Learning Environment and Student Engagement

The following is a discussion of some critical elements of an effective classroom.  These critical elements include strategies for student involvement, strategies to increase student responsibility and social development, and a philosophy and strategy for reward and punishment.  I will specifically discuss them in terms of activities I will use in my classroom and how those activities will achieve my goals as regards these critical elements of success.

Mastery Learning and Standards as a Sport

            My approach to learning is somewhat off paradigm.  I believe that so long as we teach in a standards-based, standardized testing environment, a teacher should embrace all that requires.  My curriculum will be built around a shared classroom goal of success in the year-end standardized testing.  As a class, we will hold a shared goal of collective high achievement on those exams.  We will treat them as if they were a year-end competitive festival, an annual academic Olympics of a sort.  In that Olympic metaphor, the class is a country.  Each athlete’s performance matters to the team and each class member will work towards shared success with every other class member.

This has certain implications.  First, every student will achieve as much sequential mastery as is possible given the resource constraints.  This is at variance to the more conventional approach that would say that each student would achieve as much mastery of each lesson as can be achieved in a given timeframe, with given resources.  Instead, we want each step, each lesson, to be fully learned – mastered – by each student.  It may be that at the end of the year, time and resources have not been sufficient to master every element but at each step of the way, mastery has been achieved.  We leave behind no weak links in the chain of learning to later break and betray the student.

This is done by heavily differentiated education.  Learning is largely student-centered and each student will understand that collective and individual learning is his or her responsibility.  Students who master particular lessons, concepts, or units will spend their incremental time, not being bored or speeding ahead, but in teaching those who are struggling with that lesson, concept or unit.  By teaching, the students cement their learning and gain self-efficacy by helping their peers.  By being helped by peers, students have incremental resources, time, and approaches to a topic, scaffolding their comprehension.  This heavy emphasis on peer-to-peer learning is particularly helpful to ELL’s and many categories of special needs, but is fantastic for every student.

This philosophy is beneficial in many ways.  Of course, it makes for a team-oriented, academically oriented, high achieving classroom.  In addition, it gives each student a solid foundation in the standards and that foundation is essential to success in standards yet to come.  It is difficult to build learning on weak prior knowledge.  Ironically, by honoring the standards based environment, it creates incremental learning time for the broad spectrum learning that is so effective in character development and lifelong learning.  By narrowly focusing on the “academic” goals, they can be taught more effectively and faster, freeing time to also teach art and music and other life enriching and holistic-learning subjects.  It is highly effective in achieving student involvement.  Competition, done correctly, is fun and highly motivational.  It gives learning a purpose and an objective and it harness natural energies and adrenaline to positive behaviors.  Finally and most importantly, it teaches each student responsibility and aids their social development.  By having such a high level of student interdependence and cooperation, each child learns how an effective social unit works and how each person holds responsibilities to each member of his or her community.  The high level of interaction also supports social development in the same fashion, through immersion, modeling, and teacher-supported and practice.

Rules Setting

            To support this cooperative ecology, a solid behavioral philosophy and supporting rules set is required.  Every classroom needs a rules philosophy and a related set of rules and mine will be no different.  However, in a classroom with such clear mutual goals and interdependence, the shape of the rules philosophy and the necessary requirements on each individual’s behavior will be more obvious, logical, and intuitive.

In my classroom, these rules will be set by me and the students working in harmony each year.  The rules will be based on the highest principles of trust and respect.  Behaviors will be defined that support the mutual learning objectives and the emotional, intellectual, and physical safety of each classmate team member.  The rules setting process will begin immediately and in parallel with the class’s exploration of the concepts of mastery learning and standardized tests as a sport.  The discussion and creation of classroom rules will be one of the first lessons in interdependence, cooperation, and responsibility.  Students will learn the standards of behavior as they define and elucidate them.  Because they are student driven, they will have more resonance, authenticity, and power.  More important, helping to set the rules is a powerful and novel indicator that academic learning can be of service to each student.  It need not be an “other,” something that is done simply because it is required.  What better way to involve students in their own education than to begin the year with them setting the rules that will underlay their academic community?  As for teaching responsibility, responsibility needs to be learned by holding responsibility.  Having set the rules adds a truth to the classroom rules that no outside rules set could achieve.  By both making the rules and being subject to the rules, the students in my class will learn responsibility.

Using Students’ Interests as Motivation

            A third way that I will ensure student involvement is by making the learning relevant to as many students as possible, as often as possible.  This can be as simple as how the room is decorated, reflecting the interests garnered from the start of year student survey I will collect.  It continues, simply, with things like using student interests to create examples (“If Luke has an X-Wing Fighter and Han has a Y-Wing Fighter, how many fighters do they have between them?”).  It can be more complex as well.  Students need to know why something is worth knowing.  In history, starting with a dramatic movie sets the scene and creates enormous personal connection and relevance for a new unit (watching Tora, Tora, Tora before a trip to Pearl Harbor, for example).  Having a classroom store suddenly teaches the need for addition and subtraction as does playing games like Yahtzee.  Nothing needs to be dry and lifeless.  Even rote memorization can be done through games and competition, changing the experience completely.  This is one area where computers are a great tools, making drilling fun.  Finally, relevance and linkages to student interests create motivation.  Students do not need prodding to do the things they love.  Making learning something that is loved or involves things they love is a marvelous way to increase on task behavior and long-term retention (Jones & Jones, 2010, p. 236-237).

