Power and control, reward and punishment

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.

In conclusion
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.

Practical Support for Self-directed Learning

In my earlier blog posts ‘How We Learn’ and ‘Teaching and Learning’ you will find lots of information about learning in a group which is grounded in self-directed learning. You may find it useful to read or re-read these blogs as they provide descriptions of the concept and the philosophy that underpins it.
Once a collaborative learning group is established, the momentum grows and the pace of learning and achievement accelerates. There is an exciting buzz that brings with it a desire to get even better. The responsibility to get to grips with your own learning becomes vital.
BeVox community choir is currently at that point. They are about to stage a very ambitious event and everyone wants to be the best they can be.
Here are some thoughts and ideas that may help sharpen personal learning techniques. They focus on learning music to sing in a choir, but they are transferable to other situations.

  1. Listening to a song over and over again may not help you to learn it as well as you might hope. It could potentially make it harder to really know it. It can become like the picture on the wall, you sense it is there but the familiarity means that your brain does not need to be very active and no new messages are transmitted.
  2. Singing along to the track can result in you being able to do just that, and no matter how many times you do it, that may be all that you can do. You could always be waiting for the voice on the track.
  3. Singing the music along with the training tracks whilst following the score will give you the tools to learn all aspects of a song that you need. If you continue to use the score, you will always be reading it which is very different from knowing it. When you use your score in a choir session or performance it prevents you from getting the best support available – the leadership and guidance given by your choir leader.

All the above techniques could be like continuing to throw mud at the wall in the hope that it will stick.
There are ways to make the process more effective. They involve you being actively aware of what is going on inside your head each time you sing.
There is a natural progression involved in going from not knowing how to do something to gaining mastery of it. The process includes:

  • Familiarisation – which aspects and which sections of the song am I already familiar with or do I associate with easily?
  • Having a go, experimenting with the notes, the lyrics etc., using the different tools available, gradually removing the props.
  • Identifying each specific thing that is not being absorbed and finding the right tool to fix it.
  • Assimilation – realising that I have internalised a particular aspect or section of a song.
  • Owning the knowledge – letting go of the props and expressing yourself.

Fortunately, when you are learning something that really interests you and there are appropriate tools available, the learning flows naturally. Lots of practice will enable that process to occur. The vital key is for you to be aware of which things you know, which things are on the way to being known and which things you are finding tricky, each time you sing.
When you realise that you are fairly confident about a song, or part of it, take away a prop and do it again to confirm your knowledge and keep your brain working. It will also stop you from relying on that prop.

Some Props to Use and then Take Away

  • Listen to the training track whilst following the written score – useful at the familiarisation stage. Notice what feels familiar and what is new to you.
  • Join in with the track whilst following the score, make a mental note, or mark on your score, bits that you are not getting.
  • Sing along with the track, glancing at the score then singing a small section without looking at it.
  • Remove the score and sing with the track. Be ready to sing the next note, word or phrase before the track.
  • Turn the volume down on your track whilst you sing louder.
  • Turn the other voice parts up and yours down, if you have a device where this is possible.
  • Sing with the Full Track Mix on the BeVox website.

Throughout these stages you could choose where to sit in a choir session:

  • At the front or in the middle of your voice part section– here you get the most support from others in your voice part.
  • At the back of your voice part section where you will get the least support from others. This would be a good test for you and would also help your colleagues.
  • At the edge of your voice part section, where you will need to hold your own against another voice part.

It is great (and necessary) to sing through a song or series of songs. It is then really important that you identify the thing that you cannot yet do. It is time to stop and try to work out exactly what the stumbling block is. Make a mental note, or a written note on your score. You could listen to just that bit on the track and look carefully at the score for guidance. Concentrating on the specific thing causing the problem may lead you to find your own solution. If it does not, seek help.
Remember that each time you just repeat the same thing that you got wrong, you are learning how NOT to do it. It is harder to unlearn something than to learn it.

There are so many aspects of a song that you need to work on in order to sing in a choir. They include: the notes, the rhythms, the lyrics, the dynamics, when to breathe, the similarities and differences in phrases within a song, blending with fellow singers, holding your part alongside others and your own personal expression. Different sections of a song will present different levels of difficulty and different challenges. Most big tasks are more easily tackled when broken down into manageable chunks. So it is a good idea to plan what you will concentrate on each time you practice.

