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!
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.
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.
It’s not often, unfortunately, that I find another teaching professional who writes a post that corroborates my work on LQ and PBCF but here is one by Jodie Jasmin
Jodie shares her first thoughts when students are not engaged in the learning.
“My first thoughts when I hear a student is consistently misbehaving are;
1. What’s happening at home?
2. Do you have a good teacher-student bond?
3. Does your teacher speak to you with respect?
4. Are the lesson activities engaging and tailored to your needs?”
Sound familiar? It will if you have been reading this blog.
Jodie’s list clearly points to the four learning needs of Power Belonging Choice and Fun that we all have and must fulfil to be engaged in the learning process.
It’s a great article, and I am not just saying that because it looks as though we are of similar mind. Jodie hits the nail on the head quite nicely. By meeting learning needs you will find learning behaviour the primary behaviour in your lesson. As Jodie sums up by saying
“It’s about taking simple ideas and seeing how we can deconstruct a basic task to recreate a better idea in support of all students learning – knowing them and what they need in order to focus, because they truly are all worth it.”
Jodie’s full article is hosted here on Te@cher Toolkit:
You can find my article on LQ and lesson planning here: http://wp.me/p2LphS-a6
My introduction to PBCF can be found here: http://wp.me/p2LphS-4
The way forward in overcoming the “one way” or benefiting from “other ways”.
How can learners deal with the one way if schools and teachers are unable to?
To put this into an action statement rather than a question we could say “How to not only survive your education but how to thrive during the experience” . Commenting on how things are is one thing, asking questions another. The first in enlightening but not always helpful, the second is a little more proactive and starts us moving towards a solution. Asking questions is part of having an open mind-set and of being creative. I like the idea of finding solutions, of solving problems, and there are known and proven strategies for doing so. Looking at learning as a problem is a good way of finding an alternative to the one way world of education.
Think of a time when as a student you enjoyed a lesson, enjoyed learning something. What was it about that lesson that left you with such an impression that it lasted long after the lesson ended?
My bet is that it’s a lot about the teacher and the way they taught. You probably found it “fun” but do any of these tally with what you were thinking?
- The lesson interested you
- You felt motivated to learn
- The teacher was passionate about the topic
- The pace and way of teaching suited you
- Mistakes were allowed not punished
- The teacher was helpful and patient
- You found it easy
- The lesson went by very quickly
What really happened in that lesson was that your learning needs were being met. Based on the work of William Glasser and my experience I believe that we have four learning needs and when these are being met we find it easier to engage in learning. I encourage teachers to “Please Be Child Friendly”, a mnemonic for the four learning needs PBCF. P is for power, giving students a voice. B is for creating a sense of belonging. C is for offering choices. F is for creating fun through learning. These are common needs and it is easy for the teacher to plan to meet these needs (see other posts inc: http://wp.me/p2LphS-4) but what about our learning preferences, how we like to learn. How easy is it for the one way to meet what can be rather individual preferences? The short answer is it isn’t!
Our learning preferences tend to develop because we favour them. This is because we feel comfortable in ourselves when we learn in this way, we are relaxed and not stressed. Unless we have the tools to understand and manage learning anxiety, stress and challenge then we tend to withdraw. It is like pulling your hand back from the fire when it gets too close and feels the intensity of the heat. If we were to employ a strategy, if we were to wear a glove we would be able to hold our hand closer or for longer without the same level of discomfort. Preferences also change and are prone to influence from a number of quarters too.
The problems we face as learners is that we are not in control of the school learning environment, the teacher is. Teachers create learning environments that motivate and engage learners – well most of them do, most of the time. When they do it’s memorable. When it is not we are bored, restless, disengaged and finding learning hard. It is not reasonable though to expect teachers to teach in a way that meets several learning preferences at the same time. We saw the folly of this when teachers were asked to plan and deliver lessons to meet different learning styles when this was the new “one way”. The result is learners with fixed mind-sets (I can only learn like this) and stressed teachers trying to spin several plates at the same time. Let me be clear I am not supporting the “one way “, what I am recommending is that teachers are encouraged to teach in a way that meets learning needs (essential) and that tolerates learning preferences but is as individual to them as their learner’s preferences are. There are a number of benefits to this approach, as I shall explain.
