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40 MAY 2002
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teachers and learners

Learning: What? How?

The first in a two-part discussion on Child and Youth Care worker learning with Lies Gualtherie van Weezel and Kees Waaldijk of the Netherlands (part 2 here)

What to learn
The conditions for working methodically with young people lie not only in the character of the organisation but also in the competence of the workers. The professional ability of a life-space-worker has different aspects: practical skills in the different task areas, knowledge and insight, the ability to work purposefully, and to reflect on one’s own involvement. These elements presuppose a personal and professional attitude and a quality of practical experience. The worker has to integrate all these aspects in order to become a professional who is able to act according to the needs of the residents and participants in any situation, and to create a helpful milieu for them.

Part of the learning is very personal:

John has to learn to be less impulsive. His attitude toward youngsters is very helpful for many of them but some are overruled by his directness. When John learns to combine his way of acting with more attention paid to the effects this has on the residents, he will be acting much more professionally.

Patrick has to learn to be less hesitating and to trust his feelings. He has developed a good reflecting attitude, but often his feeling of uncertainty leaves him in danger of not daring to act.

Knowledge, attitude, skills
The ability to make distinctions is an important tool, and this is very true when we think about learning. A useful distinction in regard to what we should learn is that between knowledge, attitude and skills. We need all three. For example:

About the learning of attitudes there is much debate. Many wonder how one might teach an attitude – a person should “have it", they say, for it cannot be taught. This is a complicated question for teachers and trainers in this profession in which attitude is so central to the practice of the life space worker. How does one teach the sensitivity which avoids damage to the involvement, intuitive understanding, peace of mind or other important personal attributes in a given situation?

Whatever, we are agreed that the way in which people learn skills, knowledge and attitudes are different processes. Skills have to be practised and cannot be learned by reading a book. Reading may be a way to learn about facts and how other people describe their experiences. But to help a student towards an integration of knowledge, life experiences and personal ways of reacting, requires more from a teacher than the transmission of book knowledge. To work methodically and accountably with clients, in our opinion, presupposes a complex learning process for each individual. Moreover, the learning process is not finished when one becomes a professional; on the contrary, it only starts at that moment.

In this feature we will explore this learning process. The accent will be on learning to reflect, which is a crucial activity in this profession. We see this as a learning process which can take place as much on the job as in school. Our main question will be: “What should be learned, and how do we acquire the attitudes, the essential skills and the knowledge to become a reflective worker?"

We start with an example out of practice.

To handle a group of youngsters who did not choose voluntarily to enter our program is not easy. It means to relate to a group of 8 to 12 active youngsters in a good atmosphere. You have to give them the attention they need. Each youngster has his own way of growing up, his own history, his own reactions towards a situation, his own ideas – and has his own problems to overcome. Mohammed, a starting student, told about an incident with some youngsters he worked with:

"Everything started when Else threw a glass of water at Kim. The boy picked up a bucket. I told them to go outside. With some trouble I got hold of the bucket. But the boy got another bucket and emptied it over Else behind my back. The wet girl cried and wanted to throw another glass. I tried to take the glass but she said: “Don’t touch me!" Other boys joined in. Nobody was listening any more and I had to call for my colleague. After making the telephone call, I told Else and Kim that they had gone too far. Instead of stopping they poured water in my face. This made me really mad. They noticed this and Else told me that I could not appreciate a joke. I didn’t agree. This was not joking any more. In the evening Else asked permission to leave to visit her friend. I said: “No, not today." She got so angry that she threw a map at my head, shouting: “Dirty Turk, you don’t belong here, go home to your country, to Turkey." I think she did everything to hurt me. She should apologise."

This is, in short, the story he told in the student group. It made Mohammed and his fellow students think about getting into conflict. How could this have been avoided? What do various theories say about conflict?

There is no easy answer, no prescriptions given. And however many aspects we may discuss, there is no certainty that there won’t be another conflict for Mohammed with these youngsters. The next fight will always be different “only some elements might be the same. Further questions can be asked:

To open one’s mind to all possible aspects may help us to find a way to handle such a situation, instead of blaming either oneself or the youngsters for the incident. Blame would be too simple and rarely does justice to one or the other side. There is more to say and more to look at. In the mean time, Mohammed's story illustrates very clearly that the difference between tears and a fight on one side, and laughing together about a joke on the other side, is small indeed, and can depend on a seemingly small detail: our own reaction to a glass of water.

It will take some time before Mohammed is open to these remarks. Before you can reflect on situations you have to feel confident that you are taken seriously by the youngsters and by your colleagues on the staff. For Mohammed that was most important at the time.

