Wherever we are, we’d all like to think our classrooms are “intellectually active” places. Highly effective and conducive to student-centered learning. But what does that mean?

The reality is, there is no single answer because teaching and learning are awkward to consider as single events or individual “things.” This is all a bunch of rhetoric until we put on our white coats and study it under a microscope, at which point abstractions like curiosity, authenticity, self-knowledge, and affection will be hard to pin down.

So we’ve put together one take on the characteristics of a highly effective classroom. They can act as a kind of criteria to measure your own against–see if you notice a pattern.

1. The students ask the questions—good questions

This is not a feel-good implication, but really crucial for the whole learning process to work.

The role of curiosity has been studied (and perhaps under-studied and under-appreciated), but suffice to say that if a learner enters any learning activity with little to no natural curiosity, prospects for meaningful interaction with texts, media, and specific tasks are bleak.

Many teachers force students (proverbial gun to head) to ask questions at the outset of units or lessons, often to no avail. Cliché questions that reflect little understanding of the content can discourage teachers from “allowing” them. But the fact remains—if students can’t ask great questions, something, somewhere is unplugged.


2. Questions are valued over answers

Questions are more important than answers. So it makes sense that if good questions should lead the learning, there would be value placed on these questions. And that means adding currency whenever possible—grades (questions as assessment!), credit (give them points—they love points), creative curation (writing as a kind of graffiti on large post-it pages on the classroom walls), or simply praise and honest respect. See if you don’t notice a change.

3. Ideas come from a divergent of sources

Ideas for lessons, reading, tests, and projects—the fiber of formal learning—should come from a variety of sources. If they all come from narrow slivers of resources, you’re at risk of being pulled way off in one direction (that may or may not be good). An alternative? Consider sources like professional and cultural mentors, the community, content experts outside of education, and even the students themselves. Huge shift in credibility.

4. A variety of learning models are used

Inquiry-based learning, project-based learning, direct instruction, peer-to-peer learning, school-to-school,

eLearning, Mobile learning, the flipped classroom, and on and on—the possibilities are endless. Chances are, none

are incredible enough to suit every bit of content, curriculum, and learner diversity in your classroom. A characteristic of a highly-effective classroom, then, is diversity here, which also has the side-effect of improving your long-term capacity as an educator.

5. Classroom learning “empties” into a connected community

In a highly-effective learning environment, learning doesn’t need to be radically repackaged to make sense in the “real world,” but starts and ends there.

As great as it sounds for learners to reflect on Shakespeare to better understand their Uncle Eddie—and they might—depending on that kind of radical transfer to happen entirely in the minds of the learners by design may not be the best idea. Plan on this kind of transfer from the beginning.

It has to leave the classroom because they do.