Cultivating Learning Environments

Cultivating Learning Environments

Common sense is not so common after all.

I remember reading this for the first time and thinking, wow, that is SO true! Common sense is really not so common after all. What is obvious to me may not be obvious to you and there could be a number of reasons why this is the case.

One such obvious belief to me is that there should be no room or need for judgement and shame during learning. Truly. It adds no value at all. In fact, quite the opposite. Shame and judgement break people down and you cannot learn when you’re in that state. The age old “break people down to build them back up again” methodology was NEVER a good idea. We have fooled ourselves for far too long. It’s now time to bid that narrative goodbye. Goodbye and good riddance.

I truly believe that if we can aim to remove judgement and shame, then the learning experience becomes so much richer for everyone involved. I know that’s quite a bold statement to make, but I believe this with every fibre of my being.

I know that many of you reading this blog post believe this too. I love seeing how posts about growth mindset, cultivating a culture where we embrace mistakes, supporting the learner etc., always go viral. I love seeing how Brené Brown’s posts about embracing vulnerability go viral. If we combine this, then it tells me that there is an appetite for engaging with learners very differently to how we currently do things, our toxic default reactions or the cultural conditioning we have just come to accept as “the way it is”. There is an appetite for a different way of this manner of being in the world – a world where learning can happen in a safe space and we can hold people accountable but here’s the difference – with their spirit tact. I feel an equation brewing here: lived experience minus shame = rich learning.

So why do we default to this shame and judgement mode during our everyday engagements? Why do we not use the opportunity to stop, reflect, think about how we show up and make different choices? Why do we still hold on to these very destructive ways of engaging with learners when we know in the back of our minds that it’s not the best way to coach or redirect behaviour?

I think that if we are to break any type of convention or mould, we need to recognise that there is a great deal of unlearning and relearning that we, as custodians of learning systems, need to do. And the “we” I refer to here includes all leadership roles such as parent, teacher, facilitator, line manager, academic supervisor, CEO, funder, etc. We need to create a new vision for healthy learning environments. One where the self-esteem of the learner remains intact. This is the relearning component. No relearning can happen without unlearning though. The unlearning of shame, guilt, shouting, embarrassment, undermining etc. is deeply rooted within our systems. It stems from that historical militant, power-fueled approach to learning that many of our systems and learning were, and still are, built on. This was never a good approach to learning. Ever! Period. It’s hard to rid ourselves of these toxic systems because even though they are toxic, we have clearly lost the ability to step back and assess whether the system is truly working. Because it doesn’t. However hard doesn’t mean that it’s impossible though. It will be challenging and totally worth it.

So how can we use our daily engagements to build a different experience of learning?

1) Remember that as a leader, you too were at a point where you knew nothing. Empathy on the learning journey is so important. The danger of developing competence and acquiring expertise is that we forget what it’s like to be a “newbie” within the system

2) Role model the type of environment you want to build. Live out the kind of culture that you want to build. This is especially true for the leaders everywhere.

3) Build this renewed approach to learning into your performance management systems. People respect what you inspect.

4) Show results with a human-centered approach to learning. Talk bottom line. Talk numbers. Talk percentages. That’s the language of business and we must be able to show how being a decent human being connects to productivity, innovation and engagements.

5) Catch people doing things right. Celebrate the examples within your school or business where this does happen. I’m sure that when you look around, you’ll see countless examples of growth mindset culture around you. It’s there, it’s happening. Let’s shine a spotlight where it matters.

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