The Learning Space

Module: The Learning Space

We look at what actually needs to be in place to create an exceptional Learning Space. This includes investigating you need to be and who your students need to be.

In the optimal learning space, students are seen at their best even when they can’t see this themselves. They are free to talk about their values, dreams, hopes and aspirations with confidence that these will be met with full acceptance.

Here the leader or trainer is able to trust in him or herself, knowing that they bring a strong set of skills to the relationship. And participants are able to trust that the trainer will behave ethically and in their best interests at all times.

Stress and Learning

Recent studies of brain function have taught us a lot about the way human beings learn, and develop what we now call “emotional intelligence”. We know, for instance, that when human beings are in a state of stress they bring into action parts of the brain designed for making quick decisions (the limbic system), which interfere with the parts of the brain used for reflection and analysis (prefrontal cortex).,

In other words, when people are feeling anxious or upset, their brain is not geared for learning. This is why people who are emotionally upset will say that they just can’t “think straight”. They simply cannot take in or process information in the way that they can when they feel calm and secure. (Goleman, 1996),

In order for optimal growth to occur, we need to ensure that the learning environment is devoid of stress or anxiety. We need to “clear the space” of stress inducers to allow emotional engagement to begin. We need to meet the emotional as well as the rational needs of the brain in order to engage in powerful learning.

Learning leaders can positively impact the learning environment and make it possible for every participant to reach his or her full potential by keeping the following in mind

  • Participants need to feel comfortable with themselves, with each other, and with the trainer or leader.
  • Participants need to be actively engaged in learning and they need to feel free to take risks. The group space or classroom is a place where each learning style is respected and provided for.
  • The classroom allows for the individual construction of meaning in a variety of ways.

The Physical Space

To create an exceptional learning space when conducting face-to-face workshops, presentations or coaching groups, consider the need to address the physical environment including:

Schedule Breaks

It is also effective to design and use activities that incorporate movement, variety and changes of pace.

Make Folks Comfortable

Observe body language and don’t hesitate to ask participants if you are unsure whether they are comfortable. Putting on a coat or repositioning chairs can both indicate discomfort or overwhelm and boredom.

Provide healthy foods that energize learners

Be aware of the effect of different foods on the metabolism and consider this when planning your sessions. A heavy lunch may be appropriate if your learners will be doing hard physical work afterward. The same lunch might create a serious lull in the energy flow if participants will be involved in less vigorous activities following the lunch. A variety of snacks and beverages give participants the ability to eat and drink as they feel the need.

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Cultivating a Non-judgmental Stance

One of the main requirements for creating an exceptional learning is an open mind and a non- judgemental attitude on the part of the leader or trainer who can then encourage such non-judgement among all participants. Judgments tend to activate extreme emotions. As learning leaders, we must first become aware of your own automatic thoughts and judgments. Learning to think non-judgmentally takes practice. You have to be aware of when judgmental thinking occurs and practice bringing your attention to just the facts.

As a leader, it is a challenge to maintain a non-judgmental stance in a group or learning space. We may have an objective we need to meet and a timetable to meet it in. We might also have group or classroom management issues that test our patience or skill. To avoid eroding any rapport we have built with the group, consider these exercises to support you.

Judgemental Words

Identify certain common judgmental words and phrases that trigger you to stop, observe and re align your thinking.

Frequently used judgmental words include: “right,” “wrong,” “fair,” “unfair,” “should,” “shouldn’t,” “wonderful,” “perfect,” “bad,” and “terrible.”

Identify your common self-judgments. (I’m inadequate, stupid, lazy, weak, not worth it etc.).

Turn that self-judgment into a non-judgmental descriptive statement.

When X happens (Describe the situation.)

I feel X. (Use a feeling word)

Examples: “When someone yells at me, I feel helpless and afraid.” Or “When I make a mistake, I feel anxious and ineffective.”

Focus on Breathing

By bringing your focus to your breathing you can calm your thoughts and slow down your thinking. It enables us to get in touch with the present moment and let go of all the thoughts and judgments.

Notice Your Thoughts

Practice the ability to observe your thoughts. For example, bring your attention to your thoughts and judgments when you are doing simple activities, like eating. Notice the thoughts you have about the food, as you eat it. Don’t try to counter your judgments, just notice that they are there.

Balancing Support and Challenge

Another way that we create exceptional learning space is by balancing the need to support with the need to challenge. If the leader only provides support, the participant may be prevented from deepening or enriching their learning. They may even shut down feeling uninspired or dismissive of your message.

If a leader only challenges, they are in danger of diminishing a participant’s sense of self worth. Even the most high functioning and resilient of human beings needs strong encouragement and emotional support to respond to challenges. A skilled learningleader carefully manages the “two-way street of support and challenge” (Ting and Riddle, 2006).

They listen attentively to the effect that their words have on their group.The following description of the coaching environment, which has meaning in a training environment as well, paints a powerful picture of a learning space where challenge and support are effectively balanced.

“When you confront me, I can trust that you are pushing me to think beyond my existing paradigms, not trying to blame or hinder me. When you ask me to explain my reasoning, I can trust that you will not use my answer against me and but will help me seek higher levels of performance...my mistakes will be treated as learning opportunities – steps on the path of accomplishment, not failures.” (Bianco-Mathis, Nabors and Roman, 2002)

Our goal as learning leaders is to have our clients or participants feel this way about us, so that we can challenge them in ways that build their sense of self and encourage them to integrate and apply new learning in their lives.

The Role of Ethics

To create a ideal learning space, we must operate ethically at all times. Operating ethically includes maintaining confidentiality, preparing for and focussing on the training or group coaching, leading from the heart.

As coaches and as leaders, we need to ask ourselves whether we are acting in the best interests of our clients or whether other considerations are impacting on the coaching relationship. These considerations might be the need to maintain a certain income, the desire to build up a business, the wish to avoid failure or to avoid “letting someone down”, or the desire to influence the person in a direction that they don’t want, but that we want for them.

A skilled learning leader is not afraid to reflect on their own motivations and is prepared to act if any are impacting on the client getting the most out of the group coaching or training.

Trust and the Exceptional Learning Leader

If there is one thing that we know about trust, it is that it must be earned, not demanded. This begins with rapport between a leader and a client; a curiosity about and fascination with the client’s experiences.

In order for any leader to build trust, they must trust in themselves. As coaches and trainers we must trust that we, too, are highly-skilled and motivated individuals, with a great deal to offer to a client. If we do not believe this about ourselves, our clients won’t believe this about them. One of the most powerful learning lessons occurs when we model the self-awareness and self-management that we want for our clients.

As Steve Covey says,

“The first job of any leader is to inspire trust. Trust is confidence born of two dimensions: character and competence. Character includes your integrity, motive, and intent with people. Competence includes your capabilities, skills, results, and track record. Both dimensions are vital.

The true transformation starts with building credibility at the personal level. The foundation of trust is your own credibility, and it can be a real differentiator for any leader. A person's reputation is a direct reflection of their credibility, and it precedes them in any interactions or negotiations they might have. When a leader's credibility and reputation are high, it enables them to establish trust fast -- speed goes up, cost goes down.”

Imagine how successful a learner and leader your clients could become if they always operated in an environment of trust. Imagine how powerful your training, coaching and leading could be if you create and encourage the exceptional learning space that supports others in the growth and realization of potential.

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