strong, healthy peer-to-peer relationships and student-teacher relationships. Such students feel intellectually safe and supported in their classrooms. They take intellectual risks, knowing that their peers and teachers will be supportive and, although critiques are part of the culture, such work is always constructive.

Key areas to consider when reflecting on learning environment and social-emotional engagement include:

  • Supporting and encouraging collaboration.
  • Communicating expectations for positive interactions among students, and between students and teachers.
  • Opportunities for students to foster and experience positive interactions.
  • Encouraging clear expectations for collaboration.
  • Promoting students to be open to the ideas of others.
  • Encouraging trying, failing, reflecting, and learning.
  • Providing a safe, supportive place for students to truly learn.

Developing self-direction: Learning environments to empower learners. 

Students who are self-directed take initiative and direct most aspects of their learning, including: diagnosing their own learning needs; formulating learning goals; identifying resources for learning; and independently managing time and effort.

Key areas to consider when reflecting on learning environment and developing self-direction among students include:

  • Providing adequate amounts of materials and resources to encourage self-direction.
  • Undergoes change often enough to encourage exploration, yet maintains a high degree of comfort among students.
  • Opportunities to be self-directed through flexible schedules, open-ended assignments, and curricular choices.
  • Putting students in charge of planning and managing work that is developmentally appropriate.
  • Providing natural opportunities for students to check their understanding and seek assistance when needed.
  • Encouraging students to use their strengths to support peers and allows peers to support individuals as they overcome struggles or address areas of need.

Providing continuous feedback: Learning environments to empower learners. 

Learning something new often involves trial and error. K-12 students who embrace this concept excel in learning. They take calculated risks as they learn, trying out new ideas, and using data, evidence and feedback to refine and finesse their deep understanding of concepts and their positions on issues. To do so, they need the opportunity to try new things, receive constructive and accurate feedback, and to try again – with the addition of data, feedback and prompts that will help them progress.

Key areas to consider when reflecting on learning environment and the integration of continuous feedback include:

  • Establishing feedback as a routine part of student learning.
  • Encouraging students reflecting on feedback and talking with peers or teachers to clarify next steps.
  • Staging to support students in setting and achieving personal learning goals, informed and guided by continuous feedback.
  • Designing intentionally for students to seek feedback from others.
  • Providing time and space necessary for meaningful self-reflection and planning.
  • Establishing time and space for one-on-one discussions.
  • Encouraging students to ask, “What did I learn?” instead of, “What grade did I get?”

Interested in more details on the research behind choices, pedagogy, and instruction that empowers all learners? Grab the ISTE – Metiri Digital Learning Pathway for more.