Professional Learning

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

March 9, 2016

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.

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.

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