There are many tools provided to help you to learn a song, but there is no one way to do it, or order in which to do it. We are all different in so many ways, all of which affect how we learn. Initially it is trial and error as you find what works best for you. If you are constantly thinking about what is happening in your head as you practice, the smarter you will become at identifying the sticking points and finding your own solutions.

A learning community group is the place where your learning, and that of your fellow singers, is top priority. Your choir leader is there to provide the tools and support to enable every member of the choir to perform at the highest level possible at that time. In order to do that with the greatest amount of success he needs everyone to demonstrate where they are in their learning. The more specific you can be in identifying the parts that you are currently struggling with, the better he can help you. Before each choir session you could make a note of anything that you are unsure of in the songs that you know are being covered in that session, then you will be really alert to it when it is covered. Promise yourself that if you are still unsure, you will ask your choir leader.

A caring learning community group offers all the tools and support for tremendous growth. Commit to it and the rest will follow.

The Tipping Point

One of my greatest passions in life is finding and sharing ways that support successful learning. People are amazing, with an enormous capacity to develop and achieve incredible things. Each one of us is unique but fundamentally the same. These basic facts have led me to be convinced that the most significant learning occurs in a supportive learning group, where the emphasis is on the personal learning of each individual alongside that of the group as a whole.
I had the privilege of leading such a group, where we continuously developed ways of being and doing that enhanced our philosophy. Studying our own behaviours and methods of working was intensely personal but extremely rewarding. I put our findings through the rigour of the academic system (in this case a Masters degree) in order to gain the credibility I believed it deserved.
Being a part of an organisation following this philosophy is exciting and dynamic, with maybe a touch of trepidation. It requires trust, commitment and self awareness. As individuals discover and expose their own learning needs, the more ways of meeting those needs are found. Then further opportunities to learn more become apparent and the momentum grows. Once a substantial number of people commit to giving the suggested ideas a go, a ‘tipping point’ is reached and the group seems to grow wings of its own and flies. Individuals and the group feel empowered and want even more. Success breeds success and the possibilities seem endless. A new positive vibe sweeps people along, often with startling results.
When my son Tim planned to start and run the community choir BeVox based on the same philosophy, I was excited with maybe a touch of trepidation. The philosophy is sound, backed by well documented theory and I have very clear personal experience of its impact and success. But an amateur adult community choir run as a business is a far cry from a government funded educational establishment for young children and their families. Could they really have the same impact?
This blog is to give a resounding ’yes’ to my question and to record that I have been a participant in the tipping point being reached.
Having committed to this philosophy of working, what needs to be done to implement it? By definition it has to be a personal journey of discovery. There can be no blueprint.
So, what contributed to this amazing development?


My experience of the need for trust was dramatic. I accepted the role of headteacher of a very traditional school with the sole intention of developing a multi-agency learning community. After one term the governing body got cold feet and demanded that I immediately ‘put it all back to how it was before’. Most people thought that I would resign. The staff team recognised that to give it a fair chance they would have to give 100% commitment. They had dipped their toes in the water and experienced some small successes, but had no idea what it would lead to. Somehow it felt right and they chose to give it their all.
BeVox is built on trust. Tim and Toni’s livelihood depends on it. They book expensive venues with ambitious programmes and bold expectations, the latest being an extravagant world-first, five senses themed concert for a choir of 240 singers and an audience of 800. There is no obligation to take part in concerts, they trust that singers will choose to take part and encourage their family and friends to watch. The music is increasingly difficult to sing and the standard very high, yet the choir is not auditioned and everyone is encouraged to take part.
Choir members and their families were asked to trust Tim and Toni when they paid to take part in a whole day ‘Musical Mystery Tour’ where they had no idea where they were going or what they would be expected to do.
There is a dress colour code that unites the choir, whilst maintaining members’ individuality. People are trusted to stay within what’s expected, whilst being given the freedom to wear what they’re comfortable in.


Tim and Toni are transparent about the business, giving the reasons for their decisions. Tim is frank about everything from the standard of the singing, to whatever he happens to be thinking of (however random that may be!). They genuinely encourage members and anyone associated with the choir to be the same.

Professional love and care

It is made clear that there is no place for selfishness and egotism within this philosophy; no one is more important than anyone else. However it is equally important that people do not put themselves down or feel inferior to others. Everyone is equally valued and all contribute to the success of the whole group. Caring for others but not for yourself is emotionally draining and is not sustainable. So everyone is expected to be mindful of their own needs and the needs of others. Singers reveal what they don’t yet know or are working on because they know that they are among supportive friends. For example, it’s okay to sing out when learning a song with others and fine to hit a wrong note, because the consequence is that you will be given help to find the right one, rather than being judged for not knowing.


