Literature Review: The Art of Possibility

michelangelo portraitMichelango is often quoted as having said that inside every block of stone lies a beautiful statue (Zander and Zander, 2000, p26).  In our current educational system, many students are viewed not as beautiful statues but rather simply as blocks that are unwilling to change.  The industrial model of education has received the brunt of the blame being cast on all sides from teachers, to students, to legislatures and the larger community.  Rather than focusing on assigning more blame, many researchers suggest what is needed is a shift in conceptualizing student learning and motivations in order to create learning environments that are beneficial for all parties. (The Alliance for Excellent Education , 2008;Tapola & Niemivirta  2008; Jones, 2008; Khamois, Dukmak & Elhoweris, 2008; Vansteenkiste, Timmermans, Lens, Soenens, & Van den Broeck ,2008). This review of these studies will examine the modifications necessary to transform our traditional classrooms by focusing on reshaping the classroom environment, recasting the role of a teacher and his/her instruction, and increasing student motivation.  By creating student centered classrooms where teachers deliver personalized instruction, there is evidence that students are more motivated to learn and be successful thus revealing the possibility that lies within every stone.

Reshaping the Classroom

Classrooms have not changed much if at all over the last one hundred years. Students still sit at desks, are expected to listen to their teachers, and at the end of the day go home and do the work assigned to them.  There are few notable differences in a 1920’s classroom and the classroom of today.  This is a grave concern of many of today’s educators.  The Alliance for Excellent Education has put forth their recommendations about the adaptations necessary for our outdated education model to move forward in order to create classrooms by and for the students.  MDRC, a national research organization that focuses on educational and social policy research, sited that one of the most challenging aspects of underperforming school is that their learning environments lack personalization and are unconcerned with preparing students for their future beyond school (MDRC, 2009)(Alliance for Excellent Education, 2008).  Linda DarlingHammond claims that impersonalized classrooms and lack of preparation are exactly why these schools are failing and why we need to create classrooms that are more personalized with teachers working in tandem with students in a supportive nurturing environment (Alliance for Excellent Education, 2008). Schools need to be transformed into “… personal, motivational, aspirational, challenging exciting places for students to learn and operate in a supportive system” (Alliance for Excellent Education, 2008,p.23).

If students see the learning environment as a safe place, where they are given personalized attention, as well as encouragement to try more, students will be more motivated to learn and be successful (Tapola & Niemivirta, 2008). Tapola and Niemivirta support this claim through their research into the field of student motivation in connection with classroom environments.  In their study of 208 sixth grader’s student goal profiles, motivations, and student preferences, they found that student achievement and motivation are dependent upon the classroom environment. Thus, their research indicates a need for our classrooms need to look dramatically different to meet each and every student’s needs; possibly leading to a more differentiated model of instruction for a personalized learning environment. 
Personalized learning does not mean, however, that standards are lowered. In fact, the Alliance asserts that standards of rigor must be maintained. With the emergence of technology in these rigorous learning environments, classrooms that are more student-centered indicate a greater ability to meeting students’ needs in a much more diverse way.  Technology can assist in meeting students’ diverse individual learning needs by providing a multitude of methods for students to demonstrate their learning and understanding.  Students do not have to be limited anymore to pen and paper, but can demonstrate their understandings through PowerPoint, Voicethread, PhotoStory, etc.  Also, through these technological innovations, schools can provide a much more diverse curriculum to their students (Alliance for Excellent Education, 2008). It will not matter anymore if a student is physically in your classroom. Students can attend classes wherever they desire as long as the technology is available via webcams, videos, and collaborative learning tools.  Students are able to be members of personalized learning environments at Colorado, Stanford, MIT, etc..., learning about subjects that are relevant and meaningful to them. Additionally, students in these new technologically enabled classrooms will potentially have their needs met more efficiently and effectively because teachers will have the ability to access current data about how students learn best, and have the tools available to meet each student’s diverse needs.  Through the assistance of the teachers and students, these classrooms can shift to a more student centered learning environment.

Recasting the Role of the Teacher

Just as classrooms have not changed much in the past one hundred years, teaching has not adapted much to the technological evolutions of our society either.  Although much research has been done in the areas of student learning and effective teaching, teachers have been resistant to that change because of the uncertainty of what changes will be most effective in the future, of teachers changing themselves, and the importance of technology in this change.   Why and what can be done about it?  As previously stated, by changing the classroom environment to a more student centered learning environment, the role of the teacher must adapt as well, “Teachers have the single greatest in-school impact on student achievement…” (Alliance for Excellent Education, 2008, p. 36). And directly following from this, there needs to be a shift in teacher preparation as well as teacher evaluation.  The Alliance also suggested a shift in the conversation from “highly qualified” to “highly effective” teachers. 

Jones’ (2008) work in the area of out of class support strengthens this argument. In his research of 594 graduate students that were assigned to one of six hypothetical situations, students responded better in stressful situations with teachers who were highly supportive offering out of class as well as in class support.  Students who saw their teachers creating personal connections with them were more motivated.  Jones writes, “… this finding provides further evidence that student state motivation  is a modifiable condition that teachers can influence not only with the messages and behaviors they use inside the classroom, but those outside the classroom as well…when a student experiences stress and seeks assistance from a teacher outside the classroom setting, an opportunity emerges for the teacher to provide OCS (out of class support) which ultimately will lead to an increase in the student’s state of motivation” (Jones, 2008 p. 382).

