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Creating Learning Environments

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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A while ago I witnessed students that were taking computer-based classes. It surprised me that they were passing their tests with ease until I figured out what they were doing. They had two screens open -- one was the computer-based course and the other screen was Google, Wikipedia, or Ask Jeeves. When they ran across a question they did not know, they just looked up the answer on one of those other sites (we had to shut that capacity down in a jiffy).

This incident made me think a bit. What do teachers have to offer students when students can learn anything they want from searching for it on the Internet? Why should a student sit in class (or classes) all day long when they can find all the information they need instantly? With so much knowledge everywhere, aren't we trying to sell a product they already have?

Come to think of it, I'm no different than those students in the computer-based learning class. When I wanted to install radiant barrier insulation in my attic all I had to do was go online and look it up. Hundreds of videos, websites, and resources popped up. I read through a few, saw that they were selling more than explaining and I went on to others. I watched a couple of how-to videos that seemed to know what they were talking about and so I used them as my model (disclaimer: installing the radiant barrier is not as easy as the videos make it appear). Voila! So with a little bit of research, I became an instant expert on something I did not know anything about previously.

Here’s another example. The other day in class, I couldn't remember how to spell a word and before I could turn around and find a dictionary, a student had already looked it up on her phone. I had it right, but it got me thinking again. How is the instant knowledge (that is available almost everywhere) changing how students learn and view education? Deep stuff. We are not quite to the point of the science fiction concepts of instant knowledge, though rapidly science fiction becomes science fact. It seems to me that we are in a transition period, primarily because we still have a huge digital divide -- some students and schools have access to technology resources, while others do not.

Even if the technology were ubiquitous (I really like that word) in school and out of school, the answer to that question is simple: Instant knowledge has changed how everyone learns because the questions we need to have answered are just a few clicks away, and this brings up more questions—Can I trust the answers? How can I double check for accuracy? What information is missing?

In the Classroom

With so much knowledge available, good and bad, for students, it boils down to a consistent focus on what they need to know. What is the role of a teacher in such a scenario? Well, we need to put aside the traditional knowledge acquisition model, “You need to know this just in case” to a new model, “You need to know this in order to (build, create, resolve, discover…) that.” The main effort of teaching shifts to designing learning environments that enable the students to realize they "need to know" certain things in order to accomplish others. How do we do this? Let me illustrate:

In my Spanish II classes, I create scenarios that motivate students to learn Spanish. For example, in order to have a reason to learn the vocabulary and phrases for travel, we recreated a hotel and the students were the employees and the guests. They created the registration forms, brochures, letter head, menus, television guides, and most importantly they researched, designed, and practiced the interactive dialogues that typically occur in hotels across the Spanish speaking world. This learning environment gave them an authentic reason to learn the verbs and the Spanish phrases that pure book-work could not provide.

The same kind of thing happens in an English class when they create newspapers, or publish books, and in social studies or history when they role-play the armistice of World War I, or the debates between Lincoln and Douglass. Science teachers do this when they design inquiry lessons about the nature of salt, or experiments concerning plant growth and fertilizer. Math teachers create rich learning environments for students to practice their skills when they set up a bakery business and students have to make financial decisions that can make the shop successful or can make it go out of business.

When the micro-computer came into vogue in schools, doomsday prophets predicted the demise of the public school teacher. Now, we have so much more technology in schools and student's pockets, and we still have teachers. What then, will be the role of the teacher when each student can look up every answer on their wrist phone, or with their eyeglasses? My answer is that we will always need great teachers. The teacher's role will be to motivate and inspire the students to want to learn, but for this to happen, the teacher must first provide a compelling answer to the oft-repeated question, "Why do I need to know this?"

How do you create learning environments that motivate students to learn? Please share in the comment section below.

