This is part 2 of exploring and dealing with a toxic learning environment where we look at what makes it difficult for learners to engage in the learning and what we, as teachers, can do about it. Part one is here
It is easier to run away than stay and fight but this depends on what tools you have to fight with. Let me give you an example:
If you want somewhere to hang up your coat and you have a screw and a hammer you may be tempted to hammer in the screw*. On the other hand, if you have a nail and a screwdriver you are less likely to try.
Learning and developing tools to deal with emotions and situations means you have to be involved in a constructive way, you have to be engaged in the process in order to practice and become skilled.
Deciding to engage in something that makes us uncomfortable means tipping the balance in favour of gain over pain. Beware though, we can feign engagement if our need to comply is strong enough. On the other hand, if our learning needs are met then we are more likely to truly engage.
Just what our learning needs though?
As a teacher it took me some time to work this out and thanks to a number of less than compliant learners who taught me a lot about teaching and more than a little research I believe I eventually identified four essential learning needs. If these four needs are met, most of them, most of the time, then we are more likely to stick around and attempt to engage in learning when the environment we are in feels toxic to us. Put simply, and using my earlier analogy of tools, we are more likely to go looking for a hammer to hammer in our nail or a screwdriver to drive in our screw and therefore successfully hang up our coat (a metaphor for staying too).
I am of the opinion that in a learning environment ‘toxic’ means ‘emotionally uncomfortable’ and one of my biggest concerns about teaching is that we do not spend enough time discussing this aspect of learning with learners. We find it very difficult to truly engage in the learning process when they are emotionally uncomfortable. Try it, think about a time you were anxious, frightened or distracted. Did you find it easy to listen, to take instructions to think straight or to recall what was said to you afterwards? Probably not.
Back to those four learning needs.
The first and probably most important need we have is a sense of belonging. There are two aspects to meeting this need and the first is getting to know your students.
Any teacher will tell you that you need to get to know your class. It’s not rocket science or brain surgery! Not just their names though, but something about them as individuals. I categorise this as something you could have a conversation about other than the lesson, something that interests them. If you learn to listen and acknowledge and respond to the odd “red herring” question you will soon find out what it is. Here are some things to get you started:
The second part of this need can be accomplished by giving them all membership of a group defined by you. Be careful here – positive attributes only. Talk about the group in the positive at all times, no matter how you feel at that moment. So if the subject is maths (sorry maths!) and it the last lesson of the week and they have just had PE remember to tell them how much you look forward to teaching them, how it always sets you up for the weekend when they achieve in this lesson. I have heard teachers say “Here come my stars” as the most challenging group arrives and they are always welcoming.
So there we have BELONGING from a teaching perspective. Of course, there is much more to discuss about this need and the challenges meeting it creates. Next, we will look at belonging from the perspective of teacher retention.
*I have known a hammer to be referred to as the ‘Birmingham screwdriver’ but I have no idea why!
It may appear simple to say that there has to be a beginning, middle and end but is important that we do not miss any of these stages and they must be in balance.
I have known lessons where the beginning went on too long, or where there is not enough time for the students to engage or immerse themselves in the learning or there was not enough time at the end of the lesson to conclude it in a meaningful way. Get it right and lessons are meaningful, full of learning and there is a great teacher/learner relationship. Get it wrong and lessons are often characterised by boredom or conflict and challenge.
The risk of poor lesson planning
I have experienced lesson planning pro-forma that seek to address these issues but become so prescriptive that they do not allow for the natural dynamics of a lesson and risk creating the same outcome they are trying to avoid.
There is a simple but effective way to ensure lesson planning creates the type of lesson we would ideally like in our teaching and that is to plan a lesson as a learner and not as a teacher.
Think about how, as a learner, you would like the lesson structured and the pace or balance of the lesson. As a learner, you would like time to become familiar with the learning challenge, time to explore or practice and to establish your understanding and then to have an opportunity to consolidate the learning or perhaps ask questions to further your understanding. These stages should characterise the beginning, middle and end of a lesson. The ‘mindful’ teacher addresses these needs in their planning and delivery.
Power Belonging Choice and Fun in lesson planning
Planning lessons around subject material is only one aspect of the planning, we need to consider the learner needs too. I define these needs as power, belonging, choice and fun and suggest we ignore them at our peril. Within a calm learning environment, a teacher needs to lead, to guide their students not to push them or over-regulate their behaviour and we can do this if we meet their learning needs. In doing so we can create effective learning relationships and improve learning outcomes.
The beginning, middle and end
Meeting learning needs (power, belonging, choice and fun) is important at the start, during and at the end of all lessons. Addressing them in our planning will help us create the engagement we are looking for as well as creating effective relationships. A relationship that allows for that dynamic of being able to respond to the unexpected teaching and learning challenges in a meaningful way without disrupting the lesson flow. We may on such occasions leave the subject content planning path but by doing so we will better support our learners because we are meeting their needs.
