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Crafting an Empowering Environment: Nurturing Student Ownership in Learning

In the ever-evolving landscape of education, a pivotal aspect is cultivating an environment where students not only learn but actively own their learning. Before discussing strategies, it is essential to understand what it means for students to own their environment. This discussion can be dissected into two perspectives – the student's viewpoint and the teacher's role in shaping this environment.


Student Perspective:


When students own their learning environment, it implies a more open setting where they possess a voice and agency. This entails the freedom to formulate their questions and explore topics or subjects of interest independently. Creating a classroom that supports children's agency differs significantly from a traditional setting where the teacher maintains complete control.


For instance, an empowered environment allows students access to a variety of materials, giving them the tools to follow their curiosity. It also grants them more time to complete their investigations, creating a sense of depth and thorough understanding. Moreover, the ability to work in small groups on topics interesting to themselves encourages collaborative exploration and shared learning experiences.


Teacher Perspective:


From the teacher's standpoint, enabling student ownership necessitates a shift in the classroom dynamic. This shift entails moving away from traditional roles of complete instruction towards becoming a facilitator of learning. This transition may pose challenges for some teachers, but it is a crucial step towards developing a more student-centric learning environment.


Shifting the role from teaching with complete instruction to being more of a facilitator of learning can be a big step for some teachers.


The Impact of Physical Space:


Carla Rinaldi, a spokesperson for Reggio Emilia schools in northern Italy, highlights the significance of physical space as a language. Students are highly sensitive to the environment. They know whether they are welcome, whether their ideas are respected and whether they have autonomy in their access to materials. In the preschools and infant-toddler centres in Reggio Emilia, the environment is seen as the third teacher after the parent and the educator. ” The environment becomes a conditioning force, influencing students' perceptions and interpretations from an early age.” A rich, stimulating environment has been proven to enhance academic, emotional, and social success in children's lives. Having a rich and stimulating learning environment is scientifically validated to improve cognitive, social and emotional development. Four researchers (Belsky, Caspi, Moffitt, & Poulton, 2020) wrote a book called 'The Origins of You' using data from the amazing longitudinal Dunedin study that followed children from childhood into adulthood. Children who had more stimulation, care and support later enjoyed greater life success.


The Complexity of Environment:


The impact of the environment on students goes beyond physical space. It encompasses the people, energy, colours, furniture, and even the aromas within the room. Recognising these elements and paying attention to their influence is vital in creating optimal conditions for learning. The environment is more inspiring and motivating if all the senses are engaged. Even the ability to move freely, to assume different postures and to work with different peers has an influence on how students respond to learning tasks.


Research on Student Voice and Agency:


Studies show that giving students more voice and agency not only improves academic outcomes but also enhances their sense of belonging. The emotional attachment and belonging to the school contribute significantly to students' overall well-being. 

Having autonomy in an environment nurtures a sense of responsibility which has been proven to contribute to life success.


Practical Steps for Teachers:


For teachers unfamiliar with offering student ownership, it is crucial to take small steps. Implementing group work in a controlled manner can be a starting point. Successful group work benefits from clear parameters. It helps if group leaders are appointed. Time, space and access to materials should be clearly defined. As students become familiar with taking control of their learning, they will increase their ownership, paving the way for more independent and collaborative learning experiences.

It can be beneficial to combine classes for successful group work. Two educators are more likely to be able to answer questions and offer guidance than one alone.

Creating an environment where students own their learning requires a holistic approach, acknowledging the language of physical space and understanding the impact on students' academic and emotional well-being. Teachers are encouraged to share their experiences and stories, contributing to the ongoing dialogue on fostering an environment where students truly own their learning.

Lili-Ann Kriegler (B. A Hons, H. Dip. Ed, M.Ed.) is an education consultant and award-winning author of Edu-Chameleon for teachers, and Roots and Wings for parents. Lili-Ann’s primary specialisations are in early childhood education (birth-9 years), leadership and optimising human thinking and cognition.  She runs her consultancy, Kriegler-Education.

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