Behaviour

7. Positive learning environment

Video transcript

Presenter intro

We want our classrooms to feel like good places. We want the classroom environment to be positive, predictable and safe. We want all pupils to know that their efforts will be acknowledged, their successes will be celebrated, and that their mistakes can be fixed. Teachers can create this positive environment and within it, pupils can thrive.

Expert insight

A positive environment is one in which pupils are supported to do their best work. Their teacher has high expectations in their ability and they’re able to focus on their learning without getting distracted or worrying about mistakes. And, they are provided with helpful strategies to self-regulate their emotions. All of this together helps pupils to be successful.

There are many ways in which teachers can build a positive learning environment. Establishing expectations and routines provides an important foundation. This means your routines are running smoothly, you set clear expectations, including the positive behaviours that you want to see, and you are consistent in your approach. For example, before asking a question to the class, you might remind them that making mistakes is normal and everyone is expected to try. Or before taking individual responses, you might remind the rest of the class to think about how they can help if somebody gets the answer wrong.

We want to create an environment in which making mistakes and learning from them are a part of the daily routine, and it can be helpful to include this in your expectations.

It is also important to explicitly teach the sorts of behaviours that create a positive learning environment and support pupil learning. This will involve identifying the behaviours that you want to see and thinking of ways to teach them to pupils. In a primary setting, for example, you might want pupils to be able to express what they are feeling and so teach them about a range of different emotions to expand their emotional vocabulary. Or teach pupils how to use a sentence stem that helps to describe feelings: “I feel something because…” Being able to name and describe emotions is an important first step in being able to self-regulate them.

Teachers also need to model the positive behaviours that will support learning. Teachers are role models who can influence the attitudes, values and behaviours of their pupils. This includes being polite, respectful and courteous to all pupils, modelling what to do when they find a task difficult or modelling what to do when they make a mistake. For example, a teacher might say “I know this task will feel difficult, but I am going to attempt it. If I get the answer wrong, I can fix it. Mistakes are normal and this will help with my learning much more than if I don’t attempt it at all.”

What teachers do in the classroom can have a big impact on what their pupils do.

As well as modelling positive behaviours, teachers can reinforce positive behaviours by drawing attention to them when they occur. Teachers can acknowledge positive behaviours that meet their expectations, such as pupils packing away their books neatly. Teachers can also praise behaviours that exceed their expectations. If a pupil works especially hard on a task, a teacher might say something like “well done for persevering with that second task, even though it was really challenging”.

Drawing attention to effort rather than ability is an important feature of a positive learning environment.

Of course, creating a positive learning environment doesn’t mean that we have to avoid all negatives. There may well be times when it’s appropriate and necessary to sanction a pupil, especially any behaviour or bullying that threatens emotional safety. Equally, over praising pupils for simply meeting, rather than exceeding your expectations, can backfire as it might cause pupils to try less hard in the future.

But, if we want our pupils to do their best work, we need to build an environment that is positive, predictable and safe. Teachers have a huge influence on pupils. It’s in their grasp to create an environment where pupils succeed.

Presenter exemplification training

Let’s look at an example of how you can actively build a positive learning environment. You’re about to watch Ambition Institute coach Leah Wooldridge model a response to a pupil error. As you watch, pay particular attention to how Leah achieves the following:

  • Show that making mistakes and learning from them are part of the daily routine.
  • Creates a culture of respect and trust.

Exemplification training

One way in which teachers can build a positive learning environment is to make pupils feel safe enough to reveal errors. I’m going to model a way of responding to mistakes. I’m teaching a year 9 maths class and they have just been practising how to calculate percentage increase using the decimal method.

“I want to see what you have understood about how to use the decimal method to calculate percentage increase and, as I said before you started working, I’m going to call on some individuals to share their answer and their thinking process. Remember, we haven’t done this before and there are quite a few steps involved. You might have made some mistakes. Don’t worry if you have, that’s normal and this will give you a chance to correct them. For those of you who are listening, I want you to also check if you think the answer is correct or not and think about why. We’ve all got a really important job to do here so let’s try our best.

Anna, what answer did you get?

[pupil gives incorrect answer]

Ok. Tell me how you got the answer

[pupil explains their process and teacher writes it up on the board.]

Thanks, that’s helpful. We will come back to that.

Josh, what answer did you get?

[pupil gives correct answer].

Ok, tell me how you got the answer [teacher’s tone is the same as above when pupil gave incorrect answer

[Pupil explains their process and teacher writes it up on the board].

Thank you Anna and Josh. I’ve got a much clearer idea of what you were thinking. Anna, you’ve made a couple of mistakes. Hands up in the class if you realised as you listened that you also made a few mistakes?

[a number of pupils put their hands up].

Ok. Now we’re going to go through the process again, identify where we went wrong and correct our thinking.”

