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41 JUNE 2002
ListenListen to this

teachers and learners

Learning: What? How?

The second in a two-part discussion on Child and Youth Care worker learning with Lies Gualtherie van Weezel and Kees Waaldijk of the Netherlands. (View Part 1 here)

Ways of understanding and learning
By using words and by realizing how we use words, we become aware of our interpretation and our evaluation of an event. To distinguish interpretation and evaluation of what happens is important. Our action is the result of our observation or awareness, in combination with the interpretation and evaluation. Most of the time we react without realizing that we have already interpreted and evaluated an event. The four aspects: observation/awareness; interpretation; evaluation and action often seem to happen all at once. A condition for making good choices is to realize the interconnection. A different interpretation or evaluation of the same event will make us act differently. Our judgement of an incident depends on the description and on the evaluation. And all are embedded in our seeing, smelling, tasting, hearing, feeling – and in our emotional registering of what is going on.

The following format is an aid to distinguishing (and to reconsidering) our description, interpretation, evaluation and intervention. So we become more aware of which choices we make and why, and we become less captives of our stereotypical reactions. Having a close look at how we have described an incident, the format can make us aware of differences and connections between one and the other.

The format a weapon against static formulations

Alternatives How do you describe the event? How do you interpret it? How do you evaluate it? What action followed (or should follow)?

The more concretely an event is described, the more we get to know about what is going on and the better we can reflect on it. When we make too quick a connection with right or wrong, the exploration is blocked. Being used to valuing and judging it might be a helpful exercise to step back and take time for further inquiries. And looking more closely might be quite confronting for us. Our perceptions may be challenged, and accepting different realities can be hard. Often a description of an event carries an implicit interpretation or a hidden evaluation. Writing our observations down can help further exploration. The words are a mirror: “Michael is a diligent boy". When we use “diligent”, which implies an evaluation, we can ask ourselves what motivated this choice of word. The same is true when we write “Lucas seeks attention", which is an interpretation of his behaviour.

After entering the event in line a, we try to find other words for the same event, writing them in line b, c and so on. We will see that when we give other words to the same event, different interpretations and evaluations and actions will follow.

An example:

a/1: We were sitting together, Pauline, Aziz, Titiana. William comes in asking whether I would help him to make tea.

a/2: William was looking for attention because he didn’t like me to sit with the others.

a/3: I find it a negative reaction and

a/4: I react with “No, do it yourself"

b/2: William is asking for help. He wants to learn to make tea.

b/3: Positive: that he wants to know and is asking for help.

b/4: I will help him

or, alternatively:

b/3: Negative: he should know by now.

b/4: “Give it a try yourself" (said with more or less irritation. My action expresses irritation and does not help.)

c /2: William is being sociable and wants to join in and contribute.

c/3: A good idea.

c/4: “Let’s help him all – and see whether there are some cookies!"

Awareness of hidden evaluations and interpretations
Spontaneously writing down “Looking for attention" (in a/2 above) is a good start for more exploration and makes us curious as to: “Why this interpretation? What did I actually see and hear? Did I really take careful notice of what was happening – or did I jump to this conclusion because I expected this of him? Did I pick this up from what has been said about him in a team meeting?

The more direct we venture to be in our descriptions, the more we realize how we make choices and how we decide to act. If we feel free to explore alternative interpretations and evaluations, even those which at first hand might seem odd or unlikely, we might realize the too-predictable choices we often make, and discover new ways of responding to seemingly similar behaviour patterns.

The given examples are just illustrations of training ourselves in open mindedness. They don’t suggest general guidelines. Tomorrow we may realize new options.

Discussing these with others helps to widen our view and to discover yet more alternatives. Such open discussion and learning depends on our directness and honesty and risk “as much on our colleagues” respect and acceptance. If our initial description is rejected by a reaction such as: “You should not call that child lazy, you are stupid", then our future sharing will be inhibited.

We should always question what we ourselves have written down. This helps us to clarify our own motives, to realize what we are aiming at, and to understand whether we are accurately responding – or simply justifying our intended action.