In the beginning the work of the life space worker seemed very easy to him. He was never left by himself with the youngsters. Colleagues gave him the opportunity to see what was going on in the group of youngsters, and to observe the reactions of the more experienced life space workers.

The work was later to become more complicated, to give another example, when he had to ask John to switch off the television and to go to his room to do his homework. John preferred the television and gave Mohammed no answer. Mohammed repeated his question. John's answer was: “Keep your mouth shut. You don’t have to tell me. You are not my pedagogue." In this case Mohammed was guided by a mentor, a good one. All his experiences were discussed with his mentor. His colleagues helped him to become someone with authority. They started to give him small tasks like taking his turn to keep the keys like all life space workers do when on duty. He was asked to make announcements during the meals and so on.

Feeling free to learn
As he came to feel more secure in himself he was able to be surprised by and to accept that his problems with the Dutch language were causing misunderstandings with the youngsters. In the beginning he hadn’t wanted to accept this and he became angry with the youngsters. But feeling more relaxed he became open to the reactions of his colleagues and he felt free to respond personally to criticism and appreciation from the youngsters as well as from his colleagues and superiors. He became more aware of the choices inherent in any situation, and this helped him to be less dependent on what actually happened.

On the occasion when he told the other students about the fight with the bucket, it was clear that his ability to question the situation was already being established. Some weeks before, Mohammed had been very upset about the reaction of a colleague towards one of the children. To hear a fellow student agree with the colleague’s reaction was still impossible for him; he could only justify himself. But by now he was learning not to judge immediately, but to be intrigued and to start exploring the situation from different points of view. He was able to listen to other opinions. He had experienced that by becoming more aware of what was happening, he was better at picking the right moment to act. He could question the effects of his own responses without blocking himself or being afraid of being judged as “a stupid worker". He began to be curious about different people’s reactions.

In the beginning, to keep his grip of the situation, Mohammed had held strictly to the rules, not giving much freedom to the youngsters to learn from situations for themselves. His main interest at the time was to be “master of the situation”. He asked for prescriptions and rules. Now, becoming more sure of himself and feeling accepted, he could start exploring situations for himself by looking at them with more flexibility.

His learning started as he became open to learning and to ask himself such questions as:

Realizing what was happening made it possible for Mohammed to restore contact with the youngsters. Without being in contact with them, without dialogue, the only thing he could do was to maintain the rules to gain authority. Only when we establish real contact we can be of help, finding ways of handling the group, giving them attention, helping them with their reactions and to make sense of a situation – which is the main goal of the life space worker.

In the beginning of the learning process, in order to avoid being overwhelmed, not all questions should be asked, not all distinctions made. But as soon as the contact, the safety of acceptation is there, the thoughtful exploration necessary to clarify the point of departure of each youngster, and of the group as a whole, can start. The consequence of this approach is that for a beginning life space worker, prescriptions are needed and helpful, but the more professional someone becomes, the more she will stop to think, questioning what seemed so certain when she was a new worker. The advanced professional will be more aware of different opinions and the various choices to be made; she will know more and more about how differently people can react to situations, and that being in dialogue is only possible when one is interested in uniqueness and personal reactions – instead of restricting the interest by relying on definitions and stereotyped responses.

How to learn?

Learning from practice
The mere experience of practice is not enough for us to be able to reflect about what happens and about what should be done. We have to learn how to learn from what is happening. This is easier for some people than for others. To begin with we should be able to communicate our experiences as Mohammed did, although he felt very upset about the shouting of “dirty Turk". In spite of this, paying attention as a learner was a condition for his learning. Learning is impossible without having the right and the ability to express what astonishes or upsets us, and also to ask questions. Another precondition is having the opportunity to handle the situation in your own way. Learning conditions and a learning attitude are closely connected. To be more specific about what has to be learned it is necessary for us to distinguish between the concrete capabilities included in our basic competence.

Capabilities or skills
Basic competence presupposes specific capabilities, for example, being able:

The difficulty in distinguishing such capabilities from attitude is illustrated when we mention:

To give words to what has happened is more difficult than we might think and it has to be practised. In telling about an event we can realise that we are short of words; we might not be very concrete. We are reminded of Korczak’s words: “The expression 'a nervous child', does not describe what happens. In our uncertainty we resort to terms which have indefinite meanings. Nervous, because he talks in his sleep, nervous because affectionate, lively, drowsy, because he gets quickly tired?”

But then looking for perfection can immobilize all action. Often it is better at least to do something than nothing. The risk of making mistakes is included in the deal.