Creating a safe learning environment for adults


I was looking through some old training documents - most more than 10 years old now - that I was given when I first started this work. One of them, reproduced below, was based on conversations with adults with low literacy skills.

I know it describes a type of classroom and customer base somewhat different from the ones I work with today. Our funders and partners have different expectations now; including the expectation that we will give weight to their philosophies of education and welfare-to-work policies. There has also been a shift in our society as a whole toward idealizing traditional schooling methods and exaggerating the link between education and employment - as though the ranks of the unemployed weren't filled with people with high school, college and university degrees. (I notice that ABC Canada just picked up another 1.5 million to further push the facile message that it is a lack of conventional schooling, rather than our monetary, taxation or import/export policies, that has derailed our economy and widened the gap between rich and poor.)

In any case, I still like to look over these documents from time to time. I think it's worthwhile; not least to hear the voices of learners.

Physical features of a class that learners have said made them feel uncomfortable:
  • Facilitator sitting behind a desk;
  • Alphabet blocks or other "children's" decorations on the wall;
  • Having to sit behind desks or at tables with backs facing to others;
  • Lockers for possessions;
  • The temperature (too hot or too cold);
  • Having to take problems up the facilitator's desk;
  • Textbooks and workbooks everywhere;
  • A closed door that you have to open to go into the class;
  • Too many people there;
  • A piece of paper or a form to fill out at every (or my) seat the minute I walk in the classroom.

Things facilitators say and do that learners have said made them feel uncomfortable:
  • Sit behind a desk and periodically walk around behind learners, looking over their shoulders;
  • Dress a lot better than learners do every day;
  • Talk down or being condescending;
  • Never make mistakes, or make excuses when they do make one;
  • Say "you must…" "you should…" "you have to…" all the time;
  • Use closed body language when talking to learners;
  • Socialize only with other facilitators during breaks and before class (especially in another room designated for this purpose);
  • Talk about learners to anyone else, especially when they can hear;
  • Not do the work too (expecting learners to write a journal when you don’t, expecting learners to read from a novel when you are doing something else, expecting learners to be lifelong learners when you are not being one);
  • Point out learners' mistakes to them in a group or in front of the class, correct learners and then ask, "Do you understand it NOW?";
  • Rarely ask learners what they want to do;
  • Judge learners of personal life or lifestyle or habits;
  • Ignore learners;
  • Be away from the classroom for long periods of time;
  • Force learners to participate in activities.

As a facilitator, ask yourself "Can an observer tell, by where I am sitting or how I am dressed, that I am the facilitator?" If your answer to this question is yes, then you run the risk of making some students uncomfortable. If the answer is no, then you are well on your way to creating a safe atmosphere for learners and a positive learning culture.

The bad news is I could add substantially to the number of ineffective practices simply by recalling my many, many clumsy mistakes with learners.

The good news is that I'm frequently mistaken for just another learner. Or the janitor. Or somebody who's, you know, gotten lost and is now loitering in the doorway in hopes of stealing a newspaper or something equally pathetic.

See?

Well on my way.


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