Pam Woolner looks at the variety of ways in which the widely-used term ‘learning environment’ is employed

‘Learning environment’ is a term used in connection with a range of quite specific areas of education, as well as to convey some broad ideas about learning. We’re all using the phrase, but are we talking about different things? Searching the DCSF website produces links to the reasonably separate issues of virtual learning environments, school premises and healthy school initiatives. Of course there is some overlap in what people in these areas consider to be the learning environment, but their foundational concerns give rather different senses to their use of the term.

The Healthy Living Blueprint for Schools aims to provide ‘five key objectives that have been identified to help schools create a healthier environment’ and covers organisational, educational and physical aspects of the school experience which influence student health. Those writing about school premises, where much of the current focus is on Building Schools for the Future (BSF), generally have a more narrowly physical understanding of learning environment, though this is not always the case. Finally, within this round-up of quite specific uses of the phrase, those interested in ICT refer to the ‘virtual learning environment’. At some level this does not ‘really’ exist, hence the use of ‘virtual’, but those thinking about it draw parallels to social, cultural and physical aspects of the real world. This links their understanding of learning environment to the others, but clearly the focus is different.

Broader meanings

Returning to the DCSF website, searching for ‘learning environment’ also throws up more general information based on a broader conception of the learning environment and its implications for education. For example, the document Positive Behaviour and the Learning Environment considers how educators can develop the learning environment, which is understood as being comprised of four factors: physical; relationships; structures and expectations; and language and communication. Also included is a diagram of the child’s learning environment. It nests the immediate physical surroundings – the classroom and the child’s table – within ever-widening conceptions – the family, wider community and society – that clearly have social, as well as physical, sides.

It is not just the DCSF using the phrase learning environment in such a broad way. The contents of Learning Environments Research demonstrate that the journal’s editors include such aspects of the educational experience as cooperation between students, teacher’s use of language, teacher-student relationship and styles of teaching and assessment within their definition of learning environment.

This wide interpretation clearly annoys some people. A group of American architects and planners, concerned with the pre-school learning environment, complain that the ‘best-known’ environment rating scales ‘have questionable validity’ since ‘they are virtually silent on the qualities of the physical environment. That is, they do not assess the possible impact of physical environmental variables… For example, in the Harms and Clifford Infant/Toddler “Environment” Rating Scale (emphasis added), despite its name, only 8.8% of the items have any physical environmental content.’

Yet the interpretation of learning environment as being pretty much everything and anything might seem defensible on the grounds that ‘environment’ is a very extensive term and all that we experience has the potential to influence or occasion learning. It’s surely about more than the purely physical side. It can be worrying, however, when a word seems to mean  ‘just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less’, as Humpty Dumpty says in Through the Looking Glass. Phrases can become, at best, not very useful and, at worst, distinctly misleading. This is presumably what irritates architects and designers, for whom ‘environment’ has definite physical connotations. Given current environmental concerns, there is also the problem of people assuming that any mention of the word environment implies a ‘green’ agenda!

Making it clear

The most serious difficulty, though, with these different understandings of learning environment is when writers fail to make it clear which they are assuming, or comments are removed from their original context. For example, an article in Learning Environments Research (vol 4, no 3, 2001, p243) states that ‘classroom environment relates positively with academic efficacy’, where the author is talking about the social and educational situation facilitating learning. But if the finding is quoted without this context, and is instead presented with information about school design, it could appear to be supporting the claim that nice new buildings directly cause better exam results. This might sound extreme, but many of the announcements and documents referring to BSF are guilty of just this sort of muddled reporting. Perhaps the answer is to use alternatives to the word environment, such as ‘ethos’ or ‘climate’, when discussing the wider setting for learning. This latter term was used by psychologist Rudolf Moos back in the 1970s to sum up his view of multiple interacting factors creating ‘classroom climate’. It is a much more complete view of the background to any learning, based on more than narrow measures of individuals, but it avoids the potential confusion of referring to the learning environment.

For further information see the Design Council website