What learners are in control of is their learning preferences and how they respond to them in the learning environment. Learning how to respond positively in different learning environments is very useful. First however we have to distinguish those things that are our preferences. This may be easier than we think. Consider which lessons you like, which subjects and which teachers. If we remove the learning needs elements (PBCF) from the equation then there will be an element of your learning preferences present in each favoured environment. Preferences may include the ability to work in a group, to discuss ideas, to work independently, to receive guidance or being encouraged to take risks. Whatever they are you like them to be present in a learning environment. When they are not you feel uncomfortable and engagement and motivation are harder to achieve. You will also probably assume you cannot learn in that subject or with that teacher.
Carol Dweck [i] (Growth Mind-set) and Guy Claxton[ii] (Building Learning Power) are two educational thinkers who have taken steps to break the link between our ability to learn and a fixed trait, that of intelligence. Albert Bandura [iii], also the subject of an article by ace-d (see: http://wp.me/p2LphS-lg ) says “Given the same environmental conditions, persons who have developed skills for accomplishing many options and are adept at regulating their own motivation and behaviour are more successful in their pursuits than those who have limited means of personal agency.” So it is within ourself that we can turn to find the skills, attributes, attitudes, and behaviours to manage our learning environment to meet our learning preferences but we can also change our preferences or at least find ways of preventing them from limiting our ability to learn.
The benefit of experiencing “other ways” is that it can both encourage and support us in developing those skills, attributes, attitudes and behaviours identified through Learning Intelligence that are essential in managing our own learning. A student who experiences more than way of teaching, more than one way of learning is more likely, with the right support from the teacher or parent or mentor, to develop ways of overcoming learning limitations by exposure to them. Those who just face the “one way” may do well in such environments so long as their learning needs are being met along with their learning preferences but this is limiting for as soon as they move outside of this zone they are lost. They do not possess the skills to deal with such experiences. This applies to the compliant learners [iv]as well as those who regarded as “gifted and talented” within the school environment and context.
The impact on the learner of the “one way” is significant. Consider a scenario where the learner is struggling and how the teacher is able (allowed) to respond within the constraints of a prescribed model. If the teacher models learning as prescribed then the implication for the learner self-image is that they are unable to learn that subject or topic. The logic may be flawed, the result of an inexperienced learner but then many learners are not experienced at learning, only being taught.
My view and recommendation is that:
- schools should ensure that learning needs (PBCF) are being addressed and
- that teachers are teaching to their strengths and in a way that is organised and supports their passion for their subject. It is essential that that passion is tangible to the learner.
- ensure learners understand their learning preferences and that these are neither fixed or where absent barriers to learning only challenges to overcome.
- we should work hard at promoting the skills, attitudes, attributes and behaviours identified through Learning Intelligence that ultimately enable the learner to manage their own learning environment.
We must also remember that the school is but one learning environment and that there are others both traditional (parents and peers) as well as those that are present on the internet (YouTube, Khan Academy, MOOC’s etc). If we do not assist the learner to learn in the environment we create then we risk them either learning outside of it (without guidance) or not learning at all.
What we need to do to combat the one way is to promote and develop Learning Intelligence in our schools.
Below is the collective list of the skills, attributes, attitudes and behaviours that form LQ. All can be developed given the desire to do so.
Link to part 1 of this series of articles on learning theory.
In the final part of this article I will suggest that it is time to re-evaluate the foundations of teaching and learning and describe what I believe are the true foundations of any education system we should seek to build on to ensure learning remains at the heart of what we do.
It is time to go back to basics of teaching and learning, not those of the 3 R’s, or of rote learning, of the industrial revolution or that of the information technology revolution but instead the basics of relationships and trust in education. It is time to rethink our pedagogy. A time to wipe the slate clean and rethink things from the beginning and not keep adding things that we think will or should “work”. It is not a case of what can be done but rather a case of what should be done with the tools education has at its disposal to promote teaching and learning.
Imagine starting again knowing what we know now about how education has evolved and been influenced by the revolutions that have occurred over the last 150 years. I hope you will have decided that the foundation of any education system must include building relationships between the teacher and the learner. Apart from three other key elements all the other “stuff” is just, well stuff. It comes and goes according to, for the want of a better word, “fashion.”
