This is part 3 of exploring and dealing with a toxic learning environment where we look at teacher retention. Part two is here
I have mentioned that I have found that there are four needs we all share when it comes to engaging in learning, well it is the same for any activity in which we wish to collectively share and this includes teaching. Part two introduced the need for a sense of belonging for learner engagement.
Teachers are learners so it should come as no surprise that a sense of belonging is as important to teacher engagement, and importantly retention, as it is to learner engagement.
I believe one of our greatest behaviour drivers comes from a sense of belonging.
As a teacher I have seen a student’s behaviour driven so powerfully by this need that they were willing to be excluded for something they did not do rather than break a bond with a peer group. As adults it’s no different, and if we feel a sense of belonging there is a great deal we will do or tolerate to remain part of something.
Creating and building a sense of belonging may just be the key difference between leadership and management.
Autonomous responsibility is a more effective way of achieving outcomes than directed responsibility but requires a strong commitment to the aims and ethos of the organisation – a strong sense of belonging, of sharing the same vision and wanting the same things. Being told to do something ‘or else’ is nowhere near as effective as encouraging somebody to do something for the ‘good of the group’. The ‘stick’ will only work so long as there is a stick and somebody wielding it whereas the promise of a collective need for ‘carrots’ will get people to till and work the land, plant, nurture and protect even when there is nobody to check or inspect.
I am trying to make these analogies to underline where I think schools are going wrong in trying to retain teachers. Yes, some who come into the profession are not suited and leave but there are some who leave before their skills are honed and their experiences give them the greatest rewards of being a teacher – of making a difference to people’s lives and life chances. They do this because they do not have a strong enough sense of belonging to overcome the early struggles.
How long do these struggles last?
I was told in secondary education it takes six years to ‘get your feet under the table’ as it were and I believe it to be true. Why six years? Well because you have to see your own ‘first-year’ group, the one that started the school at the same time as you, through school and then you need at least one year to recognise and build on the benefits of your experience. I would imagine there is a similar time frame and rational in primary education.
What sustains you in these early years is the building of comradeship, establishing relationships and forming that sense of belonging. It does not happen by chance, I believe it needs leadership that is broader in its aims and function than achieving targets.
What prompts mid-career teachers to leave the profession?
This brings me onto why teachers in mid-career or before a normal retiring point leave the profession. I know there is more than one reason for practised teachers to leave the profession but in my experience the process starts once a sense of belonging is lost. As I said earlier we will put up with a great deal if there is a strong sense of belonging but once this is diminished we begin to reconsider what it is we are doing and why we are doing it.
Creating that sense of belonging
I suggest that to create and sustain a strong sense of belonging in schools it needs leadership that understands the purpose of a ‘mission statement’* and uses it effectively to challenge everything they do in order to build a shared sense of belonging. Imagine how you would feel having collectively contributed to, and ‘bought into’ a mission statement and then seeing it ignored during key decision-making processes. In other words, doing something that the organisation to which you belong does not see as it’s purpose or that will further that purpose in order to follow some other path or directive rather than challenge it. You would begin to question why you are part of that organisation and your sense of belonging would be challenged. My view is that leadership should be aware of this and actively work to do only that which promotes its mission and where necessary deflect those that do not. We will support and follow those that stand up for what we believe in and withdraw our support for those who do not and in the process shatter our sense of belonging.
* A note about ‘mission’ statements. In my experience ‘mission’ and ‘vision’ statements are wrongfully used as one term, interchangeable, and meaning the same.
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!
Why dedicate yourself to introducing and promoting a way of thinking about, and going about, teaching and learning?
I was asked this question and have been asking myself the same thing as I struggle to make a significant impact on teaching and learning through the promotion and adoption of my concept of “learning Intelligence”. After a career teaching and seven years of reflection, research and developing a vocabulary and narrative for what works in teaching and learning I need to answer this question in order to continue to justify my efforts and to remain motivated. Motivation often comes from recognising the goal or benefits; here is my attempt at that challenge, of having a reason to continue.
- The “one way” of learning does not work for everyone. Putting aside SEND challenges not all learners thrive in the school environment.
- There are a lot of people who go through education and form the wrong impression about their abilities and about their ability to learn. As a result, there is a significant amount of talent that may never be discovered.
- Learners who are unable to engage in the learning present challenges for teachers and often dealing with these challenges impact the learning of others and the classroom dynamics, or teacher/learner relationships.
