Creating Significant Learning Environments

If you were to ask me what the most important characteristic of a good teacher is, I would tell you without hesitation that it is the ability to make a student want to learn.


It has been said many times, but it bears repeating: We live in a world of constant change. The fact that knowledge and the way we put that knowledge to use is changing so rapidly, demands that we think differently about how we educate students—or more appropriately—how we set the conditions that are optimal for their education. It is or should be every educator’s goal to stoke passion and encourage imagination in the lives of his or her students. In their book, A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change, authors Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown offer some practical and informed insight into the ways teachers in classrooms across America can best impact their students in a positive way. As I think about the most effective way to create a significant learning environment (CSLE), I will look to incorporate the insights provided by Thomas and Brown.

What follows is my first attempt to create a significant learning environment by recognizing the components of this learning approach as identified by Dr. D. Harapnuik. Furthermore, I will weave into the explanation of my learning environment the tenets put forward by Thomas and Brown.

I don’t think I’m espousing a revolutionary thought when I say the focus of a learning environment should be on the learner, but, astoundingly, the curriculum is traditionally the starting point for what the student will be expected to prove learning of. Appropriately, CSLE begins with the learner. The first consideration when establishing a learning environment is the needs of the student. In the Significant Learning Environment I am trying to create, Career and Technical Education (CTE) instructors are the learners. My goal is to facilitate an environment in which these instructors will take ownership of their classrooms and teaching so that they, in turn, facilitate an environment that encourages job readiness skills that lead to student certifications, internships, and, ultimately, careers in business and industry, public service, and STEM related fields. The importance of the student’s role cannot be minimized here. When creating a significant learning environment, the onus for “taking control and ownership of their learning” lies with the learner (Harapnuik 2018).

If the learner is responsible for owning his or her leaning, what, you might ask, is the instructor’s role in the CSLE approach? The instructor’s role transitions to that of “presenter, facilitator, coach, and mentor (Haraphuik 2018). With learning in a classroom potentially veering off in multiple directions in pursuit of the different answers students are seeking, the instructor has no hope of being the sole gatekeeper of information. In CSLE, the teacher embraces the students’ use of technology tools; therefore, the teacher quickly realizes, that he/she has no hope of competing with Google for providing answers to the myriad questions that arise in a student-centered classroom (Brown & Thomas 2011). To illustrate this point in the CTE automotive classroom, imagine needing to learn how to replace a distributor cap on a number of different makes and models of automobiles. Do you think the most accurate and efficient means of learning how to perform this maintenance repair would be to rely on the one automotive instructor explaining how to do it, or would it be to consult various manufacturers’ websites and YouTube videos to see how the distributor cap is removed and replaced on different vehicles? I think the answer is clear.

Brown and Thomas dedicated a significant portion of their book to their examination of the collective as a powerful engine to further learning. They provided illustrative examples of how tapping into multiple people dedicated to an area of inquiry is so much more powerful and informative than the previous way of learning, which was by relying on a trusted informed source, such as the Encyclopedia Britannica or Walter Cronkite (Brown & Thomas 2011). When the computer programmer needed to understand the “machine-speak” explanation for the error codes he encountered, he took to the web for a human translation. These translations were provided by hundreds of other programmers who no-doubt felt the same frustration at an earlier time. When the patient was desperately seeking information about a serious diagnosis he just received, a collective group dedicated to diabetes support provided true peace of mind. Or when Sam was trying to improve his Scratch programming skills, he relied on a community of similarly minded people who helped him learn and meet the very particular set of needs that he had (Brown & Thomas 2011). In each of these instances collectives not only helped these people learn, but, undoubtedly, the fact that these people participated in the collective strengthened the group even more. This power of the collective through social networking is a key component to CSLE. To further the CTE example, imagine a collaborative of culinary arts teachers offering expertise to one another on the best way to teach students how to braise short ribs or sous vide tenderloin. The power of the collective is profound.

Another important component of CSLE is the instructional design wherein the end is the starting point; the instructor designs the learning with this end in mind. If we backward design our lessons with the outcome being the primary objective that frees us up to pursue that outcome in a way that makes the most sense to the learner. Instead of teaching one set way of approaching a problem, students bring their individual perspectives to the challenge resulting in many different approaches to finding a solution. Take the classic bridge design challenge in a CTE STEM class. A teacher can task a classroom of students to build a bridge. The teacher then introduces constraints into the assignment, e.g. length of the span, amount of weight it must hold and allowable building materials, etc. The students then must work toward that end—taking into consideration the constraints—to arrive at the best solution. Along the way, the instructor can provide mathematical formulas and laws of physics that will assist in their design. When approached this way, it opens up many more avenues for leaning, exploration, and imagination.

Finally, at the end of a unit, we want to provide an opportunity for students to demonstrate their learning. This does not—SHOULD NOT—always be in the form of an exam. Particularly in the CTE classroom, teachers have a unique opportunity to allow students to show mastery of a concept by building, programming, editing, cooking, welding, diagnosing, planning or arguing something. CTE is all about doing; we provide students the opportunity to show us what they have learned by demonstrating the skills they have acquired.

By creating significant learning environments that put the learner first, allow the instructor to act as facilitator and mentor, embrace the collective through social networking, introduce learning that puts the end result at the forefront, and allow students to demonstrate their learning in multiple ways, we have the power to embody the most important characteristic of a great teacher. We can create a climate in which students want to learn. And as Douglas Thomas pointed out in his TED Talk, when students want to learn, there is no stopping them.


Brown, J. S., & Thomas, D., (2011). A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the imagination for a world of constant change. (Vol 219) Lexington, KY: CreateSpace

Harapnuik, D. CSLE vs Traditional.

Thomas, D. A New culture of learning (TEDxUFM) [Video].

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