The start of a lesson should include how we are going to meet the need for belonging. Perhaps the greeting and arrival are ideal opportunities to do so. Offering guided choice and listening to the ‘student voice’ can be included too during the lesson. Linking fun to achievement is our greatest challenge and we must include opportunities to celebrate learning at the end.
“Please be child friendly”
My way of remembering learning needs is simple and apt. “Please Be Child Friendly” when planning and teaching. The graphic is also something you can print off and keep at hand.
A different way of looking at teaching and learning
PBCF is part of an approach to teaching I refer to as “Learning Intelligence”, or “LQ” for short, and looks at how the learner and teacher can manage the learning environment to promote better learning and improve learning relationships. If you are interested in LQ or just PBCF then get in touch I am more than happy to talk you through how, with only small changes, the approach can make a significant impact on teaching and learning.
There may be a coincidence that many “turned off” learners try to hide and themselves away and adopt the “hoodie” because it offers them a form of anonymity and way of withdrawing. What we think we see when we look at the learner on the left above may be as untrue as the world being flat. If you could not dance and were gangly you would probably want to melt into the background and more than likely would not be found on the dance floor at any party. So it is for many learners in our schools, they don’t fit in and have learnt to be anonymous and, if challenged, sometimes aggressive or uncooperative. They rarely put up their hand or venture an answer willingly.
What can be done to re engage reluctant learners?
The carrot and stick approach is unlikely to work. They have learnt that the carrot tastes awful and they have become immune form the stick. The key is in discovering two critical things about themselves and one truth.
- The first is that ability is not just measured by tests or examinations
- The second is that their learning environment can impact their ability to learn more than they think.
- The truth is more often than not we can if we think or believe we can!
The first of the thing reluctant learners need to recognise is their potential and I am not talking about the 3 R’s or ability to remember and recall facts. Discovering that they have a host of abilities in a range of areas helps in developing self esteem and breaking down the idea of being a failure.
I attended the National Conference of the AIM Awards this week and specifically the workshop on a new offering the Personal Potential Award. What is special about this qualification is the process learners undertake in ultimately recognising their abilities. In many ways it is learning without subject matter. Through a series of activities and guided by the leader of the course learners discover they have a lot more to offer as well as recognising the need to work cooperatively with those around them. A common factor with those who have faced the challenges of formal education and not succeeded is a mistrust of education and a fixed mindset. The Personal Potential Award does much to dispel both the fear and the mindset. Once they see themselves as able to learn they are better placed to re engage in learning. Nothing comes easy though and this leads onto the second key fact.
The Learning Environment
In the same way as our physical environment affects our health and well being so does the learning environment affect our ability to learn. The type of learning experiences we receive can make us either put up our hands or turn our backs. We need to make the link between our success as learners and our learning environment. Unfortunately few learners understand that they can manage their learning environment in away that meets their needs. Further few actually acknowledge or understand the emotional impact of a negative learning experience. Unfortunately the experience itself is often forgotten but the effect lingers into teenage and adult life. This impacts on future learning opportunities and the spiral continues in the wrong direction.
How Can LQ Help?
The purpose of LQ is to provide a language to both challenge and explore past learning experiences as well as to develop ways of coping with future ones.
LQ asks “Is what you are doing working for you?” This can be expanded to include setting personal goals or developing aspirations and to getting what you need rather than what you want. Being withdrawn and shunning any form of education or training rarely gets people what they need or furthers their journey towards their aspirations.
LQ challenges limiting self-beliefs by exploring our learning maps, what it is we think we can and can-not learn. We build these maps as we encounter learning experiences and evaluate our successes often through the strength of emotions rather than objective reflection.
LQ helps the learner work smarter by learning how to cope with learning environments that do not cater for their learning needs and in finding other ways to achieve the necessary understanding or skill. This works for any learner at any level and in any situation.
I would recommend to anyone to take the time to exploring the Personal Potential Award. A common factor with those who have faced the challenges of formal education and not succeeded is a mistrust of education and a fixed mindset. The Personal Potential Award does much to dispel both the fear and the mindset.
I encourage you to explore the many articles on this blog to do with Learning Intelligence, “LQ”. Understanding the link between the learning environment and behaviours and attitudes is as important for teachers as it is for learners. A negative learning experience can set up road blocks and fix traffic lights to red unless the teacher deals with it appropriately.
There is a strong link between the Personal Potential Award and LQ. I see LQ providing the answer to the question “Why?” the Personal Potential Award and then developing the understanding of how to apply the changes that take place in themselves as learners as a result of undertaking the Award.
