Tag Archives: learning environments



The learning professionals within the learning environment are highly attuned to the learners’ motivations and the key role of emotions in achievement”  http://www.oecd.org/edu/ceri/50300814.pdf

I was very excited to see the concept of “attunement” included in the OECD document that currently seems to be guiding the direction of education reforms in countries like Canada. But my excitement was followed by concern that this would be yet another great idea that dies soon after launch because of a lack of practical understanding of it. For those who would prefer an academic analysis of attunement, I recommend this paper by Heesoon Bai. This post will hopefully illuminate the concept in a practical way.

Last year, through circumstances that were both serendipitous and synchronous,  I was fortunate to participate in a three-day workshop with Victor Wooten,  unquestionably the best bass player in the world right now. No, I don’t play the bass and have not played the piano since I was a teen! I felt quite comfortable in the workshop, not only because Wooten was very welcoming but also because there were  a few of us there with no other instrument but our voices.

Wooten is a master teacher and amazing to watch in action. One day during the workshop I watched in awe while he “taught” the concept of attunement without once mentioning the word.  At that point he had been talking for a while and I suppose sensed that people were not fully getting what he meant.

He went into the centre of the circle and called up 5 people, 4 who played instruments and one who sang. Without any further instruction, he began to play a bass riff. After about a minute, he nodded to one of the musicians who then began to play his instrument in harmony with the bass riff. After another minute Wooten nodded to yet another musician and then another and then to the singer. Each of the 5 people joined in, adding their instrument to the music, in complete harmony. And right there, before our eyes, an amazing piece of music was performed, a piece that had never existed before that moment. A piece that just emerged from the attunement of one musician with another. No one musician dominated the piece; each listened carefully to the others while creating sound that wove between, above and below each other’s notes.

Teaching in a 21st century classroom is about being attuned to the “music” each of your students brings into the classroom and helping them to play their instrument well while at the same time playing in harmony with everyone else in the classroom.

What is critically important to being able to do this is for the teacher herself to be attuned to her own music. To know herself well, to know her own strengths and to know where she needs help and support.

The singer in that circle with Wooten had no idea what she was being called up to do in the centre of the room. She did however know what she could do. She also knew  how what she did could complement what others were doing.  She could not provide the same sounds that the bass or the saxophone did but this was true for all the musicians in the centre. Each could use their instruments as individuals but what they could create together, when they listened carefully to each other, was magical and more than any one could do.

A teacher who is attuned to her students sees each of them as individuals and yet also part of a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts.

Attunement is not about what usually happens when a group of musicians get together and one  starts to play a known song and others follow along.  It’s also not the same as when one musician dominates an impromptu piece, leading the others.

Attunement requires a dissolution of the sense of separation between yourself and the other. It requires paying attention to something greater than you. Something that has to be felt to be truly known.

Which is why I’m concerned that this concept is going to be ignored or downplayed even though it is so critical in teaching and learning.

Teachers are most comfortable being “in charge” but to be attuned requires teachers to follow more often than to lead.

Teachers who want to be more attuned to their students will need courage to step down from their positions of control and to bravely step away from being  at the centre of  the classroom, literally and metaphorically.

I know how disquieting this can be and have previously written about my experience in a decentred classroom.  But I also know that going through the  discomfort is a necessary step to creating a learning environment for the 21st century.

Learning Environments


The latest buzzword in educational reform is “learning environments”.  These are, according to the OECD, places where constructive, self-regulated learning, that is  sensitive to context, is fostered. Critical to the success of learning in these spaces is that “learning professionals [should be] highly attuned to the learners’ motivations and the key role of emotions in achievement” and that they should also “encourage well-organized co-operative learning.”

This all sounds really wonderful and very 21st century but as someone who has spent almost 3 decades creating learning environments that are socially inviting, emotionally safe and intellectually stimulating, I can assure you that teachers are going to need much more than a text and a workshop to successfully role- shift from being primarily deliverers of content and dispensers of discipline to being “attuned to learners’ motivations” while they structure learning environments in which learners are at the centre.

It will take much more  than just a cognitive decision to change a way of being in the classroom.

If teachers do not spend time getting to know themselves, truly, and if they’re not willing to look deep into the shadows of why they do the things they do, they will be incapable of  creating for students an emotionally safe space in which miscommunication and conflict that arises amongst students and between students and the teacher is managed in a way that preserves relationships.

When a classroom becomes de-centred, when a teacher is not in complete control of all interactions,  all kinds of wonderful things can and do happen but these can be easily overshadowed if the not-so-wonderful dimensions of relationships within the learning environment are not constructively managed.

Relationships are strengthened when they can withstand, and be strengthened by the fires of conflict.  But how is a teacher to know how to deal with conflict when in her traditional role of dispenser of discipline, punishment or banishment was the norm?

Central to the success of learning environments is that teachers should ‘care’ about students’ emotional well-being but caring is not always rainbows or fuzzy Care Bears  and Hallmark cards. Caring takes courage and honesty and trust and those are not deliverable by a point and click or an announcement of a policy change.

It is not enough to be an educated adult, motivated to create a caring classroom community/learning environment.

Nothing in my undergraduate studies in Anthropology, Sociology or Psychology or my post-graduate studies in Curriculum and Instruction prepared me to know how to meaningfully manage the dynamics and dimensions of classroom relationships between students and teachers and amongst students.

I am still not aware of any teacher-education programme that directly and specifically teaches teachers, in ways beyond reading and discussing a text,  how to develop and maintain and support relationships in the classroom.  Please let me know if you do!

In the absence of such a formal program, I have learned, mostly through direct experience,  how to create a learning environment in my classroom that supports and encourages relationships between students. It is these relationships that are critical and crucial to the health of a learning environment. They are the lifeblood, the ground, of the learning environment.  Just as any biological ecosystem depends on healthy relationships between all components of the ecosystem, social learning environments cannot succeed without healthy relationships among all human beings in that environment.

Over the next few posts, I will describe the ways I structure my classroom/learning environment so that the relationship I have with each student, and the relationships amongst students and are all woven together to create a learning environment that is collaborative, self-regulated, constructive and sensitive to context. Or as I prefer, a learning environment that is socially inviting, emotionally safe and intellectually challenging.