What Can We Learn from Hogwarts About Effective Learning Environments?

This post first appeared on October 8th, 2015 on Pam Allyn's Huffington Post blog and is excerpted here with her permission.

Young Muggles around the world hold their breath before opening their mailboxes, waiting for the day a snow-flecked owl will deliver their acceptance to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

The Hogwarts School of J.K. Rowling's classic Harry Potter series is filled with magic - the students attend Potions and Dark Arts classes, the school is defended by spells and charms - but it's the culture within the walls that is truly magical. And while we may not be able to promise our children mastery of charms (wingardium leviosa!), we should be able to ensure that school is a place where friendships are forged, adventures experienced, and memories made through the power of learning.

So, what can we as educators and parents learn from the Hogwarts magic to build the ideal learning environment? Let's take a look.

1. The Magic of a Multi-Age Community

After a successful sprint onto platform 9 ¾, children arrive in the hallowed halls of Hogwarts to be sorted into their houses. From the moment the sorting hat screams out their destiny, kids are welcomed by older students into an incredible community that will mentor, guide, support, and champion them as fellow housemates. The students live together, eat together, triumph and face challenges in collaboration.

The benefits of multi-age learning environments are real. Research finds that interacting with mixed ages improves students' sense of self, social awareness and responsibility, and cultivates a more positive attitude towards school. Creating structures for younger and older children to support each other is particularly helpful for English learners who receive special assistance from their multi-age classmates. We can encourage interactions between ages by embracing reading buddy structures, a kind of "LitCorps" where older children get matched to younger children as readers. We can create cross-school or neighborhood blogs so that older and younger children can share favorite book titles and chat about what they are reading. We can create whole school or neighborhood celebrations where children of all ages come together to give a book talk, or to share what they are most excited about in their math, science, or reading classes.

2. The Magic of Choice and Voice

Hogwarts has mastered the art of celebrating each child for being exactly who they are. The very first magical experiences each child has are designed to make her feel known. She is crowned with the sorting hat to champion the strength she brings with her to Hogwarts and the strength that connects her to a learning community. Then there is the business of shopping for a wand. In essence this is like muggles shopping for pencils, binders and notebooks. The wand is a basic essential for learning, yet the process feels sacred and highly personalized. Amid thousands of options in Ollivanders' shop, there is only one carefully crafted, uniquely weighted and designed wand to match each young wizard's special blend of magic.

Students are given freedom to develop and explore the branch of magic that lights them up. Hermione (though, let's be honest, there isn't much she can't do) is a whiz at charms, Luna Lovegood finds kinship with Professor Trelawney and the art of divination, and it is through herbology that we see Neville Longbottom come into his own as a bold and confident wizard. Each young wizard succeeds because he or she is different.

Let's empower our children to explore the very unusual and exceptional strengths that they bring with them wherever they go. Let us create the kind of community where children's voices are heard and their choices are valued, from the topics they choose to write about to the books they choose to read. Let us invite open-ended questions to get to know every child as a learner: What would your perfect day look like? What inspires you? What do you wish you could learn about at school? We can then help match our children to books that make their hearts sing. We can hold writing celebrations where they get to select their own writing topics, math inquiry where they solve for problems they really want to know about, science fairs where they study a question that has been on their minds since they were little. Choice and voice are crucial components of a magical learning environment.

3. The Magic of Real Life Learning

At Hogwarts there is no separation between children's lives in and out of school. There is always awareness that students will use the exact potions, spells and broomstick skills they are practicing each day. The learning is deeply connected and authentic to students' lives. Their learning is applied. Harry Potter uses the simple wand-disarming charm, expelliarmus, in most of his duels against Voldemort. Harry's professors taught him the importance of this basic charm, and more than once it saved his life.

We need to be sure our teaching and parenting truly helps children to use authentic skills for genuine purpose. Let's help our children create authentic kinds of literary products that connect to their lives and interests: video book trailers for stories they love; op-eds about topics that matter to them; and inventions that solve a problem in their community. We can expand our view of what constitutes "language" by including learning about coding as a valued way to communicate. We can make sure our young artists, photographers, musicians and dancers have time each day for movement and expression. The students in Harry Potter felt angered when they could no longer perform magic at school under Professor Umbridge's administration in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Our children, too, feel disinterested and apathetic about learning when they have no chance for creative self-expression and real world discovery.

To read the full post, head on over to Pam Allyn's Huffington Post blog.

Hogwarts (Credit: Illustrations by Jim Kay © 2014 by Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.)