Program Goal V: Learning Environment

The concept of learning environment may be viewed and defined in various ways. However, we agree with the Partnership for 21st Century Schools (2009) that effective learning environments are "support systems that organize the conditions in which students learn best  -  systems that accommodate the unique learning needs of every learner and support the positive human relationships needed for effective learning" (p. 3). Such environments support "professional learning communities that enable educators to collaborate, share best practices, and integrate 21st Century skills into the classroom" (The Partnership for 21st Century Schools, 2009, p.5).

Schools as Communities or Learning: Based on the Benedictine values of concern for community and respect for all persons (Klassen, Renner, and Reuter, 2001), a guiding principle of our departmental philosophy is the belief that students learn best in a safe, humane, and welcoming classroom community where the needs of all learners can be met. Such a community provides a learning environment where students are participants in the classroom decision-making process and where they can develop as whole persons (not just cognitively, but emotionally, socially, aesthetically, physically, and spiritually as well). This most effectively occurs in settings where all students are welcomed by caring, competent teachers who recognize and value student diversity, where teachers and students are learning from and listening to one another, where parents and care givers are actively involved in their children's learning, and where all stakeholders respect the opinions and rights of others. Drawing from the work of Abraham Maslow (1970), we believe such classrooms nurture self-esteem and contribute to a sense of belongingness that allows students to focus their efforts on the higher level needs necessary for personal and academic success.

Such classrooms also foster social and emotional learning. As defined by Zins and Elias (2006), social and emotional learning (SEL) "is the process of acquiring and effectively applying the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to recognize and manage emotions; developing caring and concern for others; making responsible decisions; establishing positive relationships; and handling challenging situations capably" (Zins and Elias, 2006, p. 1).  These skills are acquired much like academic skills, and are "taught most effectively within caring, supportive, and well-managed learning environments" (Zins and Elias, 2006, p. 1).

The Responsive Classroom Model, which is widely used in Minnesota, "emphasizes social, emotional, and academic learning in a strong and safe school community" (Northeast Foundation for Children, Inc., 2011). Having much in common with constructivism and humanism, this approach emphasizes the importance of the social curriculum and the beliefs that the "the greatest cognitive growth occurs through social interaction," and "how students learn is as important as what they learn" (Northeast Foundation for Children, Inc., 2011). Classroom practices associated with the Responsive Classroom include morning meeting, involving students in the creation of classroom rules, interactive modeling, positive teacher language, guided discovery learning, teacher-directed student choices, and collaborative problem solving. A three-year study conducted by Sara Rimm-Kaufman and others (2007) showed that students in schools using the Responsive Classroom Model felt more positive about school, had better social skills, and had better achievement in  reading and math.

Regardless of the model a school uses, reducing bullying is essential to the development of a healthy learning environment. Though estimates vary, national surveys show that as many as 30% of students in grades 6-10 are involved in bullying. About 11% are repeated targets of bullies; approximately 13% bully other students; and another 6% both bully others and are bullied (National Youth Violence Prevention, 2006). In Hennepin County, Minnesota, 17% of students report being bullied frequently (Freidman, 2007). Name calling is the most common form of bullying (Olweus Bullying Prevention Group, 2004). Students who are seen as "different" because of race, religion, ethnicity, disability, physical characteristics, or perceived sexual orientation are bullied most frequently (Kim, 2004).

Bullying victims are more likely to be depressed and have suicidal thoughts, and they are also more likely to drop out of school. Even as adults, they tend to have lower self-esteem and a higher incidence of depression (Kim, 2004). Health consequences of bullying include sleep problems, anxiety, abdominal pain, and headaches (Olweus Bullying Prevention Group, 2004). Not surprisingly, nearly 60% of those classified as "chronic bullies" have been convicted of at least one crime by age 24 (Kim, 2004). Harassment and bullying have been linked to about 75% of school shootings (Crawford, 2002). Though there are no easy solutions, establishing a school-wide bullying prevention program that raises awareness, provides rules against and consequences for bullying, improves school climate, provides supervision and enforcement in bullying "hotspots," and provides anti-bullying training for both school personnel and students can reduce bullying by as much as 50% (Crawford, 2002; Olweus Bullying Prevention Group, 2004).

Motivation, "the process of instigating and sustaining goal-directed behavior (Schunk, 2012, p. 397, is certainly enhanced by the creation of a positive classroom environment. However, there are many other factors that are important in promoting student motivation. Various perspectives for describing and explaining classroom motivation are provided below:

The Behavioral Perspective on Motivation: Behaviorists typically explain motivation on the basis of operant conditioning. In other words, students are motivated to obtain extrinsic rewards or reinforcement. Though extrinsic reinforcement such as praise and grades are unavoidable in school and can be important motivators for some students, educators need to be aware that excessive use of extrinsic rewards may result in only temporary behavioral change and may actually decrease intrinsic motivation, particularly "when students must compete for a limited supply of rewards" (Snowman, McCown, and Biehler (2012, p. 369). Therefore, teachers should use extrinsic rewards cautiously and in moderation.