Some time ago I wrote about understanding learning needs. This led to an e-book based on both reflection on my time as a teacher and research. As I read studies and ideas about teaching and learning, old and new, time and time again I came across references to the importance of the relationships between the teacher and the learner. Thinking about my own time in the classroom when things went well I had a good relationship with my classes and when things went badly or were stressful for me it was because these relationships had not yet formed. A target driven system that distances the teacher from the learner is not what learning is about.
Building relationships and maintaining them is not always easy and is often more complicated than we think. Perhaps the divorce rate confirms this! I have boiled it down to four key learning needs that require being satisfied most of the time if we are to build learning relationships. The graphic below describes the four learning needs. It would be my approach to include these in any foundations. The acronym Please Be Child Friendly offers a suitable reminder of the aim as well as providing a memory key for the four learning needs. Ignoring learning needs is not what builds engagement and is not what learning is about.
I have also developed a “learning responsibility ratio” graphic. The graphic aims to show how the dynamics of the learning relationship should change over time. It highlights how the learning relationship may also come under strain at times, especially during a transition point. At the start the biggest responsibility lies with the teacher in learning about their students, planning the curriculum and developing resources. At this point the learner has only a small responsibility, that of “paying attention”. Later as time passes the ratio of responsibility should transfer from the teacher to the learner. There are points where there is some element of reclaiming responsibility but these need to be part of the learning journey. If there are too many occasions where the teacher reclaims responsibility the downward trend of the line, the responsibility transfer, is slowed and may never reach a satisfactory stage. The result of such an action means the learner remains dependent on the teacher and takes little responsibility for learning. In a high stakes system it is all too easy for the teacher, who is often most “accountable” to reclaim responsibility in order to maintain control of the learning. Incorporating the dynamics of learning relationships is also a key element in the foundation of an education system. Making or allowing the teacher alone accountable for learning is not what learning is about.
The third block in the foundation is the continued professional development of the teacher. It is important that the teacher models learning to their students. This has two effects. Firstly it will demonstrate that learning requires effort. As the teacher shares the emotional challenges of learning as well as the practical aspects they can show how taking on a learning challenge can be both daunting and rewarding. Secondly it grounds the teacher in the learning experience. This is important because in building successful learning relationships there needs to be both empathy and understanding of the student perspective. Roy Leighton’s work on the Butterfly Model and specifically the Learning Line demonstrates this aspect of learning. Another example of the trials and challenges of learning can be seen in the Hero’s journey once it is adapted to learning. Ignoring the learning journey and expecting a standardised approach and progress is not what learning is about.
The fourth block is a natural requirement of the learning transition. It is no good expecting the learner to take responsibility for and manage their own learning unless they are prepared for and supported in doing so. This last element is one that appears obvious but we do so little in education in this area. We need to directly develop the skills, attitudes, attributes, and behaviours that support the learner in managing their own learning environment to meet their learning needs. The term I have used to describe this is “Learning Intelligence” or LQ. Failure to develop in learners an understanding of how they can manage their learning environment to meet their learning needs is not what learning is about.
So there we have it, the four corner stones of the foundation of any education system we care to develop based on learning. I would claim that if we remain true to these foundations then we can adapt and adopt all that is good and useful in teaching and learning from whatever source. We are in effect guided by the foundations in selecting only those that adhere to the principles and therefore sustain them. I would claim that such a foundation is both agile and secure. It is able to respond to changes in curriculum, forms of delivery and use whatever technology is appropriate to support teaching and learning.
Want to see any of the first 4 posts?
Part 1: What if everything we thought we knew about learning was wrong? http://wp.me/p2LphS-nz
We need to go back to the start, to look at teaching and learning from the beginning to find out if we have lost our way.
Part 2: What if everything we thought we knew about learning was wrong? http://wp.me/p2LphS-nD
How far back can we go with teaching and learning?
Part 3: What if everything we thought we knew about learning was wrong? http://wp.me/p2LphS-nJ
We go back and explore the simplest of learning models to see if we can re-establish secure foundations on which to build.
Part 4: What if everything we thought we knew about learning was wrong? http://wp.me/p2LphS-nZ
What are the influences of the industrial and technological revolutions on education?