GSE Faculty and Alumni Work to Build Dynamic Learning Environments

When someone hears the phrase ‘learning environment,’ one would normally assume that this means a classroom. However, this phrase has many different definitions depending on who you ask. According to GSE professor and coordinator of the Ed.D. Design of Learning Environments program Janice Gobert, “At the GSE, we construe that widely— a classroom could be a learning environment, nature can be a learning environment, a museum could be a learning environment, a digital platform can be a learning environment. I define it in my own research as a very precisely operationalized digital learning environment like a learning platform.” GSE alum, Part-Time Lecturer at the Rutgers Mathematics Department, and Director of Mathematics at Middletown Township Public Schools John Kerrigan says, “I consider it to be the set of social, physical, and emotional conditions that would enable any learner, whether it is an adult learner or a younger child or an adolescent, to acquire knowledge.” GSE professor Angela O’Donnell says, “It’s really almost anything. It basically is an interaction with an individual and their outside world. So, it could be a collaborative context, it could be interacting with technology, it basically covers a multitude of types of contexts in which people learn.”

So what is the importance of a successful and supportive learning environment? “They support the learner to perform better than they would without the supportive context. They provide the scaffold to the learner’s thinking and helps them achieve more than they might have otherwise. A supportive environment is one that capitalizes on the student’s strengths and minimizes their weaknesses,” says O’Donnell. Kerrigan adds, “Because each learning environment is different, whether you are in a museum, a high school math classroom, or in a music-type setting, there has to be very careful consideration to what the learning environment and social surroundings in the environment are so that students have the tools and the help they need to build their own knowledge and then be able to apply it after they leave the learning environment. “

The elements needed to build a successful learning environment can also vary. “I really believe in constructivism. I believe in having students actively construct their own knowledge, given ​a suite of scaffolds​​ necessary to support their inquiry and problem solving. I would not characterize it as direct instruction or a place where students are passive. It would be a place where students are active, and the instructor acts as a facilitator to guide the students toward understanding,” says Kerrigan. He applies this into his work where he supervises K-12 mathematics teachers using the flipped classroom instructional model as well as in his own teaching at Rutgers University. “At Rutgers in 2015, we started flipping some of the traditional lecture courses that we offer such as the Topics in Mathematics for Liberal Arts course.  We converted it to a hybrid flipped classroom where students can watch the video content at home and then come to class ready to apply what they’ve learned with assistance from peers, learning assistants (LAs), and the instructor. This approach has been successful for a number of years now and it is one I encourage K-12 mathematics teachers to use as well.  In fact, I ran a study with another faculty member on students’ self-efficacy in a Calculus II flipped classroom at Rutgers this summer and one thing we are finding is that there was a significant increase in students’ self-efficacy in calculus over the course of the term,” says Kerrigan.

The most important element in a learning environment is the student. “I became interested in peer learning when I was a primary school teacher in Ireland and I taught in a very impoverished neighborhood. We had very little resources and I very quickly realized that the only resource that I could count on having were the students themselves to help each other because we literally had very little in the way of books and technology was unheard of and there were 33 students in the class. So, that began my interest in peer learning, as the sort of dependable resource that the teacher always has to assist other people in their learning endeavors. And that was confirmed for me when I taught at ​Gallaudet, ​which is the world’s only university for the deaf. And I didn’t know sign language, so I depended a lot on the students to help me communicate with them because I couldn’t do it without their assistance. And so they were very supportive and helpful and so those two experiences stand out for me in terms of the value I place on peer learning and how that can motivate and stimulate students to perform at their best,” recalls O’Donnell.

Not only should the environment be built to cater to the learner, but it must also change as the learner develops the skills they need. “My platform Inq-ITS (Inquiry-Intelligent Tutoring System) logs everything a learner does. Think of it like Amazon on steroids. It logs what the user is doing and then using that click-stream data, the log files, response times, what inputs they make, what they write, what selections they make, and so on. We use patented machines to make algorithms to personalize the learning experience to do real-time grading for the learner and real-time alerting for the teacher as well. So, it changes the nature of instruction on the fly for the teacher and it changes the nature of instruction on the fly for the learner. It took 11 years to develop and teachers have told me that I’ve changed their lives by using this program,” says Gobert.

These practices are seen throughout the GSE, both in terms of how students are taught about learning as well as furthering the mission of educational equity. “It is very democratizing to be able to support a learner in real time and to train them on the competencies that are important for STEM education. And STEM is where a lot of kids are very disenfranchised especially if they don’t come from upper socioeconomic backgrounds,” states Gobert. “I would say for myself as a student and also as a teacher, I think the courses and the professors encourage you to never settle for just enough. I know through my dissertation experience that I was always pushed very hard to think through everything. Through my work with the GSE faculty, I completely unearthed a course I taught for years and critically examined every single pedagogical decision I made in creating and delivering the course, including the in-class social surround, discursive practices, participant structures, tasks, observable interactions and artifacts that support deep learning. This was all done with a design-based research lens grounded in theory, which helped support all of my instructional decisions. The courses at the Graduate School of Education do push teachers and practitioners toward a higher degree of excellence and with that you become very cognizant of providing all students with an equitable learning experience,” adds Kerrigan.

O’Donnell says, “When teaching, I tell my students to constantly be thinking about the individual student and different aiding instructions so that it meets what the student needs, when the student needs it and not assuming that everyone learns in the same way. That consideration of individual differences is important when recognizing that we also have tremendous similarities in learning but that there are also differences that we need to be attentive to. In terms of achieving excellence, if we can create environments in which we are successful, we will contribute to the development of excellence. And by careful attention to the inequities in participation and alerting people to the need to be respectful of differences amongst them when they are working together, we contribute to the advancement of equity.”