Tag Archives: Learner-centered

Emotionally Safe Learning Environments

5 Nov

This blog post was originally published in December 2011. Occasionally I revisit my old posts to see if I still agree with them. 🙂

Student-centered and emotionally safe pedagogy is an attitude.  It is not a handbook of tips and tricks, to help us survive our days.  It is being physically and emotionally present when the student needs us. It is also thinking more about the process than the product. And in these classrooms the focus is in creating, not copying, no matter what the task is – this applies to art as well as note taking!

I think today, in 2022, the learner-centeredness and focusing on supporting students’ emotional safety is more important than ever! But this may require a perspective change for educators and administrators. A big one. Shifting from perceiving students as disobedient, uncontrollable, mean, or acting out, to understanding that these behaviors are indicators of trauma in students’ lives.

We cannot deny the effects of trauma in our classrooms!

Students need our help, so that they can learn how to self-regulate, or to use better ways to get their needs met. SEL is important and necessary in education, but it may not be enough. I think in 2022 we all need to learn how to use Trauma Informed Practices to create emotionally safe learning environments. Emotionally safe classrooms are flexible by their nature and they have rules that are consistent and justified. Ordering other people arbitrarily around is only a way to show your power over them.  Being considerate is generally understood as a virtue, and showing the same politeness to children does not go without rewards. Treating students as individual human beings feels like basic courtesy to me.

The central values of safety, co-operation, individuality, and responsibility help students to build a realistic self-image together with the teacher and classmates – and these all are central SEL skills we all need to be successful in the society. These values also create the foundation for an emotionally safe learning environment. Most often these values are expressed in the classrooms and discussed with the students. Ideally the wording of the rules is created in cooperation with students, and confirmed with the signatures of the teacher and students, before posting them on the wall for further reference.

Stress-free atmosphere is the first principle for creating an emotionally safe growing and learning environment. Focusing on learning process instead of the product helps to create the feeling of having enough time, which enables students to focus on their own learning instead of external factors that might disturb their concentration. This also supports learner agency. Knowing that their thoughts and ideas are valued helps students to think and express their thoughts more freely.

More thinking equals more learning.

The one situation when most of us feel threatened or unsafe is while we are receiving feedback. In an emotionally safe classroom feedback becomes a natural part of the learning process, and thus stops being scary.  While utilizing students’ daily self-evaluation and teacher’s verbal comments, the feedback system actually becomes a tool for the students to control their own learning. This automatically holds students accountable for their own learning and helps them realize how much they already have learned. Ungrading is a growing movement among teachers!

I mentor students pursuing their M.Ed. degrees In Learning Experience Design and Curriculum & Instruction, and try to follow my own advice. Therefore the most important question I ask every day is: How can I support your learning today?

4 Learning Processes

31 Aug

I was re-re-reading one of my very favorite education books: Contemporary Theories of Learning (Illeris, 2018) and thinking about how to support all different learners. Obviously, we must provide experiences that meet the needs of our learners and helps them to learn. But how do we actually learn? What does the learning process look like? How do we make sense of all the data and information surrounding us? For clarity, I like to use the definition of learning as a two-step progression containing the processes of external interaction and internal elaboration. [1] Interacting with data is just the first step in the learning process, gathering the information. The second step, elaboration, transforms the information to become a part of our personal knowledge structure.

Exactly how do we react to the bits of data in our environment and change it to become information that can be stored in our minds? In early learning this is easy to observe – young children actively try to make sense of the surrounding world. They are accumulating new words and concepts with a remarkable pace! Their intrinsic motivation to learn is a continuous source of inspiration, and I often wish we as adults could approach new things with the same amazing curiosity. When we organize the information, we are constructing our own knowledge – which sometimes is accurate, but most often needs some fine-tuning. This elaboration part is exactly why we need educators to provide some structural support. Otherwise, we might still call every four-legged animal a dog.  A very important part of instruction (in any level of education) is helping students to understand the connections for new information and showing how to build concept hierarchies and categorize information in a meaningful way.

So, when we consider how learning happens, there appears to be 4 different learning processes to keep in mind while designing learning experiences: cumulative, assimilative, accommodative and transformative. These all are natural processes, and the first one we use is the cumulative process where we learn something that is not connected to anything else that we already know. This mostly happens during the first years of our lives because everything is new, and we just mechanically observe the world and add the data as information to our minds. In addition to early learning, we sometimes use cumulative learning process when we need to memorize something without a context. This is why passwords are sometimes hard to remember: without personal meaning the information is easily discarded especially if it isn’t used often.