I can be contacted via e-mail if you want to find out more about LQ or perhaps arrange a workshop to explore how it can make a real difference to the achievement of your learners.
- a) important
- b) dangerous
- c) a waste of time
- d) something to be discouraged
- e) the source of challenge and disobedience in schools
- f) something to be encouraged
- g) a useful tool in managing your own learning
A stark way to begin an article perhaps but in many ways it demonstrates the two sides of the coin that is initiative. As far as learning intelligence is concerned it an essential coin to have in your pocket but with it comes the drawback of its twin personality. Sometimes showing initiative will get you out of trouble and at others in it up as far as your waist if not further. Let me explain why and why it is an important aspect of learning intelligence, LQ.
The basis of LQ is the ability to manage the learning environment to meet your learning needs. Managing anything requires a degree of resourcefulness, not everything always goes to plan, and as we discussed earlier resilience is the face of knock backs is an important trait for survival. However merely repeating what you did before and hoping for a different outcome is hardly any form of intelligence. I believe Albert Einstein is attributed with defining insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” We are left then with doing something different when we have experienced a “toxic” learning environment, i.e. one that does not meet our learning needs.
So we need resilience to have another go, we need to be aware of the emotions we have attributed to our learning experience and not let them hold us back and we need to find another way to learn. If you look back over earlier articles you may notice that a thread running through LQ includes the concept of showing initiative. To me initiative is a personal action; it is something unique to you. You have solved a problem that you face in a way that is novel, different or unexpected. If you think of the hero in a Hero’s Journey, the basis of nearly all adventure stories, then you will see why initiative is important. Here I have altered the Hero’s Journey into a format that reflects learning.
There is action not inaction in showing initiative, in the learning environment you are doing something and not being passive. Just pulling up a list of synonyms emphasises the “action” aspect of initiative, these include:
- Readiness and ability to initiate an action
- Eagerness to do something
Action also suggests ownership of the learning and this is something key to LQ. Looking to others to help you is a strategy that can work but only if the other person is aware of LQ and is able to adopt a flexible approach to helping you learn. Telling or showing you again and again in the same way will hardly improve the learning for you. It is much better if you can look at learning as a problem to solve (see earlier article on the link between LQ and the design process) and look for a solution to the learning problem. You may need to be a bit of a “Hero”, especially if the learning environment is fixed and those responsible for shaping it are a little reluctant to changing it.
What this means for the Teacher
Be accepting of challenges from learners, they may not be aimed at you personally but at the learning environment you have created.
Encourage initiative. Don’t always present the learning path as a fixed and well-trodden one. On occasion challenge the learner not only with learning but also with creating a learning environment that suits them and in finding the path to understanding.
Praise strategies and not people when it comes to recognising success.
Show initiate in your approach to learning. For example consider the “flipped classroom” or instead of asking students to demonstrate their understanding of a subject you challenge them to find an alternative learning strategy or resource. Demonstrating or discussing this to the class can help other learners.
What this means for the Learner
Be active in the learning process. This may involve re assessing your learning map (what you believe you can and can-not learn) based on prior experiences.
Take a fresh look at the learning environment and note what supports and what hinders your learning. In doing so reflect on what works and how you may duplicate this in other learning situations.
Learn to challenge any frustrations you feel into looking for solutions.
When something does not suit look for alternatives to overcome any limiting factors in the learning environment. For example look for on-line learning materials to support you or for other ways to support you in overcoming a limiting or challenging learning environment.
Develop your skills in approaching those that manage or provide your learning environment. Work at making sure your approach and behavior is not seen as a challenge.
The next article published on the 2nd of October will look at LQ and learning teams.
There is no doubt that the internet has influenced the way I approach learning. Being able to join discussions, air my views and ideas, reflect on comments, follow up ‘leads’ suggested by others, publish and explore are all things I have been able to do over the last three years thanks to the internet. During one of my very first posts on LinkedIn I realised I was seeing the discussion and those adding to it as my virtual classroom and students. We must have all enjoyed the learning process for there were over 400 comments and I summed it all up in a ‘Prezi’ so we could share in the outcome. If you want the link let me know.
I have come to realise though that much of what I am doing is asking questions, presenting ideas or exploring those of others. I have used Tweets to bring resources to the attention of others and to sum up ideas in a pithy way. My website explores my philosophies in greater depth and is a window for the resources I am producing. Recently I started this blog too as a way of expressing ideas and hopefully getting people to think about the various aspects of teaching and learning, but do you ever get the feeling you are missing something? I am not sharing my learning journey. Could this be a worthwhile experiment – to open up and share my learning journey to others?
