George Lucas Educational Foundation

What's Going On? An Idea About How We Behave in a Structured Learning Environment

What's Going On? An Idea About How We Behave in a Structured Learning Environment

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As a former elementary school teacher, I am very familiar with the range of behaviors and dynamics in a classroom full of young learners. For example, there were those who wanted to sit close to me and those that wanted to be as far away as possible. There were those who preferred to never say a word and those who preferred to never be quiet. There were those who would consistently tune out and those who would designate themselves as the class clown. Some wanted to race ahead, while others struggled to keep up. Although it could be a challenge working with these various behaviors, I always considered it to be an expected part of teaching elementary-aged children.

Then I had an opportunity to take a part-time position at a local college. Going from the elementary environment during the day to higher education in the evening was going to be quite the juxtaposition, or at least that’s what I initially thought. Early on in my adjunct role, I was teaching a group of pre-service teachers how to construct a sphere (an icosidodecahedron if you want to get technical) out of 30 paper squares. This can be a pretty challenging activity, and I noticed that the students reacted in very different ways. Some students worked at a slow, steady pace and listened intently to my directions. Some saw the pattern early on and quickly moved ahead. Some became very vocal as they began to struggle, while others remained quiet. Some found the challenge very satisfying, while one struggling student excused herself to go to the restroom and never returned. It was this experience that opened my eyes to how similar the behaviors of my college students were to those of my elementary learners.

Two years ago I moved out of the elementary classroom and into an instructional technology position. A big part of my job is creating and conducting professional development workshops for teachers. As you may have already guessed, I have found the dynamics and behaviors within the workshops to be very similar to those in the two different classroom settings. In coming to this realization, the big question for me is why? Why are there such similarities between the behaviors of adults and the behaviors of elementary students in these learning environments? Shouldn’t I expect to see college students behaving differently from elementary students? Shouldn’t teachers behave somewhat differently from pre-service teachers?

I have thought about these questions over the last few years, and recently I had an idea about what might be going on. Most of us are in school from at least kindergarten through twelfth grade. That is thirteen years in which we experience a structured learning environment at approximately 180 days per year. During the course of those thirteen years we develop certain behaviors that allow us to be successful in that environment. As we mature, we modify some of those behaviors, add new ones, and drop others. Not all of these behaviors are the most desirable or the most effective. They are, however, the behaviors that help us make it through the day, through the semester, and through the year. As we move into higher education, we bring with us the behaviors we have developed.

This might explain, in part, why my college students emulate many of the same behaviors as their elementary counterparts. But what about the teachers? Why are the behaviors of these individuals similar to the other two groups? My thought on this is fairly simple. Once college is over and teachers move into the classroom, they are no longer learners in a structured learning environment. Their roles have changed, and so they develop new behaviors that will allow them to be successful in their new roles. Although there is a tremendous amount of learning that takes place for the teachers as they navigate their new profession, the learning does not take place in the same type of learning environment. It takes place in crash course sessions with the teacher next door. It takes place through hours of trial and error. It takes place at the spur of the moment. It takes place through asking the kids how to work the technology in the room.

It’s not until the teachers attend a professional development workshop that they go back into the role of learners in a structured learning environment. Once they are back in that role and in that environment, the behaviors they developed over the course of approximately seventeen years come back into play. And why wouldn’t they? Once we have found behaviors that allow us to be successful in certain environments, why would we change those behaviors? When we are once more put in that environment it makes sense that we will rely on the behaviors that allowed us to be successful in the past.

Please note that what I am talking about here deals with behaviors within a structured learning environment, and not necessarily learning styles. As adults, we are more aware of what it takes for us to learn something than say a fifth grader, who is only just beginning to learn about the concept of metacognition. (For a great resource on adult learning look at the San Diego City College website: )The behaviors I am referring to in this article deal with individual reactions to the environment, the content, and the teacher/presenter, as well as the social behaviors taking place between learners.

These thoughts about the similarities in behaviors are simply the musings of one educator. I have written this article with the hope that it might start a conversation with readers who have had similar experiences. If you have a different idea of what might be going on, or if you have an extension of this idea I would love to hear it.


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

And isn't that our biggest challenge? >> "But for the love of learning, make me care about what you are teaching me."
Keeps us on our toes every day.

Mary Jones's picture
Mary Jones
second grade teacher from michigan

Or maybe it's just how any random group of humans react when faced with a challenging learning situation. Some find it easy because they have more knowledge, experience, or other factors. Some find it difficult because they lack knowledge, experience, or other factors. Some talk it through (extroverts?) some ponder quietly (introverts?), risk takers take risks and others don't. That seems more obvious to me than claiming it as an artifact of the educational system. I guess you'd have to observe a group who has never been through the educational system to make that claim. I thought your article would point to the fact that whether you're teaching college or kindergarten, good teaching practices are much the same.

BrianPete's picture
Consultant, Author, Professional Development Designer

In my 18 years of experience working the adult learner, specifically classroom teachers, I have found that the behavior of the individual changes as the dynamics of the room changes. Also that awareness of group dynamics by each member of the group is a good first step in helping each individual modify their own behavior in a positive way.
Please see Richard and Patricia Schmuck

Gaston_teach's picture

Thank you for contributing to the conversation. I think it would be very insightful to observe the behaviors of a group of adults in a structured learning environment who had never been through the educational system. How much of our approach to a learning task is shaped by the behaviors we learned in school? How much is innate? How much is influenced by social interaction?
I think a conversation about best teaching practices is a natural progression for this topic.
Thanks. -Joe

ARain's picture

I found your comments and insights very enlightening. I like the examples you gave about the questions you ask yourself.

Gaston_teach's picture

Thank you for contributing to the conversation. I followed the link you provided, but I wasn't quite clear on where to look for the results you mentioned in your post. Can you please be more specific on where to look? Thanks.

Gaston_teach's picture

Thank you for your comments. Is this something you have encountered in your role?

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

Joe, the comment from Kiran was spam. It was removed and the account blocked. It's the internet, so it happens sometimes. :-)

Kathy's picture

I teach Senior English; my students run the gamut from AP to JWG (Just Wanna Graduate). One course that I teach is a Dual Enrollment Community College Freshman English course. The other course is a survey class.
This article will be shared with my students as we talk about classroom behavior expectations. I know my students haven't really given this topic much thought other than to roll their eyes at the juvenile antics of their peers. Perhaps this discussion will inspire some introspection.
Thanks for your insightful article.

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