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Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator

in elementary school, the students learn the 4 r's. In middle school, students are given a little choice with a couple of electives, and in high school, students are given a little more choice with more electives and career/college pathways. Another way students are choosing is through magnet schools- starting in middle school. Agreed, students cannot choose graduation requirements, nor the content of the courses--but neither can the teachers or administrators. It all depends on state and local school board control. What a student can control is how much depth and breadth of knowledge he or she wants to acquire, and that all depends on motivation, relevance and the magic of interest a teacher can bring to the subject.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

Narender Gilhotra's picture
Narender Gilhotra
17 years classroom teacher-4 to 10 grade

At the time of the invention of writing, People would have been afraid of crisis for the community educators i.e Bards, Poets, Musical Performers, as we are facing today with the increasing role of technology in the classroom. However the role of a good teacher has never been diminished.

Biosphere Env Ed's picture
Biosphere Env Ed
founder Biosphere Environmental Education

Really enjoyed your article. My experience is that the best learning environment is beyond the 4 walls of the classroom. I specialize in teaching biology and env ed by taking students out in the field to learn by experience. I want them to see, hear, feel, taste, and smell the environment around them. People only learn to appreciate nature once they have seen it first hand, are amazed by it, and that's when they start to care about it. We've just launched our organization, but we'll be running our first Youth Environmental Ambassadors Program this summer on an arctic expedition. In my view, that is just about the best learning environment. We get students engaged using a unique approach - we teach students how to take photos and videos and teach them how to use those to create their OWN visual presentations about their experiences and about environmental preservation. On the smaller scale on which I've done this before, kids are so much more engaged by this full-on experience. And teaching them to use technology to communicate is a great way to help kids to express themselves, tell their stories and share their experiences. When you combine this with inspiring them to care about the environment, kids become passionate about nature conservation.

I'd love to hear about other people's experiences with expeditionary learning. Thanks!

Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.

The whole "This is why we need to know this..." thing in classrooms is just not jiving with me. I've been told that as a student my whole student career, which is quite some time, and it rarely motivates me. Of course my students (third grade) need to know many basic skills and I always tell them why, but it hardly moves them to greatness. Why would a third grader care about about installing a rug or fence-- perimeter/area/addition/multiplication-- or writing a persuasive letter to save the tree marked for death in the island parking lot (they should of course after my rant on why we need trees) -- grammar, conventions, voice, sentence structure, research, etc...

I've seen success reversing this format. Instead of starting with the WHY start with WHAT. WHAT do you want to learn or WHAT do you want in life? Or... Then once you get them on the hook, you can squeeze in that stuff they NEED to learn.


Kid: I want a drum set in my room.
Teacher: How big is your room?
Kid: I don't know
Teacher: Well, here's how you measure it (perimeter/area). Oh...we need to know addition and multi. Let's do some practice before you go home.
Kid: OK.
Teacher: How big is the drum kit?
Kid: I don't know.
Teacher: let's find the specs on the internet (research)


Teacher: Will it fit?
Kid: Yup
Teacher: How are you going to get it?
Kid: Money...wait, my birthday is coming up, but my parents said drums are too loud.
Teacher: Well, if you need money, we can research ways to make money. But if your parents will buy you a drum kit if it isn't loud....Let's research sound-proofing your room (science of sound) and you're going to have to persuade them. Let's write something up (persuasive writing..grammar, conventions, etc...)

This is a fake scenario. I know it's not realistic for most, but I just wanted to showcase how you start with the WHAT do you want (items or knowledge) and then get into the WHY. Kids are more motivated to learn the "boring" skills in order to achieve knowledge or "things" in life.

You can do this as a FAKE scenario project (might lead to reality)

Teacher: What do you want?

