I have a firm belief that all individuals are unique and of equal value, and that they each have a huge innate capacity and drive to learn in their own way. I have spent my life trying to uphold this philosophy, always searching for the best practices that support it.
We know that people learn best when they follow their own interests and are able to control how they learn. Being encouraged to explore our own ideas leads to self knowledge and self confidence, which in turn helps us to take more risks and try to learn even more. We only have to look at the incredible endeavours and achievements made by some people just because they wanted to, if we need proof that self-motivation and self-belief is the key. Being aware of what we have mastered, what is our current learning issue, and what is still a mystery to us, gives us the courage to be bold and the confidence to have a go and use the resources that are available. It may be useful to know where our learning sits in the great scheme of things, e.g. what level am I currently working at? What’s next? However, in many aspects of life there are external measurements of learning achieved that are used extensively as indicators of our knowledge, abilities and capabilities. These in turn often determine the jobs or activities we can pursue. Whilst we may see the necessity for standards to be met, we must be mindful of the personal impact of exposing our learning to external scrutiny. Awareness of our own ignorance and lack of knowledge can seriously undermine our confidence and arouse feelings of self-doubt. These feelings are heightened when the level of our learning is judged by others.
My current group experience of self–directed learning is in the BeVox choir and as always, as things occur within the group I look ‘behind the scenes’ to see what might be happening. It provides real-time examples of activities and outcomes of a group working within the philosophy that I aspire to. Earlier this year, the topic of singing a solo in a concert was explored, with some very interesting results. The choir has open access with no auditions needed. Everyone is welcome irrespective of their musical knowledge or ability. Members have the opportunity to sing a solo in the concerts, but for this they do have to have an audition. Stepping out from the comfort of the choir to sing alone is a big step, needing many skills and a huge amount of self-confidence. The singer offers their solo for the entertainment, but also the scrutiny, of the public. Relying on a person’s self-assessment of how an audience would receive their solo could result in many people never coming forward or some others being destroyed by their experience. To this end, BeVox singers can present their solo to a panel of fellow singers and the musical director. The panel advise the musical director as he decides whether the solo is suitable for a small venue or a big concert or that it is not yet ready for the public. Any singer whose solo is deemed ready for an audience is offered the chance to sing. The audition is videoed and the director sends an assessment of their performance along with detailed training aids and advice for the singer to work on to develop their performance.
Over time, less people were auditioning and those unsuccessful in being offered a part in a concert were not coming back the following season to try again. All choir members were asked to say what they thought about the current system and why they thought that people were not auditioning. The philosophy of the choir is very clear. Learners, and their learning, are definitely at the heart of this organisation. Despite this, some members saw the auditions as a hoop to jump through and if they failed, they gave up. There was a reward to be had and they failed to get it. This discouraged them from further learning and risk-taking. Some admitted that they did not use the feedback given as a learning opportunity. It was suggested that the best singers could step down from auditioning in order to give others the chance. They saw it as a competition in which they had no chance. Some hinted that favouritism may creep in to affect the panel’s decision. I think that these responses indicate the powerful effect that external assessment can have on people’s feeling of self-worth, especially when the consequences are not what they hoped they would be. For me, this is another piece of real-time evidence of the impact of power and judgement, be it real or perceived.
There is a significant difference between assessment and judgement. Assessment is a tool to evaluate or measure learning. Judgement is a decision or opinion that a person or people make about something that someone has done or about the person themselves. Passing judgement at all has a great impact on learners and is often perceived as a judgement on them as a person, which in turn may have a very negative impact on their life. We may have the responsibility for assessing someone’s learning, but by whose authority may we judge how hard someone has worked e.g. “good job”, or even worse, judge the person themselves e.g. “good girl/boy”?
The Power of Reward and Punishment
Many people find themselves in a position of power and authority over others, with the responsibility for getting them to learn more and do a better job. With this power comes the opportunity to pass judgement. In the not-so-distant past there was a prevalence of negative judgement, with punishment being the consequence for mistakes made or poor results. There was an expectation that people would comply without question or recognition, enforced by the fear of what the consequences would be if they did not. Modern society has, in the main, recognised that using positive reinforcement may give a better result than threat and punishment, although there may still be a tendency to say nothing when things are going well and then come down hard with a rebuke or criticism when things are not so good (in the opinion of whoever is in charge). I well remember taking a group of prospective parents on a tour of our nursery. After half an hour watching a large group of 3 and 4 year old children happily working together, solving problems and negotiating needs, one parent commented, “But you do make them do as they are told don’t you?”. I explained that we worked alongside children, helping them to work through any issues as they arose. She was not happy, so I asked her what she wanted me to make them do. “Just make them do what you want them to; they need to learn to do as they are told”. Surely that could be teaching them how to be bullied – or even show them a model of how to be a bully?