Teachers who increase student motivation create students who are motivated to succeed and feel successful.  This can occur through teachers taking the time to develop more personalized instruction in a collaborative, student centered classroom. With the emergence of technology in classrooms, this shift is easily obtainable, and through constant learning and reflection by teachers and students, the shift can occur.  Teachers, however, cannot be expected to do it alone. Instead, many researchers are calling for a focus by learning communities in schools where teachers support each others learning by examining best practices in order to meet all students’ needs (Riel, M. & Fulton K., 2001). There is evidence that teachers should not lower their expectations, but maintain the demands, rigor, and relevance in each student’s education (Alliance for Excellent Education, 2008, p. 32). Compare this with the position of Tapola and Niemivirta (2008), who support the idea of giving students difficult and challenging work, as well as the previous claim concerning personalized instruction. Tapola and Niemivirta also found that when students received personal encouragement from their instructor and choices in their learning, they were much more motivated to learn.  Their study also indicated that students who received individualized instruction respond better to more challenging material. Tapola and Niemivirta are quick to indicate that they are not advocating “…that the learning environment should be arranged to each student’s preferences, but that more attention should be paid to the reasons that underlie students’ different perceptions and preferences” (Tapola & Niemivirta, 2008, p.305). Overall, when teachers create connections and take a personal interest in their students, students are more motivated to be successful.  This can occur through shared values and goals by creating a collaborative, student centered learning environment where teachers and students work together.

 Khamis, Dukmak, and Elhoweris  (2008) cite the example in their research that teachers have a direct effect on student motivation to learn in every aspect of the student’s learning  “ indeed most students respond positively to a well organised course taught by an enthusiastic instructor” (Khamis, Dukmak, & Elhoweris, July 2008,p.192). From the classroom arrangement, to the lessons planned, the implementation of the lesson, the teacher’s personal teaching style and classroom interaction, all contribute to a student’s success in the learning environment.  Additionally, they indicate that teachers need to increase student motivation through frequent feedback, using a variety of teaching strategies and creating relevance for their students. Clearly, the interaction between a teacher and student is an important bond to facilitate so that students are more motivated to learn.

Student Motivation

Although student motivation has been shown to result from a wide variety of sources such as teachers, peers, or learning environment, one of the most significant factors is a student’s own motivation to succeed. Some studies point to the importance of intrinsic motivation that students are often lacking.  Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the theorist who created the concept of “flow,” to describe the process of creative work shared some extensions of his ideas into education.
“It is not that students cannot learn, it is that they do not wish to…if educators invested a fraction of the energy on stimulating the students’ enjoyment of learning that they now spend in trying to transmit information we could achieve much better results” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1991, p. 1). 

Csikszentmihalyi suggests that the blame lies more in the lap of the educator than in the student.  He also continues that when the educational experience is intrinsically rewarding, students are more engaged and thus more motivated to learn.  Csikszentmihalyi suggests two directions for creating more engaging work for students: (1) clearly communicate to the students the reasons we learn to read, write, and (2) show students how fun learning can be (Csikszentmihalyi, 1991). Through these two directions, students will be more engaged, motivated learners. 

Vansteenkiste’s research study extends these thoughts by showing the value of intrinsic motivation in students.  His research indicates that students who are intrinsically motivated for self-development are more likely to attempt challenging activities and tasks. The study also found that when classroom goals are framed with and for students in an intrinsic manner, the student’s conceptual learning, performance, and persistence was enhanced.  In order to motivate students to learn, the teacher and student must work together to meet the needs of the student (Vansteenkiste, Timmermans, Lens, Soenens, & Van den Broeck, 2008).   Khamis and colleagues also support teacher-student collaboration through their research which indicates that students’ conceptions about their learning, along with their relationship with their teacher, were indicators to a student’s motivation towards learning.  Also, they further supported the claim that students and teachers must do this together, “it is crucial for (teachers) and school administrators to devote themselves fully to engendering and maintaining student’s motivation to learn” (Khamis, Dukmak, & Elhoweris, July 2008 p.199).  With teachers and students working together in a symbiotic relationship, even students who are academically behind can be successful if given the opportunity to be an engaged learner in a personalized way (Alliance for Excellent Education, 2008). With students feeling positive and motivated in the classroom, and with their learning needs met, the education system as a whole benefits. By meeting the students’ needs, the teacher is able to provide a more challenging and rigorous learning experience for the student, allowing for him/her to grow as a learner, which in turn allows for the teacher to grow in their profession as well.

In conclusion, the evidence suggests that creating student centered classrooms where teachers deliver personalized instruction may very well lead to students who are more motivated to learn, and in turn be more likely to attain future success.   This review of studies examined the changes necessary to transform traditional classrooms by changing the classroom environment, reinventing the role of a teacher and his/her instruction, and increasing student motivation.  Although each of these studies focuses on a variety of age groups and locations, all share the common message of transformational learning as a way to help students, teachers, and  schools to shift “into more powerful versions of themselves” (Riel, 2008).   With the right tools, the right lighting, and an inspired artist, what might begin as a simple block of stone can be transformed into an emerging work of great art.

Summary of Review

Teacher and student relationships are essential for learning. Students succeed in learning environments that are open, motivating and engaging where students and teachers are working together in successful partnerships (Jones, 2008)(Tapola & Niemivirta, 2008). In these learning environments, the classroom is often more student centered with the child directing his/her learning with the guidance of a teacher. The teacher in these learning environments is seen as more of a facilitator towards the students learning rather than the giver of knowledge. This way the student rises to the challenges of directing his/her own learning. Additionally, since the learning becomes more personal, students are more engaged learners and more motivated to learn.  One of the most significant changes in education that results from this change to a student centered classroom environment is that standards in these classrooms are typically much higher because of the responsibility placed on the student as well as the control the teacher turns over to the student. Overall, these classrooms are tremendously successful benefiting the student, teacher, classroom, and school as a whole transforming students into better versions of themselves.