I have just begun another stage in my learning journey thanks to a reference to a book made by somebody during a discussion who I cannot remember so my thanks goes out rather unfocused! The book is about ‘self’ and if it exists at all. It is one of those books where you read a few lines and spend the rest of the evening reflecting and exploring, progress through the book is slow but the learning journey rapid. So much to think about, find out and share. It was during one of these periods of reflecting that I realised the one thing I had not used the many internet resources for, that of sharing my learning journey. I wondered if I shared my journey it would be the much richer for doing so. I would liken this to having a local guide when visiting somewhere new. You could read the guide books but local knowledge is so much more colourful, engaging and interesting.
So that is my intention, to use this blog to share my learning journey into ‘self’. I am aware I am a ‘toddler’ in this field and that my first steps will be a little shaky. I know that my insights may be way off the mark and very immature and that later I will realise this and even may be a little embarrassed by what I have said. I hope there are those out there who have more knowledge or understanding than me at each stage I reach and that they will be gentle in their contribution, helping to guide me and even challenge me as I progress through this learning journey. I hope too that they will bring the colour and richness I could never hope to be exposed to by reading alone.
You can join me in a number of ways:
As a companion, somebody who also wished to make this journey and keep me company and share the experience of ‘open learning’.
As a guide, somebody who can point me in the right direction and keep me on course.
As a mentor, somebody who will challenge my thinking and provide the support to achieve my own insights and understanding.
As an observer, somebody who pops in now and then to see how things are progressing and maybe receives inspiration for their own learning journey.
So if you are reading this and are interested in joining me I would like you to register to follow this blog. If you know somebody who may also be interested please let them know and ask them to join us in some capacity too.
The first instalment will be published on Sunday 11th November. I hope you are able to join me in this e-learning journey and experiment in exploring ‘self’.
Part 4 – The questions to ask yourself.
This is the final part of the secret of time management and is the solution to the NET problem.
I have explained we all have the same number of hours in a day and that to do more you have to make a few decisions. Here is what I said in the first part of the secret to time management:
1) Find more hours. This is working hours we are talking about.
2) Multi task, do more than one thing at once.
3) Stop doing something.
4) Work quicker. Be more efficient in what you do and how you do it.
Then we had the NET equation in which it was clear the person, that is you, can affect all aspects of the NET equation. The point I was making is that if you change behaviours you have every chance of solving the NET equation, the solution is in your hands and had been all along
Here is that revised equation again.
NET = Task and engagement x Person x Resources and training time
NET = Tt x P x Rt
This brings us back to the questions you have to ask yourself and the decisions you have to make.
NET Balancing Questions.
1) Do I have to do this task?
2) Am I the best person to do this task?
3) Should I delegate this task?
4) Is this a task I am qualified in doing?
5) Will I be fully engaged in accomplishing this task?
6) Have I the resources at my disposal to accomplish this task?
7) Could anyone else accomplish this task better than I could?
8) What am I avoiding doing by attempting this task?
9) What percentage of my working time will this task require and is it proportionally acceptable given the returns expected? This is a ROI question.
10) What should I stop doing in order to accommodate the new task?
11) Is it time to ask for help?
12) Do others really know how much I have on at the moment?
13) Is this a realistic expectation?
14) Are there any resources available to me that could save time and help accomplish the task sooner to the expected standard?
15) Do my expectations exceed the expected standards or outcomes?
16) Does this task need to be done now or at all?
17) What tasks will soon come to completion and what time will this release?
18) Is this a task I am suited to?
19) How much time will I allocate to the task?
20) How will I monitor or record the time spent on the task?
21) Where is this task in my hierarchy of urgent/important?
You may develop a simple flow chart to help you to ask the questions most relevant to you in a suitable order. For example you may not be able to delegate tasks and so asking this question is irrelevant. In such a case it may be more appropriate to ask “Do others really know how much I have on at the moment?”, we always assume they do and often they do not. This may lead to the question ” What should I stop doing in order to accommodate the new task?”
Balancing the NET equation is important for more than one reason. Firstly we work best when we are not under stress or in a conflict situation. Borrowing time from family can cause conflict and borrowing it from social or leisure time can cause stress and anxiety. Secondly being at our best means we work more objectively and make better decisions which ultimately leads to improved efficiency and a better outcome all round. Finally a measure of how well you are doing at balancing the NET equation is your degree of happiness, not necessarily the rolling around the floor laughing type of happiness but the type which is reflected in how content you are. You are meeting some of your basic needs.
These working needs are described as:
- Fun – engaged, positive relationships, objectivity, balance, able to hold a perspective.
- Freedom – being able to have some control over your work life balance.
- Belonging – sense of purpose, part of a team, trusted, given responsibility, acknowledged
- Power – able to make decisions about things which affect you. Where, when and how.
If you do find the NET equation and the questions useful please let others know.
I would also be glad to hear about any observations you have or comments you have to make about the secret of time management..