Ellen Langer proposed the idea that we, in our daily comfortable routines, can slip into mindlessness— cruising on auto-pilot1. Not that we don’t have minds, but that we don’t pay attention and we are not mindful of the 3D picture called life. As an educator of adult students, my stance is not much different than those who teach at elementary or secondary levels. My role is to guide and to be a leader to those who have not yet explored the wonders of the journey ahead; they trust me to do that.  That does not mean just connecting them to information, but to tend to how I provide engagement, motivation, and good tools so that they might bring to life the experience for themselves2. When a student fails to fully engage and reap the learning benefit, it is a shallow educator that blames the student exclusively. Sure, students have responsibilities, but comments such as these have no place in an education system that should take into consideration children are still learning and educators have an impact on self-efficacy, esteem, and self-worth:

“They are too stupid to be in this class… they didn’t pay attention… they should have done something better, or… they didn’t study.” I hear those comments all too often as a parent, and yes, those are direct quotes echoed by children in elementary school; a parent can learn a lot during carpool.

Positive learning

There are hidden rules in schools, and in the relationships between educators and students. Teachers are feared because they always have the last word, students cannot speak out honestly in fear of being sent to the principal’s office, and in the end, it is easier to blame a child than go through the paperwork of rehabilitating an educator; this we cannot dismiss.  Consider this, in a case where a  student failed a test in which questionable guidance or good supplements were provided to help guide the student through the learning objective,  the teacher asks the student, “why did you fail, didn’t you study?”

That in itself is a no-win question. If the student says “yes I studied,” then the response back is “well, apparently not hard enough.” If the student says “no, I did not study hard enough,” then the response back is “well obviously.” Either way, the student gets to hold the burden of being the only responsible party for failing. Despite the on-going climate assessment that public schools fail our kids in so many ways; when we peel back the layers, one of those layers is the interaction and the process of “teaching and learning.”3

Ask the right questions

There are good teachers out there; no doubt, but a great teacher is one that reflects on self and knows that power they hold in their actions, and their words.4 That power is to assess and improve the process to make learning something kids enjoy doing. That includes: providing great learning tools, asking students if the method is working for them, never assuming one way is the way that will fit all students, and above all, to take a leadership role of responsibility. Students look at teachers as leaders, and great leaders do not blame their troops for a battle lost. Good leaders assess, learn from all angles and make adjustments. Teachers, as leaders, have a responsibility to nurture those still growing and learning; because isn’t that really what early development is about, learning how to learn, and learning they can learn?5

Provide the right tools

Imagine if I told a group of students I was taking them to the zoo to learn about animals, and as we arrived in our long yellow bus, I told the kids we weren’t going into the zoo per se, just to sit in the bus and think about each animal and write about them. I hand the students a piece of paper to fill out while they re-adjust in their cramped seats on the hot bus to write using their book bag as a desk; thinking about those glorious animals just beyond the gates.

Now imagine if I told the kids we were going to the zoo and as we arrived I handed each child a clipboard with an “investigators journal,” a map and pencil. Then, told them they must go and find out three facts about each animal, and to think about where and how that animal lives in a natural setting. It is not hard to see, even from a layperson point of view that the second option would yield a much more engaging response, and more learning would happen because of what was provided to the student, the right motivation, and the right tools.

Positive learning engages a superior element— how an educator crafts the way in which they teach. It doesn’t take away from the responsibilities of the child, but in turn, makes the student an active part of the teaching and learning process; ask the right questions, provide the right tools.

1Langer, E. J.(1990). Mindfulness. Boston, MA: Da Capo Press

2Danielson, L. M. (1992). Exploring modes of thinking: A study of how student teachers reflect on their practice. University of Iowa, Iowa City.

3Ungerleider, C. (2004). Failing Our Kids: How We Are Ruining Our Public Schools Paperback. Toronto, CA: McClelland & Stewart

4Danielson, L. M. ( 2009).  Fostering Reflection. Educational Leadership. February 2009-Volume-66- Number

5Lambert, L. (2003). Leadership capacity for lasting school improvement. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

About the author: Dr. Lynn Soots has been teaching psychology at the higher education level for over ten years. She is proud to integrate Positive Psychology applications in each of her courses to support growth and student goal attainment. She specializes in higher education online course room design, adult learning, and diversity appreciation.


‘We are the Positive Psychology People’

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