- The school has a lifelong impact on us and influences our careers and opportunities. To “fail” at school leaves a deep and lasting scar.
- There is a need for a narrative that brings together what we know or think about learning in a meaningful and coherent way and gives us the flexibility to challenge the “one way”.
- The benefits of the LQ approach are significant and build self-esteem in learners.
- There are a significant number of teachers who could benefit from adopting the LQ approach to teaching and learning.
- LQ promotes seeing learning as a problem-solving activity and develops life-long learners able to face new learning challenges with minimal support.
- I want to make a positive difference to teaching and learning.
Through the Teach Meets at which I have presented and my workshops with teachers it is clear not all teachers see the issue of underachievement as a significant one to address. Perhaps many are happy to believe the mantel learners wear based on past performances and work within it. I would argue that to do so we accept labels as definitive and unchangeable. Underachievement is not solely based within the group those who fail to “perform” it is also within the group who adopt compliance as a strategy to cope with the learning environment in which they find themselves. This group I find often do not possess the skills, attitudes, attributes or behaviours to manage their environment to meet their needs. They respond poorly to target setting without these needs being addressed, needs that are often overlooked as we race to achieve those targets.
Finally, I am reminded of a sobering truth.
It is no good having an answer if nobody is asking the question!
Let me know what you think. Should I continue to promote the concept of LQ and learners needs and if so how?
If you would like to get in touch to find out more about my work or perhaps engage me to challenge you and your staff about teaching and learning then click the link below.
The two aspects of Learning Intelligence, “LQ”
It is fair to say not all learners thrive in the educational environment that we call “school”. Some of the students who pass through school without achieving much do much better once they leave. Have you ever thought about why this happens?
Do we instead of investigating and remedying this situation allow ourselves to believe that there is nothing we can do about it? We may believe that more than enough reform, inspection and restructuring has taken place and that we are helpless in creating the change needed. We may wonder what a single teacher could do that politician, think-tanks, and significant financial leverage cannot. Here is what I believe we can do to help every learner thrive in our schools.
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 I have listed below, it does not change the fact that some students don’t do well in the school environment.
Here are some of the reasons given by teachers for students not doing well at school that I have come across:-
- they were lazy at school, did not make an effort
- they mixed with the ‘wrong crowd’
- they were too easily distracted by what was going on around them
- had too much absence or were always late
Having thought about these and other reasons I have begun to see them as ‘behaviours’ that are symptoms of a problem rather than the cause of one. For example, we are know to be able to make an effort when we can access something that interests us and that we can sustain focus for extended periods of time when doing so. Sir Ken Robinson talks of being in your ‘element’ but I believe it is more than that, at least initially.
Sometimes a change of school brings a change in the learner, they begin to engage and often their learning improves. Given that this happens 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 under the same influences and controls. There are more than likely many reasons why students suddenly start doing well after a period of languishing in the bottom so to trying to find a single one is questionable and, in most cases, I would agree – except! There is something that in my own experience explains most, if not all of the ‘turnarounds’ and that is 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 a 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 learning 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 learning 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.
As teachers, we know about the needs of the student and we work hard at building relationships. This is true except in teaching it can be difficult not to focus on just delivering the curriculum and assessing progress and this can overshadow meeting learner’s needs. Is this the real reason some students do not do well in the school environment I wonder? If we have changed school targets, structures, organisation, management, examinations and testing and yet still do not meet the needs of some students then you have to ask yourself the question – “Do any of these things actually matter that much, will they lead to the changes we want to see in terms of student achievement?”
I have researched and written at length about each of the four learning needs so for this article I will not go depth. Luckily it is a simple matter to remember these four needs and to include them in our interaction with others and in our teaching, 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 the four needs, 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, it is a comprehensive guide to all the factors associated with developing PBCF in teaching.
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:
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.
It’s the Holy Grail in teaching, to ensure all learners reach their potential, and we have tried all manner of ways to find it.
What if the answer was staring us in the face all along? Would we recognise it and would we grasp the opportunity with both hands? My experience as a teacher and consultant suggests not. Along with my solution, that of developing Learning Intelligence, here is why we have not taken the opportunity so far.
Politicians consider it too risky to leave education to what they perceive as chance and imagine they can dictate and control it through inspection and the setting of targets. The trouble with this is we only see the things we are looking for and only hit the things we aim for. This limits creativity, innovation, and risk taking. It also sets a limit on what can be achieved, if you are required to hit a target at 100m why try to hit it at 1000m? There is no point in making the extra effort. The target has got to be constantly revised otherwise there is no challenge and “moving the goal posts” hardly appears fair when you were so close to achieving it. Targets may do more to de-motivate than to motivate.