So the ‘catch them doing something good’ era has taken hold. Trophies and rewards and verbal praise are bestowed by the powerful onto those deemed worthy of that judgement, whilst sanctions, withdrawal of privilege or just lack of reward, punish the rest. How many times are rewards given as incentives? Employer of the month, (maybe rotated to give everyone the boost to try harder), star charts to encourage ‘good’ behaviour, ‘well done’ or a pat on the back all imply that people do not naturally do their best or strive to learn. Research shows that rewards may motivate people to work hard in the short term, but their goal is the reward itself, not the thing they are working on. Once the reward is no longer available, or if it was only available to the ‘winner’, the motivation to do the work is lessened or may disappear, along with the person’s self-belief.
I worked in a school in a very deprived area, where truanting, extreme behaviour and lack of motivation were at an all-time high. We were persuaded to implement a reward scheme where Friday afternoons was ‘treat time’ (actually entitled “golden time”) for everyone who had not been given 3 ‘bad behaviour’ cards throughout the week. By the end of Monday some of the children who had mental health challenges, learning difficulties or poor home situations had already acted out enough to gain the 3 infamous cards. Tuesday to Thursday was impossible for those children and any that were still in school on Friday afternoon were grouped together. Teaching staff refused to supervise that group. In the nursery we were required to place reward cards into a post box every time we saw children behaving appropriately or producing good work. This resulted in some 3 year olds ’stealing’ someone else’s painting to offer up for a reward and 2 little entrepreneurs starting a production table of stickers and post boxes for each other.
Often those who have the lowest self-esteem become dependent on gaining praise and approval from others, which in turn makes them even more vulnerable. Those unfortunate enough to not have anyone looking out for them may crave negative attention as a better option than no attention at all. ‘The hand that gives can also take away’, so someone who gives praise or reward holds the same power as one who punishes or gives personal criticism.
I dare to suggest that all rewards, including praise, and all punishments, including negative personal judgements, can seriously undermine all attempts to encourage people to learn.
Getting the most out of learning
Learning is an active process, so all learners should take control of and responsibility for their own learning.
• Be proud of being a learner
• Find the ways of learning that work best for you (The blog post entitled ‘How we learn’ gives many of the strategies that BeVox singers use to learn their music)
• Explore all available resources and different strategies
• Share your ideas with fellow learners and try their ideas
• Continuously test out what you know and what you do not yet know
• Acknowledge what you can do
• Check out your assessment of what you can do with a critical friend
• Work out what the next step is in your learning
• No negative personal judgement or put downs allowed eg. “I’m no good at this”, or “I’ll never get it”. Instead say, “This is my next challenge”.
Helping learners to succeed
People who teach others need to be continuously learning themselves.
• Pursue your learning of your chosen subject
• Understand the process of learning
• Find ways to ‘tune in’ to the learning needs of individual learners
• Explore appropriate ways of continuously assessing where learners are at
• Provide appropriate resources, tips or aids that meet learners’ needs
Leaders of learning should always
• Maintain an equal and collaborative relationship with each learner and the group of learners
• Give honest feedback with empathy
• Encourage learners to persevere
• Support learners to self-evaluate, acknowledge and celebrate success
• Avoid personal judgement of self or others
If we now look back at the BeVox soloist auditions that prompted this blog post, what might it suggest?
The continuous assessment of one’s learning within the choir is part of the normal routine; it happens every session and is followed by identifying the current learning points and finding a way to master them. Currently, potential soloists have one chance to perform their song to a panel of people, after which a judgement is made, which has a direct consequence. They either succeed or fail to get the opportunity to sing their song at the concert they hope to sing at. The assessment and help for improvement are given after the judgement has been made, which is disheartening for a singer who is not offered a solo. The motivation to learn is low after a negative external judgement. Even those who succeed in getting a solo may not have the highest motivation to work on the points noted in the assessment feedback, as they have already got what they wanted. So, what could help the situation? Potential soloists need to continuously self-assess their performance. Using a mirror, recording or videoing themselves could help. Enlisting a critical friend to help them with their self-assessment would be an excellent next step. Ideally, fellow potential soloists could work together as critical friends for each other. I am sure that it would be more beneficial to singers if the assessment and feedback with help for improvement could happen earlier in the process. The feedback would give the singer a clear indication of where they were at, and what they needed to do. This should give them the motivation to work hard and ensure that their performance is the best it can be for the audition.
The key element of successful learning is the appropriate sharing of power and control between learner and leader. When learning is seen as a collaborative effort between learners and teachers and the aim is to continuously improve, the need to praise or criticize diminishes. When everyone’s focus is on finding and sharing learning needs and ways to meet those needs, judgement becomes irrelevant. When obstacles are things to be overcome, not things that restrict or define people, everyone can grow. Continuous assessment of where each person and the group are at, followed by agreement about next steps, removes the need for goals that may be reached or failed. Then the sky becomes the limit.