The leaders/owners of the kind of organisation I am describing take on the huge responsibility of offering the highest level of support to enable members to learn and develop. They uphold, explain and practice the principles they believe in, continuing to grow themselves as they discover what the philosophy looks like in reality. They continue to find more ways of doing things in line with their principles. The ‘Singer Agreement’ outlines the principles of BeVox and singers sign their commitment to it when joining the choir. They take on the responsibility of having a go and giving their best shot at any of the opportunities on offer that they choose. They play a big part in helping their fellow singers to feel comfortable, encouraging and supporting each other in all aspects of belonging to the group. This is particularly important for new members who join a well-established, confident group.

Self-Directed Learning

The most significant leap in the BeVox journey, and the one which has contributed most to the tipping point being reached, is the shift in how the music is learned and how the weekly sessions are run. Excellent tools have always been available for singers to use at home for their own learning. These include detailed written music scores, audio files or CDs for each voice part sung by professional singers, together with weekly website postings detailing learning tips for each song covered. However the weekly choir sessions have changed dramatically over the years. In the early days Tim sang each phrase of every voice part for every song and singers sang it after him. Now, singers have a spreadsheet outlining the running order of the songs for the season and they work on them at home, identifying the things they need help with. In the session the choir sings first to enable everyone to find out what they can do when singing with the rest of the choir. It gives Tim an overview of where the choir is at in their learning, enabling him to identify exactly what help is needed. He invites individual requests for help and then uses his skills to offer very specific information to help the learning of detailed aspects of a piece. Songs are now being learned at record speed, leaving time to go into more detail, resulting in a much higher standard of singing, which in turn leads to greater enjoyment and sense of achievement. More complex arrangements of songs are being mastered and so the momentum grows.
Working in this way is not an easy option, but the benefits far outweigh the effort.
In the next blog I will look in more detail at things that help personal learning.

A ‘Wow’ Experience

I have just come back from a session with BeVox in Lincoln, buzzing from the experience. It was a perfect example of the ‘Wow’ that comes from being a part of a learning community, where everyone, leaders and members, learn with and from each other, with amazing results.

Those of you that know me and read my blog will be aware that through my career I had the privilege of discovering and developing a philosophy of learning that can be transformational and life-changing. It is based on the basic principle that each and every one of us is a unique and competent learner and that when combined in a supportive group, the potential for success is boundless. The idea is simple and certainly not radical, but my experience of learning groups in education and the workplace did not seem to reflect this principle and the outcome was rarely spectacular. So our dedicated team researched and developed practice that exemplified the principle, continuously reflecting and refining our actions. Each little thing we did that centred on individual learning needs and promoted group support led to greater achievement and the momentum just grew. Individuals gained greater self-belief and felt empowered, not only within the group, but in all aspects of their lives.

I thought about the implications of our experience. Was it a one off? Were we just lucky with the time, place and people involved? Would it only work in early years education where we had practiced? Was it transferable to other types of organisations?

My son Tim shares my passion for learning and founded his community choir BeVox on the same principles that drive me. This time as a participant, I have experienced the same development. Once again ‘each little thing we did that centred on individual learning needs and promoted group support led to greater achievement and the momentum just grew’.

So, what was so good about Wednesday? The choir is just over halfway through this season’s programme but will be performing to a large audience outdoors next week, with one song not yet covered in a session.

There was an air of eagerness and expectation evident from first stepping into the room, which grew throughout the session. People were at ease and comfortable, there was a sense of belonging.

Choir members have audio recordings of their voice part and sheet music to work on at home, and are encouraged to find out for themselves what they know and what they find tricky as well as exploring different ways of doing things until they find what works for them. In the session members are not told what to do, they are invited to sing out what they already know, which they did with gusto, confident to ‘have a go’, knowing that Tim would learn from listening whilst giving every support tactic possible to help. Individuals tell Tim what they need help with and he gives strategies which everyone can use. The more people share the detail of what they need the more the facilitator (a more appropriate term than ’teacher’) can use his skills to help the learner. Learners and facilitators are equally empowered by this reciprocal arrangement and all are motivated to share more.