After calling Monica lazy the question is: “What was there in her behaviour that made you call her lazy?" A colleague might be surprised. “You call Monica lazy? Never thought of that." Instead of arguing about calling Monica lazy or not, and about who is right or wrong, it is much more interesting to hear from each other what makes you think her lazy. By doing so we learn a lot about Monica, about ourselves, as well as about our working together. It might become clear that our colleague is referring to different events, or is interpreting and evaluating the same events quite differently. To explain these nuances to each other can be part of the work of clarification “but it also makes clear that we look from different points of view or that we have in mind different goals.

These may be different goals for Monica – or they may be goals of our own about belonging to and working with our group of colleagues or fellow students. For example, our aiming for group cohesion may make us more attentive to those things which contribute to the life of the group – and have the effect of overlooking concerns for individual youngsters in our unit.
It will be clear that this simple format, used in this way, can be a stimulating tool for the experienced worker as much as an instrument for open (and nevertheless structured) learning for the student or junior worker.

The elements of working methodically, listed in “Being, Acting, Reflecting" /cycol-1200-beact.html

In a comparable way to this format, the elements of working methodically listed in this feature can be used as dynamic instruments to make the learning process at the same time more structured and an open personal exploration. In other words to avoid the handing over of ready made solutions.

Five points of view
Another model, Five Points of View, can be used as an aid in widening our view and of becoming aware of how we look. To do so we have to become acquainted with the five distinct perspectives and making it an exercise to explore a given situation in sequence from each of them.

Looking at a given description one can invite students and colleagues (and oneself!) to reflect on:

When we realize that not all possible viewpoints are represented in our picture of an event, it is worthwhile to seek the reason for it. For example, it may be out of personal preference or out of unfamiliarity. Unfamiliarity with a certain field can lead to ignorance. There is a good chance that we characteristically look in the direction we are most familiar with. A solution to such a one-sided viewpoint is more knowledge, theories and skills related to the neglected view(s), for instance, insight into group dynamics, cultural backgrounds or physical factors.

Many teachers, many occasions to learn
The consequence of these ways of exploring and reflecting is that we can learn from all events and from all of the various people involved – a colleague, a member of a resident’s family, a youngster; a student. Learning may occur some months after the event: “Now I understand what he meant then," or “Suddenly I realize that there can be another meaning as well."

Different ways of learning are intended to bring some structure into an otherwise very diffuse field. These lists are by no means complete systems; rather by definition they incomplete, dynamic tools to stimulate our awareness of more, new, different questions, to make our attention and perception broader and more flexible.

Learning in this view means:

We do not suggest that the learning of this profession should not be organised. The dispute about the best place to learn – learning practically on the job or theoretically in a college – seems rather fruitless. The two options should be obviously be combined because they are complementary and mutual. The theory we teach is always informed and refreshed by practice; and on-the-job learning and reflecting, if it is not to be overwhelmed by the moment, is given structure and meaning by theory.

Learning in this sense is a never-ending process. To create moments of learning inside and outside of our daily practice is not only important for newcomers. After a long time in the field, involvement, reflection, and learning are still important in widening one’s horizons, in staying awake and being open to new inspiration.

Learned enough?
To judge the results of our learning in this field is complex, because the criterion is not examination results but practice – being of help to the residents or program participants and their families, and making a contribution to culture of the program and the community at large.

In the Netherlands the discussion about assessment in training courses is again receiving a lot of attention. Opinions differ. Personal preferences, personal styles of learning, different residents, different philosophies in the various institutions, doesn’t make it easy for those who look for all-round standards.

In our point of view there should be clear similarities between the daily work with clients and residents and the learning process of the life space worker – as well as with the teaching and the learning process of the teacher. The learning attitude should be the same. The teacher has to be aware of his interpretations and evaluations of his own involvement (viewpoint 3); his being in contact with the student (viewpoint 2); the student (viewpoint 1); the field they are in (viewpoint 4); the present, past and future (viewpoint 5).

It will be clear that the teacher, the supervisor, the guide can learn from his students, as much as a professional in day care or residential care learns from the pupils and residents – things which are good for growing, for personal development, and even necessary for learning in this profession.