Overcoming the barriers to learning

Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at WorldSkills November 2021

barriers 2

These are a few thoughts about how teachers can help learners overcome some of the barriers to their learning. This is not a comprehensive ‘how-to’ guide or a list of tips to be followed, it’s just a starting point for thinking about some of the things that can stand between students and their successful learning.

These reflections are grouped into 5 themes:

1. Understanding the barriers

2. Knowing our students

3. Building relationships

4. Motivating and engaging

5. Making the path by walking

In order to set the context, it’s worth reminding ourselves about what we are educating for. The world is a complex, difficult and unpredictable place, but it is also full of opportunities for flourishing, joy and fulfillment. Similarly, teaching is a complex, difficult and unpredictable activity which is also full of opportunities for flourishing, joy and fulfillment.

Teaching is both a difficult and a wonderful task. We are educating for lifelong learning, citizenship, caring and working, as part of a long-term investment in our community and our shared future.

We can’t make anyone learn; students have to be ready to learn and to want to learn. We can only create the conditions where learning is possible and likely. As teachers, we can’t control or change everything, but our work is important and we can make a difference.

It’s important to be clear about our aims, how we want to achieve them in practice and how we can tell if things worked. This can be seen as part of a continuous cycle of action and reflection which can map across to Ofsted’s three I’s: Intent, Implementation and Impact.

1. Understanding the barriers

What are some of the barriers to our students’ learning?

‘Internal’ barriers can include previous experience of ‘failure’, rejection, boredom, poor relationships with teachers, people in authority or other people generally.

‘External’ barriers can include the assumptions and prejudices of others about students’ abilities or capacities, lived experience of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia or the results of unmet physical or emotional needs or traumatic experiences of various kinds. These can clearly become ‘internal’.

Also, good learning is unlikely to take place if a student doesn’t have a sense of purpose or ownership of the learning process and no satisfactory answer to the question “why are we doing this?” If they start with negative feelings about the subject, the content or the context of their learning they are much less likely to be receptive.

Students may also have a sense of isolation or alienation from the group they are in, feeling they don’t ‘belong’. They may also lack confidence, have a strong fear of failure or of getting things ‘wrong’ and a resulting aversion to risk-taking of any kind.

We need to find ways to help students feel positive about the purpose, context and content of what they are doing. We also need to create the opportunity to have good learning experiences as well as to learn to deal positively with setbacks.

2. Knowing our students

We need to understand and value where students are coming from; their experience, their identity as a person and as a learner as well as their values and aspirations. This takes time, and we can’t know everything about them, but it does mean listening attentively to what they say, tuning in to their behaviours and reactions and avoiding preconceptions or unfounded assumptions.

Through our actions and reactions we need to show that we are taking them seriously and that we are ‘on their side’ and ‘walking alongside’ them in the process of engaging with learning. We also need to recognise that there are many different ways of being, belonging and engaging.

“If you are always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be.” Maya Angelou.

3. Building relationships

Education is both a very personal and a very social process. It’s not a 1-way transaction or something we ‘deliver’ to our students. It’s interactive, requiring plenty of ‘give and take’ between people who share some kind of connection. There needs to be confidence, trust and rapport, between teacher and student. All of this also takes time to build.

We need to communicate the possibility of success, model how it’s achieved and allow students to experience it for themselves. We also need to avoid creating ‘learned dependence’ on the teacher and plan for ‘letting go’ by providing opportunities for students to become increasingly independent from us through their growing experience of autonomy.

“The cultivation of learning is not only a cognitive activity, it is also an emotional and social activity”. Knud Illeris.

4. Motivating and engaging

Students are partners in the education process and must be treated as such. We need to try to create and nurture a culture of partnership and engage with them at every level, build on their current knowledge, skills, experience and aspirations. This engagement needs to be authentic and meaningful and that also takes time to develop.

This will be achieved in many different ways and no single approach is ‘best’. A successful learning environment will, in turn, be rich in: talk, quiet, enthusiasm, challenge, joy and disappointment. It needs to be a place of questioning and dialogue which is safe and calm but also stimulating and challenging. We need to show students how to learn from ‘failure’ and build on their experience of success, confidence and autonomy.

We must praise what is praiseworthy and remind students of their progress and how they’ve achieved it, without going overboard with extravagant or unjustified compliments.

“Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it…” Hannah Arendt.

5. Making the path by walking

The learning journey is not laid out like a marked road, it is about making your own path, with each learning step breaking new ground. We can get better at it through practice and we can also model learning and chart progress. If we break things down and build them up again we can help students to grasp more of the parts and more of the whole of what they are studying.

Think of yourself as an expert helper or guide rather than a performer or a benefactor.

“There is no path, we make the road by walking.” Antonio Machado.

This post is based on my presentation in the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion strand of the online WorldSkills Professional Development event for post-16 educators November 2021. All the sessions can be accessed here.

See also:

The outstanding lesson (October 2015)

The skilled learner DOES (June 2015)

Learning through conflict (November 2017)

About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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