The leader of any organisation dictates the way it operates, so Tim expresses his feelings about the music, and exudes his passion for the sound made as a result of his and the choir’s work. He shares what he is thinking, and some of the ‘what; why and how’ of the music. He is honest and factual with his feedback, avoiding judgement. He acknowledges the work people have put in and has high expectations of what members can achieve. This in turn helps individuals to do the same themselves. Relationships are personal, whilst still being professional. There is mutual trust and a relaxed atmosphere, sprinkled with Tim’s unique sense of humour!

The whole session this week was full of examples of the above and the buzz was palpable. Singing provides a perfect outlet for people to express themselves and show their sense of pride and well-being. The choir was enabled to demonstrate that through the emotions embodied in each song.

If you are a member of BeVox I encourage you to reflect on your experience, recognising the elements which I have described. The more you see and understand why, the better it will become, not only in choir sessions but in your everyday life.

If you want to know more about the principles and practice described please read my other blog posts.

If you have any comments or questions about this post or would like further information please email me: gill.allen@randominter.net





Learning and Teaching


Our survival as a species and our fulfillment as individuals depend on our ability and motivation to learn. We have an enormous capacity to continue learning new things throughout our lives. But we put little emphasis on understanding how learning occurs.  Understanding the human brain and how it works is an ever-evolving science that continues to reveal its phenomenal capacity. We may not all want to study this in great depth, but given that learning is so vital to our development throughout our lives, it seems odd to me that it is not a hot topic. The brain may have universal functions, but each one of us is unique, and the way in which each of us learns is personal. “Metacognition” is the term for thinking about our own mental processes, or learning about our own learning. I haven’t noticed that on any education curriculum list, or heard it discussed in many social gatherings. Childhood is accepted as a time for learning, and in adulthood we may be encouraged to continue learning by phrases like ‘It’s never too late….’ or ‘carpe diem’. But how that learning will happen seems, in many cases, to be left to chance. If you want to really experience the loneliness (and sometimes the helplessness) of needing to learn something new, just try starting a new job, or buying a new gadget!



In many new situations we may be left alone to figure things out for ourselves, but where there are things to be learned, there is usually a teacher. This is where things get more complicated and make even less sense to me.  It is surprising how many teaching jobs do not require any training at all! Knowing a subject well or having a high level of skill are often the only criteria required for teaching it to others, eg a good singer may decide to offer singing lessons. There are many situations in which we may unintentionally become teachers, for example when a newcomer joins our place of work or a group to which we belong and we are expected to show them what to do. How many of us have taught someone to drive? A promotion at work often includes a teaching role because the next step up from knowing your subject well seems to be to teach it to someone else.

There are many different situations where there are designated teachers or instructors or coaches. Some of these need training in teaching methods and techniques, but some need none at all. Where training is given, there is more often an emphasis on the subject matter to be taught than how to teach it. To qualify as a driving instructor, my husband had to learn what to teach clients, but no mention was ever given about how to do it. Every four years he was assessed on his ability to teach, but never given any information about how to do so.

We have become conditioned to be passive and compliant as learners, accepting that the teacher is dominant and dictates the learning. The teacher, or an external body, decides what is to be learned, sets the expected standard and the pace of learning. They know the subject well and may be excited about sharing it with others. They are probably being paid to deliver the goods, so they work at presenting the material to be learned in the best way they can figure out. The learners usually pay for the services of the teacher and want their money’s worth. So the focus is on the delivery of the subject material and holding the learners’ attention. Various methods may be used, from slick presentations, humour or even intimidation. Then it is up to the learners. The expectation is usually on the learners memorising and replicating information. Throughout the process the teacher may assess the progress to find and point out the mistakes made or areas not learned along the way.

This method can achieve good results and learners can feel proud that they reached the goal set by their leader. But this is the crucial point – the agenda belongs to the teacher. It demands passive compliance on the part of the learner, who remains dependent on the teacher. It is not unusual for any success to be attributed to the teacher and any failure laid at the door of the learner. The teacher is the star of the show and learners may work hard in order to please the teacher. Alternatively, they may resent their superiority which reminds them of their lack of knowledge, which may feel like inferiority. This may result in them giving up or becoming disruptive.  Working in this way puts the teacher on a pedestal, on which they may or may not be comfortable. The stakes are high and any insecurity in knowledge about how to teach usually results in greater rigidity and control, with many rules being enforced. This may become a vicious circle with the teacher having to take more control and the learner becoming more helpless. Subjects learned in this way are not easily remembered and skills not necessarily transferred to a new subject. Furthermore, in a world where information is at our fingertips, we do not need to learn facts in the same way our predecessors did.

