The Trouble with Symptoms in Education Terms


In education it is more often than not that we treat the symptom and ignore the underlying cause.  In life we will often hide the true cause of our distress by adopting or presenting the symptoms of a much lesser illness, perhaps a cold instead of stress or depression. It is no different in education where we may present a symptom rather than admit the cause.

Let me give you an example, that of attendance in schools. Interestingly when we want a day off school we are more likely to feign the symptoms of an illness rather than just come out and say “I need a day off”.

Attendance can be an issue in many schools and a symptom in itself that could signal underlying problems yet it is dealt with as if it is the primary issue. Our actions are to make the symptom go away, make students attend school.

The standard response to an issue is to adopt the two P’s strategy, praise and punish. Praise the behaviour we want and punish the behaviour we don’t want, the “carrot and stick” approach. This rather simplistic model will evolve to include praise in the form of rewards or certificates for levels of attendance that are acceptable or sought after and forms of punishment for those that fall short including detentions, letters home, and perhaps loss of privileges such as school trips.  Sound familiar?

The trouble with the two P’s form of response is that it takes up a great deal of time, pits the offender against the teacher or school and only deals with suppressing the symptom and does not deal with the underlying cause.  We are establishing compliance and not promoting learning.

A strategy I use when looking at behaviours as a symptom rather than a primary issue is to ask the question “Why would someone behave in this way?” After all why would somebody not want to come to school, unthinkable right!

Firstly school is a “learning environment” and one full of challenges, relationships, groups, rules, customs, expectations, etc. Indeed school is a complex environment and one that can be both nurturing and toxic depending on your disposition and experiences.  We respond to our environment in ways that we have learnt “work” for us.  Unfortunately nature has a significant influence when it comes to the environment and the “flight or fight” response so involved with survival can take over our thinking and behaviours.

If we find a certain learning environment more than mildly uncomfortable then without the right set of tools and strategies to deal with it we are likely to flee rather than stay and work out a solution. Thus a lack of attendance may be the only strategy a learner has developed to deal with finding themselves in, what is to them, a toxic environment.  By dealing with the symptom we are doing nothing to help address the underlying cause.  It is my experience that once the learner has been made aware of this and coached in developing at least the basic strategies then they can cope. Given more time and support they can even begin to master their environment.

This idea of understanding and mastering your learning environment is an underlying principle of the concept of Learning intelligence or “LQ” that I have developed.  LQ is based on my experience as a teacher and accepted learning theories and forms a narrative for working with learners.

Returning to attendance then my advice is to explore it as if it is behaviour in response to a situation.

Find out what the situation is and you’re on your way to a solution. Better still develop in the learner an awareness of LQ and provide opportunities to develop skills and to have experiences of managing their learning environment to meet their needs in a constructive way that supports learning.

Take the “fight or flight” response and turn it into “fight to learn and learn to ignore flight”

Scaffolding learning – a different perspective?


As teachers we break a subject down into components or elements of knowledge and understanding, into learning steps if you like. We then find the “best” way to deliver these steps in a way learners will, with a measured degree of effort, assimilate.  This process is influenced by our knowledge and understanding of pedagogy and our relationship with the learners. In short we “scaffold” learning.  Fairly straightforward but have you thought about it from a learner’s perspective?  No? – Well read on!

Using what we know to learn what we don’t know

I have come to believe that we learn by building on what we know. This to me is a sort of mental map of my knowledge and understanding, knowing and learning (yes there is a difference, see this article: The bigger and more detailed the map the more confident we are and easier we find learning something new. For example it has been shown that speaking more than one language helps in learning a new language. I have a way of visualising this process of building on what I already know and call it “anchoring”. I look to make sense of what it is I am trying to learn or understand by referencing it with what I already know or understand what I have already learnt. I make links between what I already know and what I need to learn.


Anchoring essentially involves problem solving, an important aspect of Learning Intelligence, LQ (download a leaflet here: about-lq-with-lq-graphic). This is how this approach works and how a teacher can use it effectively in their lessons.

From the learner’s perspective

1) As the topic or subject is introduced we have to look and listen for words or phrases we already recognise.

2) We cannot assume they mean the same thing in this scenario as they do in others so we need to seek clarification and check meaning and relevance.

3) We take enough time to reflect on how what we know fits in with what we are learning. This also involves asking questions to check the links are valid.

4) Next is a sort of consolidation phase, where we explore a little further trying to see where what we know already and what we are trying to learn may take us.

5) This leads to as a sort of prediction phase where the links are established and we are ready to embark on a new learning journey.  We can make educated guesses or predictions if given certain pieces of information.

