Healthy school environments

Joy in Mudville: Creating Healthy Environments for Deeper Learning (Part II)

Last month, Jim discussed how instruction and assessment practices seed the health of a school’s climate. He asked: “Is the school growing weeds in toxic soil or is it blooming flowers fertilized by teaching practices that inspire deeper learning for all?” In this second of a three-part post, he shares a successful way to make the shift.


Driving Question: From Toxic to Healthy: How Is it Possible?


The teaching practices that predominate throughout a school are principle framers of the learning environment. The more consistent reliance there is on teaching practices throughout a school, the more predictable the student reactions will be–physical, social emotional, and academic. It is the teaching practices that most set the expectations for how students will respond. When the overall emphasis is on shallow practice, chartered in last month’s post, what else can we expect from students but learning responses that are shallow? When the practices generate the highest effect sizes, common sense and research tell us that students will respond with joy, celebration, intrinsic motivation, and deep engagement.


Two No-Surprises Lists: Students’ Predictable Responsive Behaviors


                 Toxic                                                                     Healthy

Passive Resistance   Engaged Mind
Boredom   Excited About Learning
Detachment   Accepts Challenge
Hostility   Collaborates
Discouragement   Reciprocal Trust And Mutual Respect
Intimidated   Care And Support For Peers
Resistance To Defiant   Industrious
Uncooperative To Combative   Goal Directed

Easily Persuaded/Dissuaded                            Resilient     

Episodic   Self-Directed
Impulsive   Creative
Tired   Motivated
Sarcastic And Defensive   Feeling Challenged
Ready To Fight   Academically Persistent





What can school leaders and teachers do to increase the health of their school’s climate and make the shift to healthier deeper learning? In the MindQuest21 model, a whole-school approach piloted in Illinois schools (2016), an external team looked at the degree to which the health factors were included in the school’s fabric. This assessment lead to a planned all-school effort to eliminate the toxic gaps and strengthen the healthy instructional practices. With positive school leadership and intense collaborative professional learning opportunities, the teachers were happy for the chance to teach for deeper learning.

The MindQuest21 practices are not “new.” Nor are they the only way. They are a way, however, that now has evidence that change is possible when pure research is applied systematically over time.

The MindQuest21 practices were selected primarily because of what the evidence on deeper learning was saying. When worked on simultaneously and applied appropriately by all staff in a school, practices not in the healthy column are moved step-by-step out of the toxic column and replaced with the healthy ones. Out go worksheets and regurgitation. In comes metacognitive reflection and inquiry in every classroom. Similar to the cleanup of a toxic dump, the effort takes time. Gradually, with coaching and follow-up, healthy practices expand or replace the toxic. In that time, the all-faculty team constructs its new healthy climate via a collaborative effort to install the appropriate evidence-based practices and eradicate the toxic.

For this to happen, faculty and school administrators also had to address the health of their own interactions. Relying on Elena Aguilar’s formats for assessing organizational conditions and coaching teams, they assessed their own trust levels with each other and what they observed in their peers’ interactions with students outside the classroom walls. This lead to the adoption of Critical Friends protocols to guide how they collaborated with each other (2015).

In the MindQuest21 model, faculty and school leaders quarterly assess the change on a 5-point developmental scale. At least twice annually, the collaborators answer 20 questions, each prompted by “To what degree do we have/are we engaged in…”. The first 10 spotlight instruction. The second focus attention on school-wide trust and respect. The data gathered provides the guidance for the all-school change effort.


In the Classroom

  1. A Shared Vision and Mission for deeper learning outcomes for all students?
  2. Proactive Leadership to accomplish the outcomes?
  3. Teacher Engagement in the implementation and assessment of the outcomes via standards-guided instruction and multiple forms of assessment?
  4. Inclusion of project- and problem-based learning as primary models of instruction for all students?
  5. Teachers as creators and innovators of standards-guided curriculum relying on evidence-based practices?
  6. Full inclusion of all students with personalized learning agreements and appropriate support services?
  7. A Professional Learning Academy for Deeper Learning with sufficient time and support to modify and develop curriculum, instruction and assessment?
  8. Alignment of support services and mandates (I.e. RTI, EEL, Special Needs, teacher evaluation, parent involvement) to the vision and mission?
  9. An emphasis on increased agency for all students and teacher decision making?
  10. Sufficient resources to plan, do, and assess the mission and vision of deeper learning for all?


In The School

  1. The school mission and vision are valued by all?
  2. Leadership and faculty collaborate in finding positive solutions to school challenges?
  3. Decision making processes are clear, explicit, and transparent?
  4. Faculty voice and choice in problem-solving, planning for improvements, and assessing results is honored by all?
  5. Considered change is welcomed and differences of opinion honored?
  6. Collaborative decisions are accepted as personal responsibility to implement?
  7. Faculty look to personal improvement in the context of the school’s mission and vision?
  8. Community and parent engagement are welcomed?
  9. Personal accomplishments by faculty and students are celebrated?
  10. Reciprocal relationships among faculty, school leaders, and students are built on trust and respect?



Next Month: Evidence of Success.



  • Aquilar, E. (2015) The Art of Coaching Teams,  Wiley, New York
  • American Institute for Research, Deeper Learning, accessed at, August, 2016
  • Bellanca, James. “Climate Survey Results”.  XQ Institute, January 2016
  • Espara, Debrorah R: A First-Year Implementation Of Mindquest21, A Project-Based Paradigm Shift To Deeper Learning: NLU, unpublished dissertation. 2016.
  • Hattie, John. Visible Learning, Accessed at…/hattie-ranking-teacher-effects/ August 2016.
  • Hewlett Foundation, Deeper Learning, Accessed at, August 2016.
  • Marzano, Robert. “Setting the Story Straight,” Accessed August 2016
  • P21 Blogazine, // accessed August 12, 2016
  • MindQuest21, accessed at, August 12, 2016
  • Willis, Judy, “Brain Toxic Classrooms,” accessed at http://www.psychologytoday, August 2016.


Jim Bellanca brings his too-many-but-never-enough years of teaching, designing school innovations, writing, editing, and professional development to focus on the renewal of schools as 21st Century Learning Places. Wearing multiple hats as founding editor of the  P21Blogazine, editor and author with multiple presses, President of the Illinois Consortium for 21st Century Schools and Director of School Innovation for Asian Human Services, Jim focuses his energy on transforming schools into 21st Century Learning Places.


James A. Bellanca

James A. Bellanca is nationally recognized as a practical 21st century skills and deeper learning innovator who helps educators make project- and problem-based learning ready to go on the next school day.

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