Cognitive Views of Motivation: Unlike the behavioral perspective, cognitive views of motivation, including those of social-cognitive theorists, emphasize intrinsic motives (Rothstein, 1990) such as self-efficacy, attribution, and achievement motivation. Self-efficacy refers to self-perceptions or judgments of one's abilities to be successful. It can be increased by "both vicarious and direct reinforcement" (Snowman, McCown, and Biehler (2012, p. 369). Attribution, or locus of control, refers to beliefs regarding the causes of success or failure (Schunk, 2012). Those with an internal locus of control attribute success or failure to factors within their control such as effort. Those with an external locus of control attribute success or failure to external factors such as luck (Rothstein, 1999). Programs designed to move students toward more internal attributions typically emphasize providing praise based on students' efforts as well as teaching effective learning strategies (Lefrancois, 1999). Achievement motivation refers to one's need to achieve or succeed. Though we often assume that all students have a strong need to achieve, this is not always true. Research indicates that achievement motivation can be increased by inviting students "to take risks, make predictions, modify predictions, establish realistic goals, and assume personal responsibility for the results of their behaviors" (Lefrancois, 1999, p. 437).
Humanistic Perspectives on Motivation: The humanistic approach to motivation emphasizes "both cognitive and affective processes" . . . and "addresses people's capabilities and potentialities as they make choices and seek control over their lives" (Schunk, 2012, p. 351).The most prominent humanistic theory of motivation is that proposed by Abraham Maslow (1970). This theory holds that individuals must meet lower-level deficiency needs (physiological, safety, belongingness, and esteem) before being motivated to meet higher-level needs such as knowledge, aesthetics, and self-actualization. Based on this theory, it is important for teachers to help students meet their deficiency needs by providing a safe, welcoming classroom environment that contributes to a sense of belongingness and enhances students' self-esteem.

Teacher Characteristics and Instructional Variables: Teacher characteristics such as enthusiasm and motivation for teaching are frequently mentioned as important factors in promoting student motivation (Jennings, 2007; Sass, 1989). Eggen and Kauchak, (2010) listed other teacher characteristics that contribute to student motivation such as having high, but realistic expectations, demonstrating caring, and modeling personal respect. These authors as well as Megan Tschannen-Moran and Anita Woolfolk-Hoy (2001) also noted the importance of personal teaching efficacy, or having confidence in one's "capabilities to bring about desired outcomes of student engagement and learning" (p. 783) in promoting student motivation. Instructional variables such as relevance and focusing students' attention at the beginning of the lesson (Eggen and Kauchak, 2010) as well as promoting active participation and using a variety of teaching techniques (Davis, 1993; Sass, 1989) are also key factors in motivating students

Classroom Management: Classroom management is a crucial factor in the development of a positive classroom environment. In fact, we agree with Marzano, Marzano, and Pickering (2003) that effective learning cannot occur in a classroom that is poorly managed.

Approaches to classroom management are often classified as being humanistic or behavioral. Humanistic approaches attempt to analyze and deal with the causes of behavior problems. Linda Albert's Cooperative Discipline (1989), which matches interventions to four goals of student misbehavior (attention, power, revenge, and failure avoidance) and William Glasser's Reality Therapy (1966), which uses individual conferences with students to help them accept responsibility for their behavior, are examples of this type of approach. Discipline techniques used in the Responsive Classroom Model, such as joint rule creation, collaborative problem solving, and logical consequences for misbehaviors (Northeast Foundation for Children, Inc., 2011) have much in common with humanism.

Behavioral methods apply the principles of operant conditioning to enforce rules and modify students' behavior. Lee Canter's Assertive Discipline (2001), which consistently enforces classroom rules through applying positive and negative consequences, is an example of a widely-used behavioral approach.

Marzano, Marzano, and Pickering (2003) list research-based guidelines that are crucial in having a well-managed classroom regardless of the model or approach a teacher uses. Foremost among these is developing rules and procedures early in the school year. Having five to seven general rules works best, and it is beneficial to have students participate in creating classroom rules. Developing good relationships with students is also a key as is maintaining a balance between dominance and cooperation. Interestingly, veteran teachers often become more dominant and less cooperative over time. Another important factor related to effective classroom management is the development of what Marzano, Marzano, and Pickering call an appropriate "mental set." This includes two components, the first of which is what Jacob Kounin (1970) called "withitness." Teachers who have withitness demonstrate an increased awareness of what is going on in their classrooms and as a result tend to have fewer discipline problems. The second aspect of mental set is emotional objectivity, which allows the teacher to keep emotional control and approach discipline issues in a matter-of-fact way (Marzano, Marzano, and Pickering, 2003).

Appropriately using "influence techniques," such as those offered by Redl and Wattenberg (1959), is also a key factor in effective classroom management. Specific influence techniques include signaling, stopping and making eye-contact with the offending student; proximity, walking toward or standing near a misbehaving student; and interest boosting, calling on a disinterested student or using the student's name in a sentence (Snowman, McCown, and Biehler, 2012).

Before concluding this section of the Knowledge Base, it is important to recognize the connection between effective instruction and classroom management.  As Oliver and Reschly, 2007) noted, "Highly effective instruction does not completely eliminate problem behavior, but it will reduce such behavior by encouraging higher rates of academic engagement and on-task behavior" (p. 13).

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Rimm-Kaufman, S. E., Fan, X., Chiu, Y. I., & You, W. (2007). The contribution of the Responsive Classroom approach on children's academic achievement: Results from a three year longitudinal study. Journal of School Psychology, 45, 401-421.
Rothstein, P. (1990). Education psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Sass, E. (1989). Motivation in the college classroom: What students tell us. Teaching of Psychology, 16(2), pp. 86-88.
Tschannen-Moran, M. & Woolfolk-Hoy, A. (2001). Teacher efficacy: Capturing an elusive construct. Teaching and teacher education, 17, 783-805.

Updated July 2012 by Edmund J. Sass