Why does teaching dominate learning?

This way of learning predominates in our society for a number of reasons, some of which have already been mentioned. It appears that knowing something means that you automatically know how to impart that knowledge to others in a manner that results in them knowing it too. As already stated, learning how to teach is not compulsory in order to be in a teaching role. As for learning, well apparently, it happens by magic! Understanding how learning occurs may be a relatively recent discovery, but surely understanding how learning happens is essential for both learners and teachers?

Another reason for the ‘us’ and ‘them’ divide between learners and teachers is that we live in a culture where many people strive to hold power over others. Because the teacher or boss has a body of knowledge or skills they are seen as superior to the learners who don’t know and are therefore inferior. This kind of relationship between teacher and learner is fragile and open to blame and mistrust.

Putting Learning First

How about pausing for a moment and simply turning the telescope around, putting learning and the learner centre stage? We may have phenomenal potential as learners but so often we hold back from utilising our amazing talents, tending to believe that we are far less capable than we actually are. Research tells us that the reason that we fail to meet our potential is often due to fear of failure, self doubt and fear of being told that we are not good enough, implanted in the early years of our lives. (Carol Dweck is a psychologist  who has some very interesting things to say about  this in her book ‘Self-Theories: their role in motivation, personality and development’).  Surely this is an indicator that more thought needs to be given to the way in which learners are best supported?  Feeling capable and in control is paramount to our well-being, and successful learning helps achieve this. “Not knowing” may be seen as negative or a weakness. This is a mindset which can be changed. Learning is an active process and seeking knowledge is a positive sign of strength.

My blog post entitled ‘How we learn’ gives some details about the process of learning. It includes learners having control and choice over what is learned and how. I recommend that you read it now. If you have already read it, I suggest that you read it again and see if it makes more sense now. Deep learning occurs over time and is layered; your own personal experience brings deeper meaning to earlier knowledge

Learning and teaching – a joint process

With the telescope turned round we can banish the ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality of the learning process. Perhaps the most natural example of this is a parent and child. There are no qualifications for this job and ‘teacher’ may not be at the top of the list of titles that a parent envisages.  Nonetheless, parents are the enduring and most profoundly effective teachers throughout their offspring’s life, whether they like it or not and whether they intended to teach certain things or not. Parents marvel at their child’s uniqueness and desperately want to nurture their potential. They instinctively look for and follow their child’s needs. This relationship demonstrates the kind of environment that leads to optimum and continuous growth. Learning and teaching is a fluid activity in an equal relationship, each learning from and teaching each other.

What does it look like?

Here are some examples of what happens in a learning community:

  • The learning of each individual and the group as a whole is at the heart of all activities.

It’s not about what the teacher wants, but what the teachers and learners can achieve together. Expectations are high with no ceiling.

  • Relationships between leaders and members and among members are genuine.

It’s not about following some rules or acting a part, you can be yourself.

  • Celebration of the learning achieved takes place regularly at all levels.

In a learning community choir, all performances are exactly this.

  • Everyone is a learner who actively commits to their own learning, finding ways that work for them, identifying their sticking points and sharing successes, the methods they use and their learning needs.
  • It includes taking risks and having a go at things suggested by the leader and colleagues.
  • The relationship between the leader and members is reciprocal.

The leader provides the means for members to learn in response to the members demonstrating their learning needs. This is a continuous process of trying out learning suggestions and sharing how it went. The divide between the teacher teaching and the learners learning begins to blur and everyone is learning together. The role of the leader is to facilitate this process, ensuring best practice at all times.

  • Honest feedback about standards reached and learning achieved is given, but no judgement is passed.

’You sang that loud and strong, but it is not what is written’ is factual. No-one needs to feel scolded or guilty because the tone of voice and body language of the person who makes this comment emphasises that no judgement is being made.

Incidentally, the reason that organisations following this way of working do not enter competitions is because judgement can easily damage the self esteem of learners striving to learn. Being judged at all undermines all the positive effects of self driven learning.      There will be much more about this in my next blog post ‘Reward and Punishment’.

  • Feedback, questions and suggestions are welcomed from all members and are taken seriously.

All voices are heard, but like any good choir, one must not override or disadvantage the experience of others. So comments may not necessarily result in the outcome that you initially expected. This does not mean that you should not make them. Learning communities are open spaces where people’s thinking is seen and heard. In the flow and buzz of ideas, amazing progress is made. Leaders have the job of harnessing it and shaping the next steps.