So learning starts by seeing learning as a problem to solve and a period of analysis and reflection.

From the teacher’s perspective

1) Ask yourself what students need to know or understand in order to make a start on this topic and prepare questions you can ask to check before starting the topic.

2) Don’t assume understanding. Often the same words or phrases can be learnt without understanding. Build in a check and reflection phase during the topic introduction.  Acknowledge and praise where students show understanding or can make links with relevant knowledge.

3) Create an opportunity for students to identify what they already know and how it can be useful in the learning process.

4) Introduce risk taking in the learning process. Encourage students to make assumptions or predictions about the new topic. Here are some questions that can be used to initiate this process. “Knowing what we know already what might happen if…?” “How do you think this might link to…?” You are actually leading up to “Let’s find out”

5) Don’t underestimate how much effort this takes on the part of the learner.  Allow for structured mental breaks and reflection periods. Build in activities that create opportunity for pair or small group work and class feedback sessions.

The proof is in the pudding

I have tried this out on myself in learning about path-finding algorithms used in game programming and after 50 minutes I was in need of a mental break despite being very interested.  I went through all the steps I suggest a student goes through here. During the process I was not passive, there is no good sitting there and hoping you are on the same page as the teacher. Learning intelligence, LQ, is about managing your learning environment and that means interacting with it.

There are two other observations to make about this approach. Firstly I was able to contribute much sooner than if I had just listened. I was in an active learner state earlier. This is important if we as learners are going to maximise opportunities for learning. For teachers it means a greater rate of progress.

Secondly I have a deeper understanding of the topic in a much shorter period of time and anchors that can be used to recall the learning links later. These anchors can be thought of the start of trail of “bread crumbs” marking our thought and learning associations. In case of reviewing or revisiting what we have learnt, and possibly forgotten, we can pick up the trail again starting from an established anchor point.  By following the same trail we reach the same understanding but importantly we can do this independently using our internal prompts. A simplified example is knowing that 12 x 12 is 144 so when asked what 24 x 12 is we can start at  12 x 12 and quickly recognise we are talking about twice as much.

I would be interested if you  scaffold your teaching or learning in this way too.



Using Learning Intelligence* to leverage learning

Man and red stairs. 3d rendered illustration.

What does being a better learner mean?

If I asked you the same in terms of football, or any other sport you would more than likely think about skills, attitudes, understanding, motivation and a few other things besides.  Would you tell me it was the number of goals you scored (yep I am in the UK!), the number of passes you made or goals you saved? I doubt it yet in some ways we judge learning success by the number of grades or qualifications and not how effective we are as learners.

Being a better footballer means being better at playing football, all aspects of it, and finding strategies to overcome challenges when faced with a better player or team.  So I believe it is with learning, being a better learner is about managing your own learning to overcome learning challenges. Let me explain.

The concept of LQ or learning intelligence that I have developed is a way of focusing our minds on not just outcomes but the act of learning itself, becoming a better learner. This is not just about “learning to learn” it is about managing learning too. We can use LQ as a way of overcoming any challenges we face as a learner.  By understanding how our environment, and those in it, impacts our ability to learn and in recognising the challenges it lays down we can begin to  see learning as a problem to solve and not just a subject to master.

Ethiopia's Etenesh Diro competes in the Women's 3000m Steeplechase Round 1 during the athletics event at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium in Rio de Janeiro on August 13, 2016.   / AFP PHOTO / Jewel SAMADJEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

The problem we face in education is similar to a man who is running wearing one shoe and holding the other in his hand.  We recognise he is slowed by the lack of shoe on one foot but we dare not risk losing time whilst he stops and puts on the other. So we continue to rush on knowing full well if we only took the time to put on the other shoe we would run much faster.  We worry about never catching up if we take our focus off  mastering subjects. This limits our learning.


There is another analogy we can use here too when we think about how we look at learning in schools.bear-chase2

If you have ever heard the story of the two men coming face to face with a bear you may recognise it. One man turns to the other and shouts “Run”. His friend replies “We will never outrun a bear” to which he replies “I don’t have to. I only have to outrun you!”  So it is in education to get the top marks you only have to be at the top, in front of others.  What potential you could have realised is unimportant so long as you out perform others.


My argument is if we took a little time to learn about how our learning environment impacts our learning and how to use LQ to leverage our learning we would learn easier, understand better and make quicker progress.  You would also improve the chances of reaching your true potential. Well its more than an argument, it’s common sense just like running in two shoes is faster than running wearing one whilst holding the other.


