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Creating a Safe Environment for Learning

by Jane M. Schierloh

Most of our adult students are extremely fearful of making mistakes. They carry painful memories from childhood--the derisive laughter of other kids ("You don't know that?"), the stinging remarks of teachers ("I've already explained that over and over. I don't know how else to explain it to you."), and the destructive comments of parents ("Can't you do anything right?" "You're never going to amount to anything."). Even adults fortunate enough to have had supportive teachers and parents find that coming back to school to learn skills taught in elementary and junior high schools is an ego-threatening situation. How can we as adult basic education teachers and literacyvolunteers create an environment in which our students can feel safe enough to take the risks that are essential for learning to take place?

We must begin to build this supportive environment from the first time we meet students. We need to directly address their fears even if they appear self-confident or even bold (the bold ones may be the most fearful).

One of the most important things we can do is to tell students that we welcome their questions. We can saythings like: "There are no stupid questions" and "Research shows that good students ask more questions than poor students." (We begin to whittle away at students' misconception that asking questions is a sign of incompetence and stupidity.) "Your question may be the very question the person on your right wants to ask but is afraid to ask." (We reassure them that their fellow students are not looking down on them for asking question but instead are finding them helpful.) "I like it when you ask questions because then I know how to teach you better." (We let them know that we need their questions as much as they need our answers.)

But it isn't enough to simply tell students that this is a safe place in which to ask questions. We also need to demonstrate it. When they take the risk of asking a question, we can make affirming responses, such as, "I was hoping someone would ask about that." "That's an intelligent question." "That's a helpful question." "That's an interesting question." Most important of all, we must take time to answer their questions, no small accomplishment for a busy teacher with many students.

Probably the most effective thing we can do to establish a safe learning environment for new students is to help them learn that errors are friends, not failures. Often on students' first day of class they apologize for not knowing--everything! We can reassure them by pointing out that nobody knows everything and that everybody has things to learn. We can point out that it is impossible to learn something new without practicing and making errors. "Think about trying to learn to play the piano or the guitar without hitting any wrong notes. Or learning to play basketball well without ever missing a shot."

We can teach them to value their correct answers instead of fixating on their errors. They have learned from their past schooling to count errors: "I got five wrong." We can teach them to say: "I got 15 right," and we reinforce this positive perspective by marking their correct answers, not their errors. Even if a student gets one item correct and nine incorrect, we can start with the correct answer and say, "This correct answer shows something you've already learned. Let's talk about this one first."

We can tell students that their errors, like their questions, are useful tools for learning: "I am more interested in your wrong answers than in your right ones. The wrong ones help me know where you are confused and what I need to do to help you." We can point out the usefulness of looking for the reasons that lie behind errors and especially for patterns of errors: "These are smart errors! I see a pattern to them. Were you by any chance thinking like this.....?"

If we are teaching in a class situation in which students are interacting with each other, we must be alert to the ways students unintentionally damage the safe learning environment we have worked so hard to establish. We can begin in the intake interview by promising new students that they will not be ridiculed or criticized by others. We can say something like this: "No one will ever laugh at your mistakes here. You will find that adult students are very different from school-age students. They come here because, like you, they are serious about getting an education."

Many new students are particularly afraid that they will be asked to read aloud in front of other students. If oral reading is a part of our instructional program, we can say things like this: "We do some oral reading here, but I promise you that we will never call on you to read. We will always ask for volunteers. If no one volunteers to read aloud, I will read. You don't ever have to read aloud if you don't want to." Given this protection, almost all students will volunteer to read aloud eventually. In fact, an amazing number will read aloud on their first day of class!

A word of warning---once we have made a promise, we have to keep it. Sometimes in a group situation a self-confident student will suggest, "Why don't we each take a paragraph?" and the group agrees with this suggestion, or seems to agree. However, if asked privately, some students may reveal their reluctance to be called on to read aloud.

It is wise to extend this protection to other situations in which students may feel vulnerable in front of fellow students, at least initially until they feel comfortable and secure. For instance, we can ask new students if they are willing to share their writing with others, and we can ask for volunteers when we pose questions in a class discussion. Students will relax and gain confidence when they know they won't be put "on the spot."

We must be alert to thoughtless but well-intentioned remarks by fellow students that can hurt and offend new students. A simple comment such as "Oh, that's easy!" is enough to make some new students decide not to return to class. "It may be easy for him, but it's not easy for me," they think to themselves. "These students must be way ahead of me." We need to respond to these remarks quickly to neutralize the damage that may have been done: "Jim, it may be easy for you now, but it wasn't easy for you when you first started in this class, was it? Do you remember how you felt when you first started?"

Fellow classmates can also threaten the security of new students who are reading aloud by supplying them with words when they hesitate or by correcting them when they misread. They do this to be helpful and are unaware that they offend some students. We can avoid such situations if we state at the beginning of class why it is better for the teacher to assist readers.

This is only one of many ways we can involve students in the on-going task of building a supportive, non-threatening learning community. We know there will be very little learning if students do not feel safe to take the risks involved in learning. Whether we tutor one student or teach many students, we must be sensitive to our students' vulnerabilities and work patiently at the task of building a nurturing environment. As Frank Laubach, a great pioneer in the movement for adult literacy, said, "We are waging a war of amazing kindness."


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