In this model, making mistakes and learning from them is a normal part of what we do. I told pupils that it is likely that some of them will have made mistakes because this is new and challenging material. Anticipating mistakes helps both teachers and pupils to react in a neutral way when they occur. Mistakes are not surprising; they are to be expected. I also asked each pupil to explain their thinking so that we could identify the mistake clearly. I’m not just interested in whether pupils got the answer right or wrong. Instead, I want to understand why they have given this answer: I want to understand their thinking.

This model also demonstrated a way of creating a culture of respect and trust in the classroom. I reacted to both pupils who gave their answer in the same way: thanking them and using a neutral tone. I didn’t comment on their answer at this stage. Also, I reminded all pupils that they could learn a lot by listening to someone else’s response, even if it is wrong. I am making it clear that in this classroom, we value the contributions that every pupil makes.

This is one example of how you can create a positive learning environment. But it won’t be as effective on its own. Positive learning environments grow through an accumulation of small steps that teachers can plan and practice. Over time, and with a consistent approach, they can ensure that classrooms are a safe place for all pupils to learn.

Presenter summary

In this video we have thought about what a positive learning environment might look like and some of the ways in which teachers can achieve this. Before we finish, read the key ideas. Have you seen any examples of these ideas from colleagues at your school?

  • Creating a positive environment where making mistakes and learning from them and the need for effort and perseverance are part of the daily routine.
  • Acknowledging and praising pupil effort and emphasising progress being made.
  • Creating a culture of respect and trust in the classroom that supports all pupils to succeed (e.g. by modelling the types of courteous behaviour expected of pupils).

Creating a positive environment is an essential task for all teachers. It can have a profound impact on pupils’ attitude to learning and success at school. We need to think carefully about this environment and take small, purposeful steps to ensure that it works for all pupils.

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Teaching challenge

Ms Mahrez is increasingly pleased with the behaviour of her pupils. However, they are not always willing to think hard or take risks in their learning. For example, they are sometimes reluctant to contribute answers when they think they might be incorrect and give up quickly when tasks are challenging. She wants pupils to develop approaches to challenging goals which support them to be resilient and independent. How can Ms Mahrez move from simply managing behavioural issues such as low-level disruption, to actively encouraging behaviours that underpin successful learning?

Key idea

Teachers should seek to model and develop positive attitudes, values and behaviours that underpin successful learning – particularly emotional self-regulation – and show pupils the role of making mistakes in being successful.

Evidence summary

Moving beyond compliance

Teacher expectations matter: the extent to which a teacher believes a pupil is likely to achieve alters that pupil’s experience of the classroom and their own likelihood of success (Coe et al., 2014; Tsiplakides & Keramida, 2010). Ms Mahrez has communicated and embedded high expectations of pupil behaviour into her classroom routines and behaviour management systems. With these essential foundations in place, she now needs to build further on these to maximise pupil learning. This can be achieved by modelling and embedding attitudes, values and behaviours that support pupils to learn more successfully.

Effective teaching sets goals which challenge pupils and is demanding yet supportive in ensuring pupils successfully meet these (Coe et al., 2014). Ms Mahrez has reflected on the behaviours she wants to see and those which her pupils would benefit most from developing to successfully tackle such work. For example, she wants her pupils to be willing to join class discussions and offer answers even when their thinking is not fully developed, or when there is a risk of being wrong. Pupils sharing their thinking will enable her to gather more information on what her pupils know and don’t know, improving her ability to teach responsively and supporting pupil success (Black and Wiliam, 2009; Speckesser et al., 2018). 

Ms Mahrez’s focus is still on the climate in her classroom but it has shifted from behaviours which might hinder her teaching to behaviours which will support her to teach, and pupils to learn, more successfully.

Modelling effective learning behaviours

Adults can be powerful role models for pupils. Where trusting relationships are present, what teachers do will influence how pupils behave and the choices they make (Johnson et al., 2016). Ms Mahrez realises that before explaining desired behaviours she first needs to model them – how she acts is as important as what she says. Once Ms Mahrez has planned exactly what she wants to model to pupils – for example, proactively contributing, sharing answers that they are unsure of and supporting others who contribute in class – she can then direct pupil attention to her behaviours in these areas. 

Effective teaching ensures that pupils experience success and helps them recognise failures as natural steps on the path to future success (Coe et al, 2014). Ms Mahrez can embrace this by showing pupils why errors are useful for her teaching, what a respectful and safe class climate looks like and calling on pupils to emulate these resilient and motivated behaviours. 

