January 1, 2017

What makes a Remarkable Learning Environments?

Written by:
Russell Earnshaw

I am currently sat on a sofa in Bournemouth and am unable to lift my arms.  Two weeks ago I could barely move my legs after a children’s party in Bristol...

When not slightly injured, I am forever fascinated by learning and exploring environments that might best support learning. Throughout my life, I have been lucky enough to hang out with ‘elite’ sports teams across a huge array of sports, spend significant time in schools, colleges and universities, spent time with the Chief Wizard at Google, observe rockstar teachers in action in the performing arts in places such as the BRIT School and observe and spend time with a multitude of people who are similarly obsessive with learning environments for young people.

Two weeks ago, I was in ‘Free Dog’ in Bristol, a remarkable learning environment… no coaches, kids in charge, coaching themselves and one another, providing verbal and visual feedback (they video one another on their phones), the only rules are those around safety, experts (although they don’t think they are) mix with novices, the practice is variable and it feels a safe and caring environment. There are no trophies.

Meanwhile, the majority of adults who are clearly way more sensible than me, enjoy a nice cup of coffee and are not foolish enough to join in. If you do join in, you travel back in time and remember what it once felt like to be both a child and a learner… a remarkably joyful yet frustrating experience.

In Bournemouth today, and after a short safety brief, I once again remembered what it felt like to be a learner as I paddled ‘Thriller-style’ into a strong headwind managing to paddle for ten minutes and remain in exactly same place I started. Meanwhile, my son glided through the water, turning only to humorously acknowledge my screams every time I fell in. I was definitely failing better every time and an hour or so in, was cheerfully asking Charlie (the instructor.. although he did very little, allowing us to learn by doing) ‘who are the best paddle boarders in the World?’… I was beginning to fancy my chances. The environment was fun, paddler-led (we were the ones aware of how we felt), supportive (we gave positive feedback to one another when we made progress), allowed us freedom to make decisions (no buoys to map out our route) and a memorable experience. I wanted more...

I also coach on a Sunday morning. The mighty Old Bristolians U13’s who always play mixed teams, everyone plays multiple positions and the players do their own subs to even up game time travel around the South West measuring success by how many kids rock up, how much fun they have and how many piggybacks Jack Potter can hitch. I am always curious when we turn up on a Sunday morning how close the environment will be to Free Dog or paddle boarding in Bournemouth.

I was wondering...

  • How would people observing describe your environment?
  • If you asked them to do an impression of you coaching with no sound, that would it look like?
  • How are you encouraging freedom and coaching decision-making in your players?
  • How are you creating memories that mean they want to come back again and again?
  • How are you getting to understand what it feels like to be a kid or a learner?
  • How good are the kids at giving one another positive feedback?
  • How safe is your environment?
  • In what ways might the adults be getting in the way of fun and learning?
  • How does your coaching make the kids feel? How do you know?
  • How would a kid feel if he made a 'mistake' in your environment?
  • Which kids in your environment would love to be coached by you?
  • Who would not? Why? What would those kids say about you?
  • What are you doing to help support them better?
  • What feedback are you getting from those kids?
  • What 3 words would they use to describe your coaching?
  • What 3 words would you really want?

What and how are you learning as a coach?