Kid Answers

Video Games
A Pool
A baby sister (avoid this one)
My brother to leave my stuff alone
My parents to listen to me
A dog


Rabbi Lori's picture

In addition to being a Rabbi/Educator, I am also a certified School Library Media Teacher. As a librarian, I have been thinking about these very issues for years and years. (I recommend the book FEED, which is a fictional account of where this instant technology is taking us.) Anyway, here's what I know to be true. In addition to inspiring students to want to learn, teachers and librarians need to teach students how to learn. What resources exist and how do I use them? How can I tell is these different resources are trustworthy or not? How do I contribute to the body of knowledge found on the Internet and in print media? What is a bias and is there such a thing as a completely unbiased resource? This is the task of educators. As a Rabbi/Educator, I teach students that Rabbi Google is a truly false notion. As a librarian, I taught students that Wikipedia needs to be taken not only with a grain of salt, but with a whole box of salt! That having been said, these resources exist and are easy to access. So, how do students navigate them? Are there any benefits to using them? This is our task - teaching students how to learn in a world in which they can increasingly teach themselves facts.

Kaye-Ann Williams's picture

I enjoyed reading your article! I find that my role as a teacher is more of a facilitator as i try to get students to have the feeling that they are responsible for their learning. In my science class I allow students to work in activities that they can relate to their real life experience. I find that students are motivated to participate in learning activities that they find meaningful and can relate to or has some connection to their present situation. I also they them do the things they enjoy doing most, for example, they love using technology so i in-cooperate the use of technology in my lessons.

Katherine's picture

I really like the idea of focusing on the "What" with students to preempt the "Why" questions that they inevitably seem to ask mentioned in an earlier comment.
In my Spanish classroom I try to create situations similar to the one described in this article, though I still struggle to get my students to connect the learning of the smaller details to the bigger picture scenario.
One of my biggest struggles in recent years has been the ease of access to online translators; my challenge is to help the students understand why they need to learn Spanish when they can just look it up whatever they want to say quickly, easily and mindlessly. I try to show them that they can't get correct results when they do it mindlessly, incorporating examples of incorrect translations for things they have already learned. (For example, I've had students turn in the sentence "El vidas en Los Angeles" when trying to say "He lives in LA" - using a noun instead of a verb for the Spanish sentence.)

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

Oh, how I wish I could have created my own resort hotel in Spanish class! I would have loved the opportunity to be creative and I'm sure I would have learned so much of the language. What a great project, Ben.

I have always had my students analyze literature, coaching them to think like an author, asking why an author made certain decisions in a piece of writing. But my students didn't really seem to get it until I had them write their own novels ( -- now when we look at literature, the questions are so much more meaningful to my students: how did this author draw us into the story in the first few pages? How will you draw readers into your story? Connecting published books and the work of authors to my students' own novels brought about a significant shift in how they viewed literary analysis. It finally had a meaningful purpose for them.

Thanks for a great post, Ben.

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator


I understand your predicament. There are many instances where poor translations have caused big problems. There are plenty of reasons why the students need to know Spanish. I am reminded of a joke where a Spanish speaking bank robber hid his stolen cash and was cornered in a vacant building. A bilingual police negotiator was sent in to get him to surrender. In Spanish he tells the bank robber, "Tell me where you hid the money and they will not kill you." So the bank robber told him where the money was. The police negotiator then ran out of the building first and said in English,"He says he is not afraid to die!"
Really, all you can do is keep trying. Especially at the beginning of the year, if you don't speak any English in class, students will get the message that they need to learn Spanish. Restaurants, travel agencies, news paper reporters, eyewitnesses, movie critiques, carnivals, and fashion shows are all active ways to get students to learn a foreign language. Have fun planning these learning activities.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator

Rabi Lori:

Absolutely! Knowing how to learn is becoming more important than what to learn. The why to learn is kicks in after students learn the basics of reading, writing, and calculations. I wrote a book about helping students with the how to learn called "Teaching Students to Dig Deeper". We often point to college and career readiness as the pinnacle of independent learning. I came up with ten characteristics that students need in order to be successful independent learners. These characteristics are in my blog post One of the key elements of learning in this new day and age is to be able to engage all three types of thinking to be able to sort myth from fact but to also sort time-wasters from urgent and vital information.

You are definitely on the right track!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

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