Effective teaching also seeks to develop pupils’ emotional self-regulation (EEF, 2018). By modelling the emotional impact of sharing an answer that might be wrong, she can help pupils develop their self-awareness (“this might feel hard”) and their self-regulation (“making an attempt and failing is a natural part of learning. Getting it wrong now is a step on the path to getting it right in the future”). This is crucial as often pupils refuse tasks where they feel there is a risk they will fail (Kluger & de Nisi, 1996).  

Supporting pupils to understand and adopt effective learning behaviours

In addition to modelling, Ms Mahrez can improve her classroom environment by supporting pupils to understand and adopt behaviours and attitudes that will help them to learn more effectively. 

To achieve this, Ms Mahrez needs to direct pupil attention to the specific behaviours she has modelled – particularly linked to resilience and motivation – and explain why these are important. For example, she can explain that it is important for pupils to be open in contributing answers in class so that she can understand their errors. She can also explain that she needs pupils to be supportive and respectful of each other to create an environment where classmates feel comfortable contributing even where they might be wrong. Pupil behaviours can further be shaped by behaviour they observe in their peers (IES, 2008). So, Ms Mahrez should draw attention to other pupils exhibiting the positive behaviours she wants to see.

Effective teachers often attribute pupil success to ‘effort rather than ability’, and value ‘resilience to failure’ (Coe et al, 2014). In developing this attitude in her pupils, Ms Mahrez needs to reward effort and highlight its contribution to success. When a pupil works hard, thinks hard or attempts a problem, Ms Mahrez should construct her praise to help pupils understand that these behaviours and mind-sets are valuable approaches to learning that will make success more likely.

When reinforcing her modelling, Ms Mahrez should ensure her words and actions line up. She should consistently remind pupils who are not meeting her expectations, and still distinguish between acknowledgement for expectations met and praise for expectations exceeded. 

Nuances and caveats 

Getting the balance between pupil success and encouraging pupil errors is challenging for Ms Mahrez. Teachers should aim for a high success rate (Coe et al., 2014) while developing pupil emotional self-regulation to support them to address the inevitable negative feelings around errors.

Key takeaways

Teachers can create a positive environment where behaviour promotes learning by understanding that:

  • Teacher expectations affect pupil attitudes, values and behaviours, and therefore influence learning outcomes.
  • Teachers are role-models for pupils. What teachers say and do will influence pupil behaviour, attitudes and values.
  • Teachers can promote pupil behaviour which is resilient and motivated by developing pupil emotional self-regulation. This means they have a healthy approach to failure as part of the learning process and also ensures pupils regularly experience meaningful success.

Further reading 

EEF. (2018). Teaching and learning toolkit. Entry on social and emotional learning. bit.ly/ecf-eef14

EEF. (2019). Improving Social and Emotional Learning in Primary Schools. bit.ly/eef-ecf15

References

Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (2009). Developing the theory of formative assessment. Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability, 21(1), 5–31.

Coe, R., Aloisi, C., Higgins, S., & Major, L. E. (2014). What makes great teaching. Review of the underpinning research. Durham University. bit.ly/ecf-coe

EEF. (2018). Teaching and learning toolkit. bit.ly/ecf-eef14 

Johnson, S., Buckingham, M., Morris, S., Suzuki, S., Weiner, M., Hershberg, R. & Lerner, R. (2016). Adolescents’ Character Role Models: Exploring Who Young People Look Up to as Examples of How to Be a Good Person. Research in Human Development, 13(2), 126–141.

Kluger, A. N., & DeNisi, A. (1996). The effects of feedback interventions on performance: A historical review, a meta-analysis, and a preliminary feedback intervention theory. Psychological Bulletin, 119(2), 254–284.

Speckesser, S., Runge, J., Foliano, F., Bursnall, M., Hudson-Sharp, N., Rolfe, H. & Anders, J. (2018). Embedding Formative Assessment: Evaluation Report. bit.ly/ecf-eef9

Tsiplakides, I. & Keramida, A. (2010). The relationship between teacher expectations and student achievement in the teaching of English as a foreign language. English Language Teaching, 3(2). bit.ly/ecf-tsi

Check

Answer the questions in the quiz to check your understanding of the evidence summary.

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Reflect

Reminder of key takeaways

Teachers can create a positive environment where behaviour promotes learning by understanding that:

  • Teacher expectations affect pupil attitudes, values and behaviours, and therefore influence learning outcomes.
  • Teachers are role-models for pupils. What teachers say and do will influence pupil behaviour, attitudes and values.
  • Teachers can promote pupil behaviour which is resilient and motivated by developing pupil emotional self-regulation. This means they have a healthy approach to failure as part of the learning process and also ensures pupils regularly experience meaningful success.

Reflect on the following questions:

  1. What did you see in this module that you already do or have seen in other classrooms?
  2. What do you feel is the gap between your current practice and what you have seen in this module?
  3. Which of the ‘key takeaways’ do you need to focus on? Where and when might you try to apply them to your teaching?