CfESEND blog: Fresh starts: the phenomenon of education, teaching and learning

Pete Benyon, Project and Delivery Manager at Derby College Group (DCG) for the Centres for Excellence in SEND programme

An individual’s learning and education (as a package of learning opportunities), no matter who they are, is not a problem to be solved but a unique reality to be nurtured. I believe that, when we discuss education, we should talk about it as it is: a phenomenon that we each experience differently.

In 1864, Soren Kierkegaard wrote:

“to be a teacher in the right sense is to be a learner. Instruction begins when you, the teacher, learn from the learner, put yourself in his place so that you may understand what he understands and in the way he understands it”.

We experience education differently due to our own complex, distinct and idiosyncratic way of learning, but also because of the elements which make up the complex environments which we experience.

To humiliate or heal?

Haim Ginnott wrote in Teacher and Child (1972):

“I’ve come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized.”

Feeling included – belonging – is a phenomenon in itself. I would argue that experiencing belonging has a greater impact on the learning of learners than any innovation, resource or technology. I argue that the encounter between learners and teacher – pedagogy – fundamentally influences how the learner will engage with the content and the subject as a whole.

In her book, Dare to Lead (2018), Brene Brown quotes Antonio Damsio: “We are not necessarily thinking machines. We are feeling machines that think.” Brown3 states:

“If we want people to fully show up, to bring their whole selves including their unarmoured, whole hearts—so that we can innovate, solve problems, and serve people—we have to be vigilant about creating a culture in which people feel safe, seen, heard, and respected.”

As true as this is about the workplace, it is also true of the classroom.

Make it new

I argue that every teacher-learner relationship, to be inclusive, needs to be new. This means that the relationship should not be based on assumptions, presumptions or bias. We, as educators, need to enter every relationship whole-heartedly, and with the confidence that the learner will do the learning if we do the teaching.

Thick as two short planks

Mark Dickson is Head of Teaching and Learning Improvement and Technologies for Education at DCG.

In response to what I have written above, Mark described to me how, at school, he was told he was “thick as two short planks”. The result was that he thought of himself as “dim” and “stupid”. After retaking his GCSEs (apart from Art), leaving school and spending three years in employment, Mark decided to give education another chance to prove itself and enrolled on an Art Foundation Course.

A fresh start

Mark describes here how starting college felt:

“Being at college was different. Nobody knew me. No one had already formed their judgements about me, from where I lived or who my friends were. It was a completely fresh start and I was treated like … a person! I honestly cannot remember a single time I felt valued, or that I belonged, or that I was anything more than another face in the sea of students at school. But here I was, at college, calling my teachers by their first names and actually being listened to!

It was a revelation, and it was the relationships that I formed with them and my peers that led me to believe that anything could be possible, and that I might even be able to go to university. Me!? UNIVERSITY!?”

No student left behind

These experiences have both influenced Mark’s understanding of pedagogy, how he supports other teachers and how he approaches his job:

“The start of term is my favourite time of the year. I still get a bit giddy being around new students and standing in front of a new cohort. I see myself there among them, apprehensive and excited, and as a teacher I see potential.

I believe it is my job to take the students beyond what they believe they are capable of – beyond what they believe is possible. All of them – “no student left behind”. I can only do that by getting to know them, valuing them, and being patient, open and honest with them, and making adjustments to what I do so that they all have the opportunity to succeed.

Fresh starts are essential. And not just at the start of an academic year or the return from a half-term break. Every session is the chance to restart, reset and let go of issues and annoyances that have passed. Honestly, if any of my students have felt alienated, devalued, or uncared for, I have failed as their teacher, no matter their exam results or grades.”

Why wouldn’t we?

Many professionals working in education, especially in the FE sector, and even more so with those who specialise in inclusion, have had similar experiences to Mark. We have been rejected and excluded for the way we think, learn, process, express, communicate – for how we behave.

This happens at the most formative, developmental and influential period of our lives, and the effects of these interactions, with adults and people in a position of trust, can be felt throughout the rest of our lives.

Our lived experiences, our own internal relationship with our past and present, as learners, professionals and teachers are the tools with which we genuinely connect to our learners. No policy, syllabus, assessment criteria, KPI or league table can replace this. And neither should it.

Mark talks about neuroplasticity and how we learn in this short video on YouTube

Mark also co-presents the Talk About Teaching Podcast with Advanced Practitioner for Inclusion, Julie Walkerdine. You can listen and download online.

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