Created Not Born: High Performance Learning Environments

No classroom has ever become a bastion of learning by mistake. Educators can create high performance learning environments in a multitude of ways. However, it always begins with a decision to envision and clarify your goals for learners (Stokes, 2015). Of course the makeup of students, the school’s curriculum, cultural outlooks on education in your region, government regulation and a host of other factors influence the classroom environment. But ultimately the teacher sets the standards and expectations that will most directly impact student academic achievement, behavior and classroom norms (Stokes, 2015).

After watching videos showing problem based learning (click here for more about PBL) in teaching STEM, a Chinese immersion math lesson and the whole brain teaching method, it is clear that each method has strengths and weaknesses and provide the learners and educators with different roles and expectations.

In focusing on the academic expectations of these methods, some very striking differences are immediately noticed. All of these methods of education offer the students with high academic standards, but they definitely exist on a spectrum that shifts the teachers role as the main facilitator of the processes or learning in class. The PBL STEM method is group based, problem solving with a transition from large group discussion to individual work. The culmination of this process is seeing hands-on work in small groups. This method has the highest academic expectations for students. Creating scarcity in resources forces students to be more academically creative in their solutions; the teacher has created a situation where nearly all aspects of the class involves critical thinking and problem solving with highly academic language and technical explanations. The feedback they get from the trial and error is concrete and final, so they are forced to innovate and problem-solve or fail. The academic bar is set extremely high since the students must continually answer why they are modifying their experiments. Overall, the students provide peer to peer learning and the teacher is not the central focus of providing information. This is where the Chinese math lesson provides the least academic rigor. The instruction is entirely group based and involves movement and chanting. This is a rote approach but with a lot of opportunities for large group collaboration and student participation. There are no strong connections made to “real-world” situations but China has seen math success; the major measurement of learning is communicated via standardized tests, which reflect some of the highest overall math skills in the world (Wei, 2014). However, in class participation is expected and immediate feedback is given as the group works through a problem together. With such a rigorous test driven system, few teachers have the time or see the need to make connections to real world situations (Wei, 2014). The whole brain teaching method seems to present a happy medium of these two approaches. Students are constantly being asked to work together and engage with the teacher in discussing information with a physical aspect utilized at all times. The students are asked to model learning and understanding with physical movements and concrete use of physical objects to represent the content being studied (Whole Brain Teaching, n.d). These movements although helpful, do not clearly demand the same level of critical thinking skills in the PBL method. They do however offer a constant opportunity for engagement with the teacher and peers in a group.

In turning to focus on the behavioral aspects of each teaching method, it is clear that all have high expectations for student focus and interaction. In this regard, the whole teaching method seems to offer the most clearly expressed rules and expectations. The PBL and Chinese math lesson methods also offer clear expectations to the learners in regards to what is expected of them but in very different ways. In the PBL method the hope seems to be that in creating a situation where the learner is fully engaged in a group that is attempting to solve a real-world problem, there is no room for major conflicts or need for rigid rules. The group must work together to problem-solve and the norms needed for this reflect a well-run class. The Chinese method seems to be the polar opposite of this approach. The students are continually engaged and the teacher orchestrates all responses and structures in the way information is covered. There is also a cultural aspect to this focus on group work, clear hierarchy and demand for group success (Wei, 2014). In so far as working with low level or students more prone to having behavior issues, the whole teaching method seems to offer a better balance to group work, verbal cues, physical involvement and clearly expressed guidelines.

Finally, in looking at the strengths and weaknesses of each teaching method’s norms and procedures, the cultural expectations seem to have larger influences in how the values and norms of the culture are reflected in the class structure. The PBL methods standards and procedures seems to reflect the current trend of team work, communication, real-world trial and error, peer to peer learning, grounding learning and communication in reality by providing all students with multiple opportunities of learning and various levels of responsibility. The Chinese math lesson reflected clear group norms and stock responses; the teacher is offering constant feedback in the form of cues and the student’s peers are also offering models for acceptable behavior. The academic content is guided by the teacher as the group is constantly critiquing group work in both direct and indirect ways. The whole brain teaching, again, seems to offer a middle ground of structured classroom norms and standards. This method offers students clear rules and expectations, but the teacher is not always at the center of learning, as there are times that partner work is the focus. The norms are constantly acted out and have a physical component which further cements them and reflects the value of group participation.

I currently use some aspects of all of these teaching methods in my classroom. The Korean middle school students (age 13-14) I teach are at various language acquisition stages. In teaching these ELLs I always try to ground the language we are learning in real world experiences and genuine communication. This, like the PBL method, allows for a built-in interest in the topic that brings the learning to life. Instead of only using stock examples from the textbook, I try to provide them with a task for the language. There is a clear question, intent, goal and reason to use the language we are learning. I also use some call and response in large group work to assist with all students having access to right answers, feedback on incorrect answers and as many examples of the language as possible. Working as a large group, like the Chinese method, allows for constant feedback and involvement of all students with extra direction from me to ensure that the lower level students are accessing content as well. I am also a firm believer in total physical response (click here for more on TPR). Providing these varied learning opportunities and physical activities to fully engage the learner keeps students engaged and utilizing different styles of thinking to complete tasks. I use attention grabbers that involve a stock phrase and physical response; I say “if you can hear me clap two times” and the students clap two times. I also try to design games and activities that have the students speaking and moving as much as possible. This is obviously a challenge with 28-32 students in a room but in my experience the positive results are clear.

I do hope to engage in more cross-discipline style project learning in the future. By providing this sort of fully connected and multi-faceted learning environment the students are given a complex and detailed picture of the world and the way concepts are never truly inhibited to a single “subject” or course of study. The power of these connections in learning cannot be overstated. However, due to the nature of my work with ELLs in Korea, I doubt this will be achieved in my current school. The Korean public school system is not at a point where PBL can gain much leverage as the system is based more on test results than real-world applications of learning. But I have seen some progress and change in the last 3 years as the Korean public system is beginning to recognize that standardized tests are not the only legitimate way to measure student growth.


Teaching Channel (n.d). Roller Coaster Physics: STEM in Action. Retrieved from:

YouTube (2011). 3rd Grade Chinese Math. Retrieved from:

Wei, Kan (2014). The Conversation. Explainer: What Makes Chinese Math Lessons So Good? Retrieved from:

YouTube (2011). Whole Brain Teaching Richwood High School: The Basics. Retrieved from:

Whole Brain Teaching (n.d). Wrong Way/Right Way. Retrieved from:

Stokes, Lori (2015). Creating a High Performance Learning Environment. Retrieved from:



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