Active participation

Learning communities offer optimum opportunities for the deepest level of learning and personal satisfaction. The amount of personal success is generally equal to the level of personal commitment.

The need of every individual to feel capable, in control and valued is fragile and needs to be given every opportunity to be satisfied. It includes offering and taking up every chance to feel an equal valued member of the whole workings of the group. I remember a quote I read a long time ago (unfortunately I have no recollection of where it came from):

‘The president went to visit NASA in its early days. At the entrance he stopped a man pulling up weeds from the flower bed there. He asked the man what he was doing and the man replied ’Helping to put a man on the moon sir’.

Examples of opportunities offered in the learning community BeVox:

  • The choir leader asks for suggestions for which songs the choir should sing. He does not do this because he can’t be bothered to find them himself – he does it to ensure everyone has a voice in what they are singing.
  • Members are asked to take their own responsibility for being in the right place at the right time and doing the appropriate things when taking part in a concert, rather than being controlled by someone.
  • Choir leaders don’t just ask people to suggest where a concert could be held, they invite members to organise events themselves. This is not because they want others to do their work for them. Leaders already know how to do these things and choose to give the opportunity for others to experience the fulfillment to be gained by doing it themselves.
  • In sessions, choir members are asked to sing any phrases they are not sure of louder, so the learning need can be identified.

Learners can show their needs, take risks and have a go because they are never left alone to sink or swim, the leaders are there to guide and encourage as needed. So the emphasis is on helping others to learn, rather than holding on to their abilities. They also ensure that the principles of the organisation are upheld and best practice maintained, sharing this with participants to increase their understanding.

The challenge

We must decide what we want for ourselves and the groups in which we belong :

  • Do we want our main focus to be on material things or people?
  • Is there enough attention given to learning and teaching?
  • Should there be a dominance of teaching or learning?
  • Should teachers teach subjects to people or help people to learn subjects?
  • Are we content with a climate of ‘us’ and ‘them’ where teachers deliver and learners receive or can we make teaching and learning a continuous flow between people of equal value?


It is the individual and collective responsibility of all members of a community learning group to bring about the positive impact of deep level learning. The lottery catch phrase ‘you have to be in it to win it’ applies here. The difference is that in a learning community if you participate in it you will definitely win it and the more you put in the more you win.


Outcomes of working in a learning community

The outcomes of working in this way have a depth and quality about them that offer great fulfillment for individuals and groups as a whole.

The resulting self awareness, self confidence and resilience extend into the whole life of participants.

Standards reached are very high because everyone is committed to continuous learning, with no fear of failure or judgement. The true benefits are not easily measured by predetermined criteria; in fact measurement is irrelevant. The benefits are best experienced by participation.

Leading a Thriving Learning Community

Is this blog post for me?

Obviously, if you are already a leader in some capacity, or if you aspire to be one, the title of this blog may appeal to you. If, however, that idea is furthest from your mind, you may be thinking it’s not for you. But please don’t go away. The leader of any group determines the experience of its members and in a learning community, the relationship that each member and the group as a whole has with the leader is crucial to its success. In true learning communities everyone benefits from developing leadership skills, as they can enhance the quality of many everyday relationships, not just within the particular group but within others too.

Leading any organisation is an enormous task with wide ranging responsibilities. A great deal has been written on the subject of leadership, with as many varieties as crisps on the supermarket shelves. I like the definition of it given by Peter Gronn, Professor of Education at the University of Cambridge, and a leading international scholar in the general field of leadership. He described it as:

‘…influencing others to do what they might not otherwise have done’

Or in the words of S Club 7, a current choir song:

‘..takin’ you to places that you’ve never been before, baby!’ (Don’t stop movin’)

A learning community that is dedicated to nurturing the learning potential of the group and each of its members, requires a particular kind of leader, who is:

‘… sufficiently secure in herself and in her relationship with others that she experiences an essential trust in the capacity of others to learn for themselves.’ (Carl Rogers)

Rogers was an American psychologist, one of the founders of the humanistic approach to psychology. He developed an understanding of what it takes for an individual to reach their full potential to the extent that they can concentrate on the needs of others.

There are certain attributes that are necessary for leadership of such a community.  Leaders are very exposed to the members of the organisation and, in many cases, to the public. Everything they do and say (as well as things not done or said) has an impact on members of the group. That impact will be different for each individual, depending to a large degree on their own state of mind.

