What Makes an Ideal Learning Environment?

We all know the feeling of staring at the clock waiting for class to end.

On the other hand, think about the times you were totally absorbed in a learning environment—perhaps a class, private lesson, or self-directed study—when time flies and learning is amplified. These experiences are inherently satisfying and leave us wanting more. Are these environments magical, or can we intentionally craft more of them?

Dan Coyle, author of The Talent Code, spent years studying talent hotbeds and world-class performers. In a podcast interview, he asks us to think about the environments that light people up the most and that create the most motivation. Before reading on, try to imagine a specific example of this environment.



Dan Coyle’s model for an ideal learning environment is a skateboard park. People who go to a skateboard park tend to get really good at skateboarding in a short period of time.


Why? He outlines the ingredients of this learning space:

Identity and Vivid Models

Coyle says kids at a skateboard park are surrounded by vivid models of who they want to be: “I don’t just admire that skateboarder, I want to do that trick and I want to be as cool as him, in every way. I want to be that guy. . . when that identity piece gets put into the equation I think that lightning is alot more likely to strike.”

When kids identify as a skateboarder they tell themselves and the world:

I am a skateboarder.
This is how I dress.
This is who I hang out with.
I spend my time hanging and skating at the park.
I want to shred like that dude.

Repetition and Struggle

The last time I visited a skateboard park, I saw a kid repeatedly making attempts, and failing, to land a kickflip. This type of struggle and perseverance is how we level-up our skills.

Autonomy

Kid’s don’t go skateboarding park to please their parents, get a grade, or pass an assessment. They choose to go because they have the desire to become a skateboarder. Research from social sciences shows us that autonomy over our time and the people we associate with can ignite intrinsic motivation.

Reconciling with Traditional Education

“Effective education is rarely done TO people. It’s done with them.”

– Seth Godin

Coyle notes, “If we could teach algebra like kids learn how to skateboard at a skateboard park, we’d be really really good at algebra.” I’ve seen this skateboard park model exist in public schools, particularly in music, drama, athletics, cheer, and other extra-curricular activities.

Creating this environment in algebra, language arts, and other required core classes is much more challenging because the autonomy piece is missing when students don’t have agency over what they are learning (and when teachers don’t have autonomy over their lesson plans). When some students are engaged, while others are begrudgingly meeting a requirement, the element of shared goals is missing, making a skateboard park environment highly unlikely. It takes next-level teaching chops to transform disinterested students into a vibrant learning community.


Identity Leads to Discipline

Another important takeaway from the skateboard park is that curiosity, identity, and engagement come before discipline and grit. Our culture often demands work ethic through external motivators like grades, commissions, and shame. This can yield short-term results, but don’t set the stage for explosive motivation and lifelong growth.

In his bestselling book Atomic Habits, James Clear shows that shows us that a shift in identity is the first step to reaching outcomes we seek. He says:

Most people start by focusing on outcome-based goals like “I want to lose 20 pounds” or “I want to write a best-selling book.”

But these are surface level changes.

The root of behavior change and building better habits is your identity. Each action you perform is driven by the fundamental belief that it is possible. So if you change your identity (the type of person that you believe that you are), then it’s easier to change your actions.

Three Layers of Behavior Change by James Clear


Our schools and workplaces obsess about demanding and measuring outcomes, but meaningful learning and behavior change comes from the inside out.

Continuing Ed Class for Educators

Registration is open for Game Symphony: Creative Pedagogy for Music Educators on June 1st at Seattle Pacific University. The class trains music educators from diverse disciplines to teach improvisation and composition through learning activities, case studies, and follow-up support (clock hours available). More info here.

(Watch my presentation for Berklee professors about creating engaging and effective learning environments.)