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Hechinger Commentary

Social Environment

The social environment—how children relate to their teacher, one another and visitors—matters. And like other aspects of the environment, these relationships can be created, affect learning, and evolve over time. Journalists should watch and listen to pick up the tone of the classroom and the culture of the school. Though seemingly ephemeral, the tone is one factor that explains school-to-school differences in student learning. Even if the teacher and students are on their best behavior because a journalist is present, you will be able to notice signs of how the classroom operates on other days, such as student engagement.

“Engagement” is something educators talk about a lot. Learning is not something teachers do “to” students. Students have to participate, and in the lower grades usually have to be taught how to do so. What signs of student engagement do you see in these videos? Are all the children engaged in the lessons? Where are they looking? What are they doing?

You will hear educators talk about the importance of creating a “community of learners.” Evidence in these classrooms suggests that the community of students does take responsibility for the learning of others.

The social environment in high schools is laced with land mines that make teaching challenging, to say the least. Teen-agers are creating themselves, and the identity they wear in class may change as quickly as a change of clothes. Students are not just students: they’re athletes, skaters, goths, druggies, surfers, musicians, and so on. Class, race, gender, and sexual orientation also all play out in class. The mask many adolescents wear is determined indifference. Watch how teachers handle these issues to create productive conditions for learning and bring their students into the academic fold.

One factor to consider is the school schedule. Some schools create longer “block” schedules, and good teachers take advantage of the extra time to establish stronger peer-to-peer or teacher-to-student relationships. Other teachers have only 45 minutes with each class—yet, they’re expected to create a learning community. How do they do that? The class norms should be clearly stated, displayed, honored, and modeled by the teacher. Structure helps self-conscious adolescents see themselves as respected members of the group. That respect should be reflected in how students talk to one another.