I picture a successful leader as someone with their head in the clouds and their feet in the mud. They have a clear and lofty vision for the organisation with a strong philosophy that guides all their actions. At the same time their feet are firmly planted alongside the members, working with them to articulate the vision, enabling them to realise and grow it. The leader must meet people wherever they are in their journey. They need to be an excellent learner in order to have enough subject knowledge to be a resource to the learners in the community, but also have a thorough understanding of how people learn to be able to help them achieve the most personal learning they can.

In order to step out of their comfort zone to learn new things, people need a strong leader who is confident and competent, one who is able to take responsibility for the path they invite people to tread, capable of dealing with all the rocks on the way. Such leaders must have a shrewd awareness of themselves and their abilities. This is in no way arrogance or puffed up self-importance, it most likely comes with humility. There is a sense of pride and privilege to be able to share the amazing possibilities that come from a learning community. They learn and gain as much from the group as anyone else, they just have a different job.

Leadership of this calibre requires enormous personal investment. It certainly is not just a job. Relationships between group members and the leader, as well as fellow members with each other, are close. The freedom to be oneself unlocks personal doors which generates huge emotional ups and downs. The leader has to provide the firm haven that enables it all to happen. This requires emotional maturity and resilience. They must know themselves, love themselves, forgive themselves, be so comfortable with themselves that they can concentrate on others. In order to care for others we must feel good about ourselves. Otherwise we become self-absorbed and get involved only in proving ourselves.

There can appear to be anomalies in this kind of community, not least in the role or even the existence of a leader. Every member of the organisation is equally valued and makes their own choices about what they do within it. Decisions about the activities of the group are made as a result of feedback from the members. But it is not a democracy; decisions are not generally made by a majority vote. Neither are decisions taken on the whim or fancy of the leader. The leader is the custodian of the vision and philosophy, and any course of action they take is determined by the philosophy and principles of the organisation, coloured by the current experience of its members.

The intricate interconnection between leader and members generates trust and provides a place of safety for people to take risks in learning, but also in developing how they behave in a social situation. In any group situation people seek to have their own needs met, but that usually happens subconsciously, except in groups set up specifically for that purpose. So if we are given a voice, we tend to either shy away from the opportunity, or take full advantage of it just because we can. We need a leader who takes that in their stride and encourages or regulates it. It enables members to let themselves go whilst trusting the guidance of the leader.

The chemistry between the leader and the members elevates the group experience and creates great results that could not be otherwise achieved.

What’s to Wow About?

One of my sons (I have 4) read my blog and commented that I have plunged straight into why and how things can be wow in an organisation, but have not specified what the things are that make people say “Wow”. Hence this blog aims to put that right.

Any group or relationship that you are engaged in has the potential to excite yet comfort you, even to change your life. We deserve to have positivity in our lives but we often experience control and negativity. Increasingly, we are expected to behave in certain ways, achieve certain things. We may feel judged and under pressure in the workplace and in society.

It is comforting to be with others who share our interests, but more importantly, our principles and beliefs. However, the time spent with them will only be rewarding if being with them makes us feel good.

 “At the end of the day, people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.” Maya Angelou

Here are some of the things you could, or I believe should, experience in your daily life.

People find social interaction anything from terrifying to highly enjoyable, so being made to feel welcome sets every encounter off to a good start. We don’t all need the same form of welcome though; for example, a hug and kisses may make one person’s day, but cause another to freak out. What really makes an impact is when we are made to feel welcome in a way that suits us. It is a basic human need to be accepted as we are – a unique individual, and this requires continuous reinforcement. Having our voice heard helps us to believe that we matter. This is reinforced when someone really listens to us and responds, then remembers what we said. We then feel valued, which is a prerequisite to thriving as a human being. Feelings of self-worth are crucial, but these are determined by others demonstrating that they value us. We need to be respected as an equal member of any group we join, so there must be no elitism or elements of superiority and inferiority. Co-operation and collaboration support these positive attributes, whereas competition and judgement undermine them. Unfortunately, one negative experience can have a greater effect than a handful of positive ones. So “put downs” have no place, especially those we give ourselves.

Having control over our own ideas and actions and taking responsibility for them enhances self confidence which enables us to be bolder and gain more satisfaction. Being encouraged to be who we want to be, do what we want to do and to take risks, spurns us on to learn more and do bigger and better things. If encouragement is backed by help and support appropriate to our needs then the potential for high achievement and great success increases. Optimism and high expectation go hand in hand with these aspects. Egotistical “showing off” is not necessary when people are comfortable in their own skin and they can evaluate their own achievements. Acknowledgement and celebration naturally follow.

