A guest blog from teacher Adele Bates who considers the times in which children cannot learn – and why this needs to be understood better before we try and change it.
When do we stop learning?
“We never stop learning;” “Never stop learning because life never stops teaching;” “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself; Lessons will be repeated to you in various forms until you’ve learnt them” …and other inspirational quotes about learning.
They all, of course, are based on much truth.
However,¸ in my 18th year of teaching, I know that there is also another truth: there are some environments and situations in which learning is, if not stopped completely, exceedingly difficult – and the things that one can learn are somewhat different from what we might want to be learning.
A 9yr old child has had to flee their home – it was blown up. Their dad has been shot, their mother and siblings have been travelling, only with what they had on them at the time, trying to find a safe space to live in whilst their home is a warzone. This child is unlikely to be learning arithmetic, spelling or practicing their writing skills. This child may be learning that other people perceive them as an annoyance, useless, a pest. They may be learning how to look after their younger siblings all day whilst their mother waits in queues for food and water. They may be learning how to make a game out of sticks and mud. They may be learning how to keep still and quiet so as not to annoy the woman next to them in the camp who shouts when she can’t sleep. – My wish is that this 9yr old was able to learn something else, but this is what their environment and situation are teaching them.
In classrooms I have worked, there are always students who are learning something very different to my neatly thought out lesson plan and lesson objectives –
The child whose parents are pushing them to get top marks when they struggle, are learning to either ask for help – or cheat. The child who doesn’t get breakfast, and whose family cannot afford new shoes learns to negotiate with friends to grab a snack, they learn to lie about their situation and hide a part of themselves. The child who finds it difficult to make friends learns to ‘be fine on their own.’ The child who has experienced humiliation at trying and not achieving, learns not to participate in the first place. The child who gets beaten up on the way to school learns to wait at the corner and arrive late for school – the bullies are scarier than the detention -and the afterschool detention might help them avoid the bullies after school.
All of this type of learning is going on in our schools everyday – it is usually a much larger focus for a young person than curriculum, SATS and GCSEs, because these learnings are to do with survival. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs the physiological needs (shelter, food, water, warmth, rest) lie at the bottom of the pyramid – whilst self-actualisation (achieving one’s full potential, including creative activities) is at the top.
Often when approaching learning we begin at the top. In schools, there are no end of motivational mantras about us ‘achieving our best’ and ‘striving to reach our potential.’ And yet, the student whose parents have just separated, the student who ran away last night, and the student who doesn’t speak your language have other needs far more prevalent than that.
This is why, in my approach to education, I strive to put the wellbeing of my pupils first. It is perhaps also what’s brought me increasingly closer to working with students who need this approach the most. I work with teenagers and young people with Behavioural Difficulties, Attachment Difficulties and Social, Emotional and Mental Health Difficulties. For some of these students the experience of formal learning is a world away. They enter a room; their instinct is to destroy it, to distance themselves from the activities, to insult, hurt and not run the risk of failing – they have learnt that that hurts. Through a lesson, I see it as my task, to help the student feel safe enough to learn – and this varies with each subject.
I started an assembly once with this instruction:
Think of the last time you felt unsafe, left out, humiliated.
Now actually do it.
Where were you? Who was with you?
Why did you feel so excluded? Was it a person/people?
The situation? What you were being asked to do?
Now in this situation, imagine if someone started asking you to perform a skill you feel unconfident about: reading, writing, driving, computers, ball games, maths…
This is when it is difficult to learn.
To learn a new skill when we don’t feel safe and included is challenging, for anyone.
The learning doesn’t stop – but the learning becomes something else.
Adele Bates is a member of the The Possibility Club and is a teacher, facilitator and educator.
Adele has taught for 16 years: as a mainstream secondary school English teacher and Lead Co-ordinator for Equality and Diversity, in pupil referral units and SEND schools, as the founder of Brighton Drama School, as a university visiting lecturer, as a conference speaker, as a mentor for teachers and as a one-to-one voice coach.
Her ultimate goal now is to create an alternative education organisation for teenage pupils who have been excluded from mainstream schools. If this inspires you or you would like to get involved, she would love to hear from you.