The most common type of learning is termed assimilative or learning by addition. [2] When we assimilate data, we add new information into something we have previously learned. This is very common type of classroom learning, but may still lead to quite shallow or strategic learning approaches, especially if the application is only for the test or quiz, instead of extending the new knowledge beyond classroom context [3]. Some examples are new words and concepts, like learning a new language and just memorizing the words or rote learning the multiplication tables or important dates of history. Hence the common (and very valid) question heard from students: “When will we ever use this?” However, we don’t have to stay within the plain behaviorist learning paradigm with assimilative learning. To design better learning experiences for students in any levels of education, we will want to use learner-centered practices and provide learning strategies like mindmap templates to support students’ individual meaning-making activities during assimilative learning. This also leads to the deeper level of learning – accommodating new information.

Accommodative learning process takes us to a place where we must challenge and change our existing thinking patterns. This problem can lead to a productive struggle: when new information doesn’t fit into our existing scheme, we need to figure out why. This deeper learning can be hard, and it can be extremely rewarding. Alas, without Growth Mindset it may lead learners to a dead end of believing they cannot learn, which is why anyone who wants to teach, must know how to offer support for productive learning struggles. Designing learning experiences with expansive framing in mind (ways to support learning reflection, encouraging collaborative learning, discussing self-explaining strategies, etc.) instead of assuming that students already know how to do this is a great starting point. Here is a link to learning strategies at NinasNotes. Accommodative learning process happens within ZPD–the Zone of Proximal Development–where learners need support and scaffolding to successfully acquire new information and skills. Accommodating new information is a prerequisite for Transformational Learning, which requires a great deal of learner agency. Agency as a concept refers to self-awareness and degree of freedom. [4]

When learning experience is transformational it means that our thinking or even personality changes–transforms–into something new, requiring the previous schemes, structures and categories to change. This change in our frame of reference challenges both our habits of mind and viewpoints that are constructed from our beliefs, values, attitudes and feelings. [5] Designing transformative learning experiences therefore requires creating a safe space for learners to explore their beliefs and take risks of trying something different, something new. Excellent ways to facilitate the transformational learning process is to explicitly teach about metacognitive strategies, embed Social-Emotional Learning into instructional practice, engage in a dialogue with students and use a coaching approach in the classroom.

Metacognition: The awareness and perceptions we have about ourselves as learners, understanding of the requirements and processes for completing learning tasks, and knowledge of strategies that can be used for learning.

To sum it up: We need to be very mindful when designing learning experiences for our students, keeping in mind that the same instructional content will most likely evoke 2-4 different learning processes among the learner population, depending on their previous knowledge and exposure to the content. We should never assume our learners know how to choose successful learning strategies; and we must always be ready to offer metacognitive support.


[1]  Illeris, K. (2018). Contemporary theories of learning: Learning theorists … in their own words. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

[2] Illeris, K. (2009). Contemporary theories of learning: learning theorists—in their own words. London: Routledge / edited by Knud Illeris

[3] Huberman, M., Bitter, C., Anthony, J., & O’Day, J. (2014). The shape of deeper learning: strategies, structures, and cultures in deeper learning network high schools. Findings from the study of deeper learning opportunities and outcomes: Report 1. American Institutes for Research. Retrieved from: http://www.air.org/resource/spotlight-deeper-learning

[4] Smith, N.C. (2017). Students’ perceptions of learner agency: A phenomenographic inquiry into the lived learning experiences of high school students. (Doctoral Dissertation).  Northeastern Repository

[5] Mezirow, J. (1997). Transformative learning: Theory to practice. New directions for adult and continuing education1997(74), 5-12.

What Learner-Centered Education Really Means

16 May

Learner-centered and emotionally safe pedagogy is an attitude or disposition. It is not a handbook of tips and tricks. It is being physically and emotionally present when a student needs us. It is also about focusing on the learning process instead of the product (worksheet, assessment, test score, etc.). It means  engaging in a dialogue, offering help and support, and answering the question every student asks: What’s in it for me? 

Personalization is one of the modern approaches in learning and teaching. However, it is important to remember that designing great learning experiences doesn’t require any special apps, programs or gadgets! We want it to based on Learner-centered pedagogy because it has a long history and it has proven to be very effective. At the simplest form learner-centered means that we are are focusing everything around students needs. (Image below: my starburst mirror in the making)

When I was making my starburst mirror few years back, I was thinking that this is how student-centered learning really works: keeping students in the center and carefully building the individualized support around them. This means purposefully designing the instructional process (teaching methods, lesson planning and classroom management) to meet students’ needs, focusing on supporting students’ individual learning process (learning and development and SEL) and using assessment data to support students’ individual learning processes. Please see TPK for more info about pedagogical knwoledge.

Some students need more support than others. We are not clones and should not be treated like ones, so it is important to abandon the outdated factory model, where learning is seen to be a product (of instruction and testing). To me, one the cringiest examples of the product thinking is seeing 28 pieces of identical “artwork” on classroom walls. Yes, students had learned to follow directions and create a copy of something, but the scary truth is that we will never creat the same competency when following somone else’s thinking. For deep learning to happen we must engage in our own thinking – this is what I learned while working for Head Start. Children were amazingly creative and learned so much every day while playing.