*I have reflected on nearly four decades of teaching and spent the last five researching and trying to confirm theories to finally end up with the concept of Learning Intelligence or LQ for short.  I define LQ as our ability to manage our learning environment to meet our learning needs. Once we are aware of the skills, attributes, attitudes and behaviours we possess and use or exhibit in response to learning challenges we can begin to leverage our learning.

This diagram shows those skills, attitudes, attributes and behaviours I have identified that are held or practised by successful learners.


LQ round

LQ will make learning easier, better and quicker. 


Don’t believe me, then I encourage you to challenge me.  For every learning challenge their is a strategy.  Explore this article to see what I mean: How to Learn Anything

No matter what the subject or the situation developing your LQ will make you a better learner. It’s like stopping to put on that second shoe. You know you should do it but for some reason you fear falling behind so you don’t. Where is the logic in that?

For more on LQ please read through past posts on this blog. If you are interested in workshops to promote or develop LQ then please get in touch.


More about the services I offer and LQ can be found at where you can also download leaflets and free teaching resources.

The importance of a positive teacher-student relationship: it can boost good behavior in teens for up to 4 years

The article underlines why it is important that teachers build learning relationships with learners – obvious really but in a target driven system easy to overlook. My work on Understanding and managing learning needs uses this fact to promote learning relationships. See:

From experience to meaning...

We’ve known for a long time that a positive relationship between teachers and students is important for learning. In the work of John Hattie the effect size is similar to that of giving optimal feedback. This new study looks at another but related effect: what does a good relationship mean for the behavior of teenagers?

From the press release with a plea for teacher training programs:

A new study has found that having a positive relationship with a teacher around the age of 10-11 years old can markedly influence the development of ‘prosocial’ behaviours such as cooperation and altruism, as well as significantly reduce problem classroom behaviours such as aggression and oppositional behaviour.

The research also found that beneficial behaviours resulting from a positive teacher-student relationship when a child is on the cusp of adolescence lingered for up to four years – well into the difficult teenage years.

Researchers found…

View original post 950 more words

An Even Better Way


Schools are pushing students at this time of year to make or exceed their target grades. A great deal goes on both during school, after school and during holidays to finish coursework or to revise topics. Revision strategies most commonly ask students to go over ground they have already covered, often in the same way with the same teachers and approach. What if there was a better way to reach those targets grades?

If we take a sporting analogy for a moment we can see that there is more to performance than learning how to do something and practicing it.  Athletes have to believe in their ability to succeed and without this mental state it matters little how often they practice or train. What if our students did not believe in their ability and what if we did little to change that state of mind? Would it matter how much revision or practice they did if at heart they did not believe they would succeed?

Roy Leighton is involved with a school in Leicester in changing mind-sets of a group of Y11 students. They are using a better way to help students achieve and it does not involve revision in any school subject but it will pay off across all of them. In fact it will have a lifelong pay off for the students because they will believe in themselves.

I had the opportunity to accompany Roy on a visit to the school to meet with some of the students during the Easter Holiday and to see the better way in action.  The better way is actually called the “Butterfly Model” and it is something Roy has been developing and refining very successfully.  I have known Roy for some time and our work has a number of common elements including enabling learners to manage their own learning and to understand the emotional impact on our ability to learn. Roy once said to me: “We are holding different ends of the same stick” and I take this as a both a compliment and encouragement for developing my work on Learning Intelligence seeing how big the stick is that he is holding.  

I recommend you check out his work on personal transformation here:

Here are the two elements of LQ, PBCF “Please Be Child Friendly” enabling and supporting the engagement of learners and SAAB the Skills, Attitudes, Attributes and Behaviours that form the enabling aspect of LQ. You can read more about LQ, starting with an introduction at LQ Introduction

LQ and PBCFLQ round



Back to the school and students who voluntarily came in during the holiday to meet with Roy and carry on with the programme. This was his 4th visit and there are others to come along with “hangouts”, text messages and online resources that are part of the programme. This may sound like an advert for the Butterfly model but hey if you see something that works you should share it – right!

The session focused on being the person you want to be, making the changes you need to make and recognising the powerful emotions that influence our self-beliefs as learners.  “Getting from here, to where you want to be”. Not your typical exam boosting session but one that is as essential as any in achieving success, just ask any athlete.

As students reflected on the last session and what they decided they wanted to keep, develop and let go you could see their energy rise ready for the challenges this session would provide. A significant difference to getting students to go over work they have already struggled with again which does little to alter their “learning map”, what they believe they can and cannot learn.

