It is fair to say not all learners thrive in the educational environment of the school.
Do we though, instead of investigating and remedying this situation, allow ourselves to believe another cause for this shortcoming?
Reflecting on my time as a teacher there has always been those students who do well in school and those who don’t but then go on to have great success in learning once they leave. We may say, and many have, that they eventually wake up to the necessity of a good education and knuckle down to it. Whilst this may be true along with other reasons such as those below it does not change the outcome, some students don’t do well in the school environment.
Some of the reasons given by teachers for students not doing well at school include:-
- they were lazy at school
- they mixed with the wrong crowd
- too easily distracted
- had too much time off
Sometimes a change of school brings a change in the learner so we could ask is it really the school environment since all we have done is swap one for the other, it is still a school environment. There are more than likely many reasons why students suddenly start doing well after a period of languishing in the bottom percentages so to try to find a single one is questionable. I would agree unless that is you believe in the effect of the teacher-learner relationship.
Ask any student if they had a favourite teacher and the answer is more than likely “Yes”, even if overall they did not do well at school. Without doubt, a teacher makes a significant difference to the learning experience. I was once ‘tracked down’ by an ex-student who told me it was their experience with me as their teacher some 15 years earlier that was now their motivation to become a teacher. Wow!
Any student who leaves school without realising their potential is a wasted opportunity. I have come across too many adults who express this very sentiment for it not to be so, regrets abound. We can go on saying it’s the students fault or even blaming each other or the system or we can do something about it.
As teachers we do far more than teach subjects, we build relationships with learners. Where learners find the school environment ‘toxic’ we have the opportunity to build relationships that help them overcome such effects, or we could say they were lazy, mixed with the wrong crowd or were not very bright!
The key to helping students not only survive in school but thrive is in meeting their needs. I am not talking about learning styles or developing grit or even the psychology of a growth mindset. I am talking about the needs that are at the core of developing relationships. We all have them, we as teachers and as partners or as a member of a family all have them. Meet these needs and we have engagement and co-operation, don’t and we have excluded and disaffected individuals.
In teaching, it can be difficult not to focus on delivering the curriculum and assessing progress but this can overshadow meeting learner’s needs. Is this the real reason some students dot do well in the school environment I wonder. Luckily it is a simple matter to remember these needs and to include them in our interaction with others. I have developed a mnemonic to do just that and even the acronym that represents them is easy to remember too.
So “Please Be Child Friendly” in your teaching and “Please Be Colleague Friendly” in your working relationships.
Here is a quick overview of PBCF and a useful graphic
Power – having a voice, being acknowledged
Belonging – being recognised and remembered
Choice – offered choice and understanding the resulting consequences
Fun – enjoying what you do and celebrating success
Using PBCF in your own work.
If you would like a workshop on how to develop PBCF in your teaching or in leadership or management then please get in touch. Look out for the book “Understanding and Managing Learning Needs” too, its about to be published and it is a comprehensive guide to all the factors associated with developing PBCF in teaching.
“To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle” George Orwell
Sometimes the obvious is on our doorstep, often ignored and rarely noticed. So it is with my experience as a teacher and in the development of the concept of Learning Intelligence, or “LQ”.
To read more of this article published at The Staffroom visit:
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”
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: http://wp.me/p2LphS-ba). 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.
Part 4. The impact of the no one learning environment cont.
A blame culture, the ultimate outcome of the “one way”.
Earlier I explored the impact of the one way not working. I described how in my experience it leads to the tightening of monitoring and checking systems, inflexible frameworks and the limiting of creativity (or in some cases finding “creative” ways around inflexibility). Now we turn to whose fault is it the one way is not working.
If the one way to learn, the prescribed approach, is not working then it is the fault of someone. Who is that “someone”? At the start there are always a lot of things to point the finger at, after time though the number dwindles. That someone was the Local Education Authority, trendy (lazy) teachers, progressive teaching methods, low aspirations, parents, disruptive students etc. Now it is either the leadership of the school or the teacher or a lack of effort on the part of the learner (also the fault of the teacher). In such cases it is easy to get into a cycle of finger pointing or a blame culture.
We in the UK are definitely into a blame culture and as we move further and further into it the language used by government gives this away. We hear things like “we are introducing a new check”, “pupils at risk of falling behind” , “target those areas” and “children aren’t being given a fair shot to succeed”. More the language of war you would think (the outcome of desperation?) than education perhaps. Then there is the “takeover” manoeuvre (there is that war analogy again!), the one where those who were “in charge” or responsible are no longer trusted and a new regime is installed. In the UK it is academy trusts who take over “failing schools” but these are also failing (as we would expect if the one way does not work!). It’s certainly a dilemma for any government that persists on the one way path. I suppose with so much invested in the one way, both personally, as well as politically, it is hard if not impossible to even consider another way let alone more than one way.