Leadership misunderstand their responsibilities. It is often interpreted as the imposing of policies sent down by politicians, even if it does not foster a learning relationship between the teacher and learner. This behaviour can inhibit them from reacting to local needs and conditions. The true role of leadership is to ensure only those initiatives and ideas that actually promote the learning relationship are supported.
I find that teachers are inclined to teach the way they learn and were taught. Perhaps it is difficult to even imagine another way when the way you learnt was so successful for you. The drive to be a teacher is often to help give the opportunities that became available to you as a result of your education to others, so why do it any differently. Teachers are the instruments by which policy is applied and targets achieved so they have little freedom to explore alternatives or little inclination to take risks.
Parents have bought into the passive learning model. Their children go to school to be taught and that model is one they themselves experienced. In this model the responsibility for a lack of achievement is easily directed at the teacher and certainly away from them as parents or their children as learners. They insist the school tries harder, sets more homework, and makes their children learn so long as it does not take up too much of their time.
Employers are not sure what they want an education system to do to prepare young people for the world of work. We hear that many of the jobs our students will be doing when they leave school don’t exist yet so I suppose this makes it difficult. In the absence of a clear picture of what is required we hear the common call for “the basics”, but often that is left vaguely defined and what is the basics for one employer may not be for another. Many call for “soft skills”*, skills that complement the job related or “hard skills”. Schools are not measured or given targets for these skills so they do not form part of the directed curriculum and therefore are not given a high priority.
The solution, the one that is staring us in the face. There is a simple way of enabling learners and we can find fragments of it scattered through current and past research, writings, and practices. Some call for better feedback in the learning cycle, building learning power, some for a more mindful approach to learning and others of requiring grit from the learner.
Each has a piece of the jigsaw but no one person or concept has it all. No one, until now that is, has brought what we know about teaching and learning together under one unifying approach or concept. So we move from one initiative or idea to another. Each time hoping that each will help find the Holy Grail. What we should be doing is unifying our efforts into working with learners to develop their ability to manage their learning environment to meet their learning needs. Just take a moment to reflect on this statement before I go on to explain what this means.
I claim that successful learners are those who are able to interact with their learning environment and that their environment meets their learning needs. This explains why some learners do well at school but not as well as adults and why some learners who struggled in school do well in the real world. Where there is a match between the school environment and the needs of a particular learner they will do well, where there is not any learner will struggle to reach their true potential in that environment. Other factors must come into play for an individual who is mismatched with their learning environment to achieve their potential.
An analysis of this reality suggests that there are a set of skills, attributes, attitudes, and behaviours that learners who are successful in any environment have or display. They are able to adapt their environment to meet their needs and overcome environmental limiting factors. I call this “Learning Intelligence” or LQ for short and it represents the way we can help all learners to reach their true potential.
The evidence that supports the concept of LQ is there for us to see if we adopt an open mind to the issues of learning. Perhaps the first glimpses we have seen of LQ in action has been as a result of the changing of the learning environment through technology. For example the Khan Academy and YouTube have shown that learners can respond successfully to a different learning environment to that of the school. What these new learning environments provide is a better match to the learner’s needs. We hear also of the “gamification” of learning as we see the effort people are willing to put into these type of environments. It seems obvious then that if we develop the learner’s ability to manage different learning environments to meet their learning needs by developing their LQ that they will be in better position to reach their potential.
There are numerous benefits to the LQ approach to learning too.
- We do not have to worry about what new initiatives or ideas that may come along for the learner will be equipped to deal with them.
- The concept of life-long learning becomes a reality because the learner will be able to cope with any change in learning environment.
- Teachers are not asked to plan and deliver lessons to accommodate numerous learning styles and can focus on what matters – building relationships and turning knowledge into understanding.
- Parents can be helped to understand how the environment they create at home also impacts learning.
- Politicians can relax a little knowing that they have a society of learners that can adapt to changes in the skills, knowledge or understanding required of them during their working life.
- Employers will get the employees they are looking for.
So we have a simpler and better way to approach learning if we want it.
For an introduction to LQ go to: https://magic.piktochart.com/output/2297869-learning-intelligence
For workshops, keynote speeches or for more about how developing LQ can release the potential of learners you can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Graphic from: http://erdmute.deviantart.com/art/holy-grail-png-100234405