Looking at ourselves and recognising our strengths and our weaknesses is difficult, acknowledging these and then deciding what to do about it even harder, but hardest of all is actually doing something about it.  I saw students fully engaged in this journey, facing up to the challenges and changing their beliefs about themselves as learners and having fun while they did so.

With the pressures schools face and not forgetting how these find their way to the teachers it is refreshing to see a school take a different approach, a better way, to achieving success. Some may even say a “braver way” and in many respects I would have to agree. Doing what is the norm, even if it does not always work, is less risky than doing something that is right when it is not recognised. The students who attended this session are in many ways pioneers and deserve recognition. I am sure they will show others there is a better way and I look forward to hearing of their success.

How to Learn Anything

Sometime ago I came across a TEDx Blog  by Krystian Aparta about an “Open Translation Project” where translators shared their secrets to mastering a foreign language.  This got me to thinking about about learning and what I call “Learning Intelligence” or “LQ”

First, a bit about LQ

LQ is our ability to adapt our environment to meet our learning needs. This is just what these translators were doing – managing their learning environment to make learning easier and quicker.  LQ consists of a set of skills, attitudes, attributes and behaviours (easy to remember “SAAB”) we can develop to help us learn. What the translators were doing is a great example of using LQ to learn and you can use this approach to learn anything.

LQ round

So I set about changing the language and examples used by the translators to make it appropriate to learning anything using LQ.

The Poster

The outcome is 7 things any learner you can do to learn anything. They are quite simple things to do but bring huge benefits making learning easier and quicker. See what you think, I have created a graphic to showcase the 7 steps of how to learn anything.

Here are brief descriptors of each step to go along with the poster.

Task 1

Start with “Get real”, a way of ensuring your goals are achievable. Some people use the acronym “SMART” for targets or goals. SMART targets are specific, measurable, realistic and time related. If you Google SMART targets you will find them in use in business, coaching and other areas of life. The meaning of some of the letters can change  “relevant” or realistic” is an example. They are ideally realistic, achievable within the time frame and can be supported by whatever else you are doing. Don’t take on too much at once.

Task 2

This task is about arranging things so that what you want to learn is part of your life, you are reminded or encouraged throughout the day to keep learning. Reminder or information notes around the house can be one strategy you use or joining a club another.

Task 3

There is often more to learn about something than what you first think so go exploring. What you discover and experience can help you learn easier and remember much more making the topic far more interesting and memorable.

Task 4

Technology (mobile phones, computers, tablets etc) are all excellent ways of accessing information. Just be careful not everything you read is accurate or true. You can also join forums and ask questions. For more about “e-learning” see this article and guide.

Task 5

Knowing why you are learning something is important for being motivated. Find out what the benefits of learning will be for you and when. Learning to drive may give you independence and becoming awesome at adding up may help you get a job.

Task 6

Learning on your own is hard, learning with others who want to learn the same thing is much easier. You will find you can quiz each other or set each other challenges or just revise. You can also receive encouragement from others when things get difficult to understand (they normally do when learning something new)

Task 7 is an important reminder not to worry about making mistakes. We all make mistakes and one common barrier to learning is the fear of failing but that this is just a step towards achieving your goal. Okay not a big step and perhaps a backwards step at times but a step none the less.  Learn from your mistakes.

The Poster


I am happy for you to download and use the above graphic but please acknowledge the source.

If you would like a high resolution graphic file to download and print then I have made these available through e-junkie (a secure online publishing site) for £1. Click on the button below and you will be taken to the checkout where you can pay by credit card or PayPal. Other arrangements can be made if you prefer, just drop me an e-mail, and include “H2LA” in the subject.

How to Learn Anything Poster purchase and download

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How PARENTS can support learning at home


Desk web size

A time of exams and a time of testing

Here in the UK we are rapidly moving towards the Y11 and Y13 examination or key stage 2 testing phase in our schools.  These are significant transition points in education and carry with them considerable pressures. Get it right and learners have life choices, get it wrong and we are “picking up the pieces” in a number of ways.

How can parents help their children during this time?

The question I want to look at in this article is “What can parents do to support their children at such times as these?” I also want to provide strategies that can help both the parent and the child deal with the upcoming challenges.

The issue of homework

Whilst examinations and tests are points of high involvement and stress for parents there is the issue of homework too.  Homework tends to increase prior to periods of testing and is often seen as synonymous with revision.  Much of what I say here applies to the daily issue of homework, especially if we aim to foster lifelong learning and don’t want the morning ritual in many homes that starts with the question “Have you got your homework?” and ends with both parents and children being stressed.