What we do know is the learning environment created by the pursuit at all costs of the one way is very toxic for those involved in leadership, teaching, and learning. Finding a way to deal with this environment is the key to improving teaching and learning. We know that through regulation and inspection leadership and teachers have their hands tied so this leaves the learner. A simple analogy that describes how we may proceed in dealing with a toxic environment that is not going to change is living somewhere really cold and wanting to be warm. You can ask for sunnier days, less snow and ice each year or longer summers and shorter winters until you are blue in the face (ignoring climate change). You are asking for the unlikely if not impossible. The more successful way is to acclimatise yourself to the environment and seek ways of managing it in order to get what you want – to be warm. So you learn what clothes to wear and how to wear them, you practice ways of getting and keeping warm and after a while you are warm, despite the environment.
If we take the same approach in teaching and learning then it’s not about changing the learning environment to meet the needs of the learner it’s about equipping the learner to manage the learning environment to meet their learning needs. This is important not only because of the one way problem but because we do not learn just in schools or managed environments. We have the opportunity to learn in a number of different environments. For example at home, in work, during leisure and in a social setting are all potential learning environments. My experience is that some learners do not do well in one school environment but thrive in another, some do not do well in any formal education environment but thrive when on work placements, and some excel in leisure pursuits but do less well in school. They are the same person but achieve differently in different environments. If we wanted evidence that we need to equip learners with the skills, attitudes, attributes, and behaviours (SAAB) to manage their learning environment then we need look no further than these examples. Where their SAAB matches the environment they flourish, where it does not they struggle.
My claim is that in these situations the learner possesses the appropriate SAAB profile for the environment in which they thrive but not the profile for those where they struggle. It occurs to me that we need to broaden or develop the SAAB profile of the learner such that they can thrive in any learning environment. We need to work with the learner to explore their learning needs and how this impacts on their learning beliefs. To build in the learner the ability to see a difficulty to learn not as a personal weakness but as a result of the environment they are in and not having the SAAB to mange it effectively.
Links to earlier parts are:
Why there is no one learning environment and no one environment that meets all learning needs.
Over the years teachers have been asked to plan and deliver lessons to specific models. These models have included meeting various learning styles, multiple intelligences, and differences in ability. Teachers are now being asked to adopt a “growth mind-set” approach when dealing with learners (if they do not already have one what are they doing in teaching?) Views on how best to teach a particular aspect also change and teachers have been instructed in the way to teach reading and mathematical concepts with each supporter or instigator claiming theirs to be better than the other. Strangely enough we could have expected this dichotomy to have been resolved by now if there was one way to teach and to learn! Perhaps this is evidence of sorts for there not being a “one way”.
This situation of new ideas replacing old and then being replaced by old ones re-discovered and of to-ing and fro-ing is unhelpful for teachers and for learners in a number of ways. Firstly it ignores teaching and learning experience. Experience of what works and what does not work and in what circumstances. I suggest that a variety of approaches and teaching strategies is the hallmark of a seasoned teacher. They are able to respond and adapt to meet the dynamics of a lesson in a way that maintains engagement and supports learning. To ignore, or in some way supress this experience, is not helpful. I have seen excellent teachers be sacrificed on the altar of the “one way” because instead of going with their instinct they stuck to the plan. Instead of using experience to take another way in achieving the same aim they tried to apply an inappropriate strategy determined by the one way. At the least the one way produces conflict and at the worst high levels of job related stress.
When the “one way” does not have a level playing field and there are high stakes implications for not reaching the same standards then a second undermining condition occurs. This can be summed up by the term “playing the system”. Ways are found to produce the required output at all costs because these are far less than the impact of not doing so. Once discovered then this leads to attempts to strengthen the original one way systems. This is a spiral of pressure, playing the system, tightening the system controls and more pressure.
Wanting to do things one way also calls for conformity rather than supporting or stimulating innovation. This is something I claim leads to much narrower inspection frameworks. Frameworks that by their very nature, become inflexible and constraining. There is a natural outcome of an inflexible framework and that is any responsibility for lack of success is directed not at the framework itself but at those operating it or being inspected by it. The logic flows along the lines of if it’s not the framework at fault, and it cannot be, then it must be the people. The spiral of decline and blame is there for all to see whenever we have this situation. The result is a very toxic environment for the people as the means to support the framework is strengthened in an effort to make it work. It never will but that does not stop those that believe in it trying to make it. Efforts are made to drive up standards and grades re-assessed or re-defined even if the framework standards are being achieved. This is because the framework is fundamentally flawed and cannot produce the desired outcomes. The stupidity of this approach defies only those who instigate and support it.