All these elements easily become virtuous circles, ie being successful encourages further risk taking, leading to greater self confidence and the courage to take more control. Interestingly, we are more familiar with the term ‘vicious circle’, the opposite to ‘virtuous circle’. Is that because negative vibes are more common than positive ones? Being in a virtuous circle generates positivity; the person benefiting from this positivity naturally becomes more proactive in welcoming, accepting, encouraging others. Thus the circle gathers momentum. Seeing how much others thrive from such experiences is deeply fulfilling.

Individuals who actively seek to perpetuate these experiences can generate such positivity for themselves and others that the impact is tangible. “Wow” seems a good overarching word to express it.

Communities with a common shared purpose working to an ambitious vision can expect great things. When the needs of the people in that community are at the heart of its vision, and continuous learning and development is a large part of its purpose, the sky is the limit.

So what results should we expect here? The choir BeVox is such a community, so I will share some facts about the choir’s success and some quotes from singers about their experiences.

In its first 5 years, the choir grew to 262 members, an increase in membership of 87%. They helped to raise £38,362.00 for charity (and that is not a top priority for the organisation) and gave 248 concerts. All of the concerts are undertaken completely voluntarily by choir members, many for local causes and many organised by individual members. They learned and sang 138 songs (many of which are medleys), released a CD and ‘flash-mobbed’ in a variety of public places, including St Pancras station, which had 90,000+ hits on You Tube.

To celebrate its first five years, members were asked to share their memories. These were collated in a book, which is a glorious celebration of the choir’s impact on people’s lives. If you sing with the choir and have not seen it, I suggest you ask to do so. True friendship, extraordinary triumphs, tremendous support, pride and sheer fun exudes from every page. Here are a few snippets:

From members of the audience: ‘Breathtaking’  ‘unbelievable’ ‘inspiring’ ‘amazing’ ‘uplifting’ ‘better and better’ ‘beautiful’ ‘spine-tingling’ ‘goosebumps’ ‘joyous’ ‘life-affirming’ ‘so many happy faces’ ‘phenomenal’

From David Grant, pop singer and celebrity vocal coach with a number of Top 40 hits and many TV appearances:

“There’s nothing quite like the sound you created – it was uplifting and unforgettable.”

From choir members:

‘’I was persuaded to go after my breakdown….. terrified ….shepherded in…hiding in a corner……they took me under their wing…encouraged me… one of the best things I have done ..it nourishes my soul… joy.. when we do it well I hear it happening all around me I can contribute my part… proud to be a part of it’

‘Having sung with several choirs I find BeVox to be fun, encouraging and the most confidence building experience ever’

‘It took me 2 days to come down from the high of a big concert’

‘BeVox  saved my life, when I was on the verge of suicide.’

BeVox changed my life… I joined after bereavement …knew it was very special from the moment I walked through the doors….friendship… fun… getting my grey cells to work hard’

‘Life began for me at 80 when I joined the choir…fab. time… great friends’

‘I suffer from depression and panic disorder, I rarely left the house… they took my  anxiety in their stride…made me feel at ease and safe’ This person has since sung a solo in concert and helps greet members at each session.

‘Concerts take us out of our comfort zone but the camaraderie and fun is an abiding memory; audience members say it shows.’

‘The welcome and enthusiasm swept me along…I am hooked…I feel comfortable and  connected with other members…I  don’t want it to end’

‘It helped me through divorce and bereavement; I have made 2 fantastic friends and met my current partner.’

‘It is a true community… positive … precious friendships to treasure.’

‘Opportunity to stretch, extend my boundaries and exceed my own expectations. Thank you from bottom of heart for an incredible journey of self discovery.’

‘It gave me focus and support when my life was falling apart… it nourishes body and soul.’

‘It’s like a drug, I crave for more.’

‘Such a buzz… special memories’

Many people join the choir believing they cannot sing, find they can, perform in local concerts, then big ones (which requires singing 15 songs from memory), a few go on to sing solos.

I frequently see a dazed euphoric look on people’s faces as we leave the stage after a concert –  “Did we do that?”, “Did I really do that?”

Yes we did and yes I can. This philosophy lays the groundwork for amazing things to happen. Its principles are sound and bear fruit over and over again. We should expect it, but each time it still elicits a “WOW”.