Just finishing a book by Carol Ann Tomlinson, The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners.  This is the newest version, copyright 2014.  I continue to be amazed at Tomlinson’s ability to capture the critical elements of a good education and an effective learning environment with simple and powerful images.  One that has stuck with me is a reference to one of her mentors, Mary Ann Smith, an elementary teacher at a school where Tomlinson taught Middle School.   Ms. Smith, a mother of four boys, was a teacher who connected with all students, even the most challenging.  The reason had to do with her teaching philosophy and the learning environment she created.  Tomlinson summarizes it by describing Ms. Smith beliefs (page 51).

  • Each kid is like all others and different from all others.
  • Kids need unconditional acceptance as human beings.
  • Kids need to believe they can become better than they are today.
  • Kids need help in living up to their dreams.
  • Kids have to make their own sense of things.
  • Kids often make their own sense of things more effectively and coherently when adults collaborate with them.
  • Kids need action, joy and peace.
  • Kids need power over their lives and learning.
  • Kids need help to develop that power and use it wisely.
  • Kids need to be secure in a larger world.

This is a wonderful list of beliefs to practice.  Tomlinson believes this list is also at the heart of what makes for a good differentiated classroom.

One of my takeaways from this list is that a learning environment built on these principles would be designed to move students from dependence on the teacher to greater independence as a learner.  Kids who experience action, joy and peace in a classroom and are nurtured along a pathway towards power over their own learning discover their potential and use it towards productive ends.

Ms. Smith’s list addresses the affective side of learning.  No doubt a very important part!  There is the cognitive side of the equation that her list doesn’t specifically address, but I am sure she embraces as important.  An effective learning environment helps all students master the learning outcomes we design: the knowledge, skills and performance tasks embedded in good curricula.  However, without the strong affective component that Ms. Smith describes, the cognitive piece is not well integrated into a child’s learning.

Would you add to Ms. Smith’s list of what it takes to construct an effective learning environment?

Check out a previous post on the Center for Teaching blog, What Qualities Make for an Ideal School or Classroom?.  This post reflects on a similar theme that ties to Tomlinson’s story about Ms. Smith.


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