When the one way is not working then changes occur, not in broadening the approach but instead as I have suggested earlier, in standards or grade definitions. This adds an element of insecurity and confusion for those involved. What is the old “C” in terms of the new level? Why is this subject included and this one excluded? Changes of this nature also make demands on time and energy as the people work to accommodate the changes.
What is worse is when eventually the current one way is dismantled to be replaced not by an amalgam, a variety or a blend, but once again by the new one way. Yesterday’s best way becomes today’s “must avoid” as each “new way “undermines earlier “new ways”. What is worse is the latest ideas fail to be the one way it is claimed to be and the old way becomes the new way once again.
I have seen first-hand the draining nature of this approach, of imposing a one way approach to teaching and learning. Teachers keep their heads down, they have little enthusiasm, or energy for new ideas or innovation, be it good or bad. Some vote with their feet and leave the profession.
Yes we learn from experience and so things evolve but surely this should make us aware of the dangers of the “one way” mentality in teaching and learning. The power of Learning Intelligence is that it opens our eyes to the effects of the one way and empowers us to do something about it. It also provides the reassurance and boost to confidence we need when being challenged by the one way syndrome.
As a result of our desire in education to find the magic bullet, the one way to teach and ideal way to learn that will make our education systems the best I would argue we are neglecting the learner. We are requiring compliance rather than seeking engagement. I would go as far as saying we are disabling the learner. For part 1 of this article the link is: http://wp.me/p2LphS-qA
Surely every new idea, theory, or approach is aimed at making it easier or better for the learner. So how can this be? The answer lies in the impact on the learner and their involvement in the learning.
Building our self-perception as a learner
Experience should suggest to anyone in teaching or wanting to learn that we each have learning preferences, those things that we believe help us to learn. Some feel more alert in the morning or like to discuss ideas with others rather than read about them. It may be the environment we are in, who we are with or any number of other factors that influence our moods and energy levels. Our learning preferences often change too, they are after all preferences. Like all preferences they are influenced by context, our own emotional, mental and physical development as well as our environment. We present our learning preferences as learning needs (tangibly some times as motivators represented by desired rewards) to be fulfilled in order to learn. Understanding about the impact of and of the changes in our learning needs is part of LQ.
In situations where we do not have our learning needs met we feel uncomfortable, see ourselves as “unable” or struggle to engage and require significantly more encouragement or motivation to participate in the learning. We are after all fighting off a driving need, trying to put it to the back of our mind. This subduing of need, of not having a preference met, requires energy and concentration. Both of these would normally be allocated to the learning task at hand. We are therefore left without a focus on learning with our efforts being divided between two tasks. We are in effect being distracted from learning. Just ask yourself what your concentration is like when you are hungry or cold or the chair you are sitting in is uncomfortable and I think you will understand my point.
The split in our efforts to learn and in our efforts to meet our learning needs does not have to be an equal one. In truth very little effort may be available for learning depending on how significant our needs are, to what degree they are not being met and how much effort is needed to achieve or repress them. This may go some way to explain why some learners learn easier and are more relaxed in some learning environments than in others.
Repressing a need can also lead to a build-up of stress. How we respond when stressed depends on a number of factors, the range, and type of behaviours that we have learnt as well as our environment and our perceived options (self-efficacy). Chronic stress often occurs when we feel we have no choices and no voice. An excessive stress level also limits learning as it robs us of our objective thinking and disturbs our emotional balance. We often make irrational choices when chronically stressed too.
I find that “inexperienced learners” often perceive this struggle between meeting learning needs and learning as an indication that they are unable to learn. It influences our perception of ourselves as a learners. This perception can be, and often is, wrong. It is the result of this conflict in application of energy and effort to have our learning needs met and to engage in the learning process. The long term damage occurs when this turns from a perception into a belief. The power of LQ is that it gives the learner both the tools and insight to challenge these false beliefs. It allows them to redefine their perception of themselves as learners. LQ broadens the strategies a learner can use to overcome learning barriers caused by not having their learning needs met.
Our self-beliefs as learners is critical to our success as learners. What we cannot rely on as learners is there being one way to learn and that this way will always be created for us. It is a false hope that I suggest can have a catastrophic impact on teaching and learning. It is up to the learner to develop the skills, attitudes, attributes and behaviours that will allow them to master any learning environment. Learners need to focus on developing their Learning Intelligence in order to manage their learning environment.
In following parts I will explain why I believe that as there is no single ideal learner profile there is no one learning environment and no one environment that meets all learning needs.