Peer Mediation

            Peer mediation (Hardin, 2008, p. 218-227) is a powerful concept in a classroom such as I describe.  It harnesses many of the structural elements of such a classroom and brings them together in one activity.  Classroom culture is central to this pegagogical vision, especially the student-created classroom rules set.  There are collective academic objectives and student-centered, peer-supported learning modalities.  The entire atmosphere in the classroom is of mutual support, collective striving, and respect in interactions.  It is an obvious step to tie all this together with peer mediation.  By having the core of behavior resolution be student-centered, the entire structure is made authentic.  One of the big challenges with creating authenticity in a classroom is the need to actually be authentic.  It sounds obvious, but, all too often, student-centered practice is just set dressing for the teacher’s intention and authority.  Having student mediation as the foundation of behavioral stability in the classroom gives life to the system I have described.

I believe that student mediation should be a team-based practice.  I also believe that every student should have his or her turn at mediation.  By working with fellow students to mediate and by rotating in and out of the mediation role, enormous learning takes place.  I can think of no better way to internalize responsibility, respect, and social efficacy than to serve in this environment as a student and peer mediator.

Reward and Punishment

            I believe that external incentives are ineffective beyond their narrow employment.  They create no behavioral transformation and no learning.  Therefore, reward and punishment in the traditional sense of the phrase will be absent from my classroom.  However, their authentic, intrinsic equivalents are transformational and do change behavior forever.  These are what the classroom will use.

In terms of rewards, there is no greater reward than participation and success in a team endeavor.  The day to day striving is powerfully nutritious to the soul.  Each visible step of progress towards the team’s goals is hugely rewarding and motivational.  Giving and winning respect is powerful behavioral glue.  Simply being satisfied at mastering a lesson or skill is a great reward, especially when that lesson or skill holds personal relevance.  It is true that “students who are succeeding rarely misbehave” (Lang & Evans, 2006, p. 196).  It is also true that all students wish to succeed.  By putting a structure in place to allow and support each student’s success, rewards are put in place automatically.

I do not believe in punishment.  I believe that what it teaches best is how to punish.  This is not a skill I want to teach.  However, it is true that children are human and they will make mistakes.  Some of those mistakes will violate the rules and some will be hurtful.  The principle of responsibility requires that each student be responsible for his or her mistakes.  Being disruptive harms every student, distracting for the collective achievement of the shared goals.  Hurtful behavior hurts.  Both examples, and any such others, need to be, figuratively and, perhaps, literally, cleaned up.  Cleaning up means not leaving a hurt or a mistake unresolved.  Hurtful behavior requires remorse and a genuine apology.  Destructive behavior requires the same, plus a good faith effort to mitigate the destruction.  Trashing a flowerbed might require service to that flowerbed.  Making a mess most likely will require cleaning up that mess.  Wasting the class’s time might require a contribution to the class’s achievement, possibly extra work in preparation for a new activity.  Not doing homework hurts the group’s achievement but can be cleaned up through renewed and extra academic study.  While this may resemble “Logical Consequences” (Hardin, 2008, p. 83-84), it is different in context and affective outcome.  The disciplinary system in this classroom is authentic, student-centered, respect-based, and integral to the academic and behavioral ontology of the classroom.


            Supporting the academic and social outcomes for a group of children is a profound responsibility.  By building my classroom around shared learning goals and collective behavioral expectations based on mutual respect, I believe that I will fulfill that responsibility with full mindfulness of those lives entrusted to me.

By making the learning goals mastery driven, I am teaching responsibility, social development, and the academic subject matter.  By allowing the students to set the rules for the classroom to reflect the classroom’s learning goals, I am again teaching responsibility and supporting the academic learning goals by creating a safe, positive classroom with a minimum of time lost to off-task behavior.

By harnessing the power of students’ interests, I link their internal motivations and fascinations to the academic content matter in a powerful and highly effective way.  In doing so, I also support self-efficacy by increasing the quantity and likelihood of academic success.  This, in turn, creates a positive cycle of increasing academic success and improved behavioral outcomes and on-task behavior.

By implementing peer mediation as the first level of disciplinary response, I glue the entire classroom structure to authenticity and effectiveness.  Knowing and acting with the title and responsibility of peer mediator teaches respect and good behavior in a manner well beyond what any amount of reward, punishment, or teacher-centered lecturing could achieve.  It literally places the weight of every aspect of achievement on the intrinsic, positive truth of each student.

Finally, in such a system rewards and punishment are irrelevant.  The students have authentic shared and individual goals, self-set rules structures, and the power and responsibility of enforcement in their own hands.  The rewards are intrinsic and powerful.  There is no punishment, though there is the need to accept responsibility for mistakes, show remorse, and make amends as best can be made.  However, this is social decency and social responsibility, not punishment.  Such a classroom would be a demanding, exhilarating, and effective environment.  I look forward to the day I can begin building it.




Hardin, C. J. (2008). Effective classroom management (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice Hall.

Jones, V., & Jones, L. (2010). Comprehensive classroom management (9th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill.

Lang, H. R., & Evans, D. N. (2006). Models, Strategies, and Methods for Effective Teaching. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

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