Let’s start by looking at things from the learner’s perspective.

They will have had mock examinations or practice tests by now and be rehearsed in the practices that are involved in taking them. They will be trying to reach expectations or maintain progress towards them. For some it may be an expectation too far, they may already be beginning to fold under the pressure. Even if they have done well so far there is the pressure to do it for real when the time comes.  Revision and homework don’t have to be lone activities, you being in the same room can be a form of support. Without a strategy and without support we are expecting a great deal from our children.

The learning environment

Remember we are all different and where you like to study is not the same as your child’s.  There are a number of myths around where study should take place but the common one is on your own and in a quite place. Think for a moment, at a time of stress and anxiety do you relish the idea of being sent to your room, to be isolated? Few of us do. I even moved my own home office into the “flow” of the home rather than be isolated from the energy that is part of family life. Remember we look forward to things we enjoy and put off the things we don’t! Working at the kitchen table, lounging on the sofa or on the bed, indoors or outdoors . With bright light or dim light, with music or without. These are all acceptable places and ways to study.  The key though is to be organised.

Remembering the ways to help

Here is an acronym or mnemonic (I am not sure which you would call it) that can help PARENTs be supportive of learners and I am going to use it to outline the strategies parents can use to effectively engage with their children. A more detailed workshop can be provided for a group of parents or you can request a copy of “The Parents Guide to Study” from the link at the end of this article. The basic approach is to be “gently” involved, think of your role as being more of a “guide” than a task master or time keeper.

The meaning of the acronym PARENT is to:

Participate, Ask questions, Reflect, Encourage, Negotiate, Time

What each letter means

Participate – Find out what is going on. Know the dates and key times of all examinations or tests. Provide a reason and relevance for doing their best (not rewards). Work at using peer groups to provide support and not distractions. Understand what learning needs and preferences your child has (for example some like the quiet and others like a busy background). Homework does not have to be alone work either.

Ask questions – but do not interrogate – AVOID using “Why?” , it makes us defensive (try it, ask somebody why they are doing whatever it is they are doing and see what response you get). Find out what topics are being studied and see what you know about them.  You can ask about how they remember best or what new things have you learnt. You can ask your children to explain things to you (pretend if you do know or understand that you do not). Ask how they think they can improve. Use positive emotional triggers – “How did you feel when you did well at….?”

Reflectfind or make opportunities for your children to reflect, recap, internalise, or explain. Short periods work best and if you can make them spontaneous so much the better. Remember mistakes are part of the learning process. Work at building self-esteem, it’s going to take a battering!

Encourageit’s important you stay positive and purposeful and not to let negativity build. Focus on getting better and not just results. Show how much you believe effort leads to success and set a good example. Praise only when praise is due and make it specific.

Negotiateit’s about goal setting and creating win/win situations. AVOID bribery. Talk about consequences and be consistent. Remember choice is a powerful motivator but not if it is free choice.

Time – our lives are influenced by every second. A break or leisure activity are as important as studying if managed properly. They can keep us fresh and can break negative moods. Plan ahead to try to minimise anxiety and stress where you can. Rehearse what will happen at key times so they are part of the process and as ‘normal’ or familiar as they can be.

The PARENT Poster

To make it easier to remember the parent role I have designed a poster that you can put on a wall, cupboard door or any place you find yourself passing by regularly.

PARENT acronym web version

As a PARENT learn to stand back

Although PARENTS is also a useful acronym I have left the “s” out of the acronym as it stands for “stand back“. Learning to stand back is probably the hardest thing for a parent to do.   Let them make mistakes, it’s part of learning. Your job is not to do it for them. I know this can be nail biting and frustrating but better to learn the lessons of life early. I have worked with college/university students who are in a terrible state because they have not developed the skills to cope on their own or do not know how to handle failure.

Well that is how to be a PARENT at a time of examination or testing and during homework  time. I hope you found it useful.

Using the PARENT poster.

I am happy for you to download and use the graphic in this article but please acknowledge the copyright.

If you want a high resolution version in the form of a PNG file suitable for printing up to A3 size then I can provide that at a small cost, more of a donation really to cover hosting costs (£1, about A$2, US$1.5).  The poster is available via eJunki, a secure online publishing website, by using the”Buy Now” button where you will be able to use PayPal or make a card payment.

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PS – Possible book for parents

I am considering extending this article into a guide for parents “The Parents Guide to Supporting Home Study”. If this is something you would like to see then please let me know via twitter and I will put pen to paper! @4c3d 

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