A major problem is that we still talk about learning and teaching like they were just one process. But learning and teaching are two different things! They are two different processes that are often put into the same frame of reference (education) and sometimes even happen in the same physical space (classroom) – but it would be foolish for us to imagine that students only learn at school! The “real” learning often happens after studying has been done, and the newly gained knowledge is used in real-life situations and combined with all the existing knowledge and experiences student have. This is what “deep learning” means: reconstructed personal understanding of the topic.

When we perceive learning as an in-built force within our students, the teaching job became instantly easier! Being a facilitator for learning and guiding  students to build their own knowledge is a huge step towards supporting learner agency. And it is truly learner-centered! 

We want to strive towards the next step in education: schools evolving to places where knowledge is socially constructed and contextually reinvented. We can do this is ANY given classroom  by offering choices for students and making their learning more meaningful. But this also presents the need for mutual intentionality and accountability – students coming to school with the intention to learn, teachers with the intention to support students’ individual learning. Not just meeting the standard of the learning objective of the day. Please understand that I am NOT against standards! But meeting them cannot be the ONLY goal of education.

The one thing that sustains my professional practice after a decade in Higher Ed is that I get to talk and email with my students, one at the time, and ask the most important question:

How can I help and support your learning process today?

Praise and punishment – two sides of control

17 Nov

It is surprising how often people, who think punishments to be detrimental for learning, still approve praise as an effective tool in education.  How is this possible? Both are based on the concept of superiority and having control over other human beings. Often this power is just artificial authority. Please understand that I am not against classroom management, just the behaviorist regime of it! Using SEL (social-emotional learning) and ensuring student-centered management practices is important!

I know this may sound like semantics, but hear me out! Praise always carries a value judgment, an evaluation, and is based on our personal/professional opinion. Encouragement in the form of feedback is non-judgmental. It points out facts. And in education we want to point out all the things students have learned because we have names for them and also know the big picture of how competencies relate to each other. We know what students need to learn to be successful. Hence: no praise, just facts, please. Alfie Kohn has written much about this!

My current position as a mentor for graduate students pursuing their M.Ed. degrees is delightful: I spend my days supporting my students’ understanding and learning process, but I don’t have to be a gatekeeper (and I don’t have to do any grading, yay!). Mentoring requires a specific disposition: the belief that everyone can learn, and that learning cannot be enhanced by praise and punishment. Now, please don’t get me wrong. Performance can be increased (up to a point) by praising and punishing and pushing students to complete their products, but engaging in one’s own learning process and deeper learning requires self-regulation and self-reflection. We can lead students to that path but we cannot force them to walk it. External control cannot help students forward in the path to self-transformation.

I do remember the time when I still believed in praise and punishment.  I am sure my children remember that, too. And for that I want to apologize to them, wishing that I knew more about learning and development when they were young. Fortunately it is never too later for additional development.  Kegan and Drago-Severson have an excellent framework of adult development.

It hurts my ears when I hear someone talk about praise and growth mindset in the same sentence. The two could not possibly fit together. Praising someone means that they have met an invisible standard, for which we want to extend our approvals as superiors. Rewards and gold stars are just a tangible form of praise. Growth mindset carries the same notion of self-transformation as engaging in the personal learning process. As educators it is important to offer timely feedback for students about their learning. However, praise and feedback should not be mixed. Feedback focuses on the achievement and based on transparent criterion of expectations. Praise is based on hidden expectations or personal opinions. It is a value judgement about the behavior or qualities of another human being.

Every educational institution has their own hidden curriculum – the expectations that are not voiced or written. Often these appear in the form of practices and traditions. Hidden objectives are the hardest to meet. A common coping mechanism to meet hidden expectations is the attempt of pleasing the person at control – whether teacher, professor, boss, or anyone else in the position of power. The damage for the organization gets doubled: the person in control only hears the voice of pleasers and cheerleaders, and the structure becomes skewed with the lack of open and honest dialogue. This can easily lead to cliques in classroom (or workplace) and decreased collaboration.

Those who remember Berne’s Transactional Analysis (TA) will probably recognize the roles of Parent and Child in the praise and punishment situations.  Engaging in dialogue on Adult-Adult level is the most important tool for every educator. Students often fall into the trap of playing the child role, especially if their learning process gets reduced to creating learning products that may have no real-life connections, and if they often face praise and punishments in their learning environment. This can happen to adult students too, especially when their learning motivation is externalized. On the positive side it is fascinating to observe young children to behave with maturity above their years when the human dignity is extended to them and they are offered opportunities to self-regulate.