On every Thursday for sixteen weeks I was greeted with a large assortment of hugs and high fives and greetings of all sorts. This happened when I entered a kindergarten classroom in which I was observing how children engage in learning. I spent much time watching how these learners talked with one another, and with adults in the classroom as they became more competent in learning and more academically sound. I observed these learners responding to stories, engaging in learning activities, and interacting; with one another as they constructed their own understandings of the world of the school. These observations are the basis for this article.
The School and the Classroom
On entering the school one is struck by the warmth that seems to flow from this old building. Children's artwork is everywhere. The rugs in the hall have a worn look that seems to fit in with the fading paint on the walls, a comfortable lived in atmosphere pervades the building. The teachers stop and talk to all learners, regardless of age, about all topics. These topics range from kittens to hermit crab's, from missed assignments to making up homework or tests, from what was happening on the weekend to the upcoming roller-skating party. A sense of family pervades the entire building. All learners are valued and all learners are respected.
Thier room itself reflects the same lived in feeling of the school. There are nooks and crannies for learners to explore. There are bright windows with places to sit nearby. The cupboards are full of materials that say to the learners "use me". In short, this environment is one ripe for interaction and learning to occur.
The teacher, Ms. L., provides the learners with the same sense of family and belonging as is apparent in the halls. The learners enter in the morning and immediately begin to talk with each other. Ms. L. talks to various groups of children and individuals when invited. She rarely intrudes in the conversations unless there is a loud or unfriendly exchange occurring. Even then she tries to allow the learners to work through the problem by themselves.
The first organized activity of the day is a discussion of the day's activities. Ms. L. presents to the learners what will be attempted during the day - working on telling time, reading groups or math work for example. Each of the learners is then encouraged, but not required, to share an important event from their lives outside of school. During these times Ms. L. asks the learners to respect the speaker by not expressing any derision or disbelief. This lays the groundwork for the sense of comfort that each learner feels in the classroom.
The Climate and Learning
A traditional definition of learning is: learning is a change in the learner's behavior over a period of time. Many, if not all, teachers would agree that this is an appropriate definition. The process of learning, of course, is an individual activity. Each of us learns in our own way, organizes information in our own way and calls it up in our own way. Yet how does learning occur in a class full of young children and in a way that promotes the sense of family and belonging that is so important?
Talking, using words, trying new ways of doing tasks, asking questions, and answering questions are all activities that lead to learning. To successfully let learners try to perform and master tasks, and talk about their performance, and share ideas and thoughts requires the creation of a community of learners (Short and Burke, 1991). A community of learners is a classroom where all members of the classroom become teachers and learners (Hansen, 1987 and Calkings, 1994). In this environment learners will be more willing to try new tasks, new ways of telling and new ways of asking because they know each other well and trust each other (Barnes, 1976).
The creation of a community of learners begins at the school-building level. Individual teachers cannot by themselves create a community of learners. …