Geoffrey Court, co-founder of The Circle Works, argues that teachers need to achieve a balance between experience, reflection and outcome if they are to respond well to young people’s behaviour.

The founding question

The Circle Works began some 20 years ago with a question. I was seconded to the Urban Learning Foundation with a brief to develop a teacher support project. I began by asking as many teachers as I could: ‘What new kinds of support do you think would help you do your job better?’

I spent several weeks in staffrooms, headteachers’ offices, and cafés, taping conversations with groups and individuals. It didn’t take long for a coherent picture to emerge. Teachers started saying, ‘What we need is precisely what you’re already doing: you’re giving us space to think about our working lives. Can we come back again?’

It was important right from the start to create a space where people felt respected and valued. This meant being hospitable, and taking care over our surroundings. Then, from our first formal evaluation, we learned how important it was to people that the project had no connection with the hierarchies that dominated their working lives: so independence and confidentiality were also key features of the space we offered. Another was what might be called a quality of attention: a way of taking people seriously, in which careful listening obviously played a big part.

So it was that a space was created where teachers felt safe enough to explore the questions thrown up by their experience. Not, on the whole, managerial questions (‘What’s the best way to organise playground duty?’) but larger questions about the meaning of their working lives. The kinds of questions that were being asked then are still being asked in our space now, questions such as:

  • What do I really believe?
  • How far am I prepared to compromise?
  • Why do I feel so strongly about this?
  • Is this the right job for me?
  • Can I keep going?

Learning cycle
At The Circle Works, we base our work on a minimal version of what’s sometimes called the learning cycle:

1. Experience
Experience is the stuff life throws at us all the time. When things go wrong, the first question we should ask is not ‘Who’s to blame?’ or ‘Whose fault is it?’, but ‘What can we learn?’, ‘How can we do it better next time?’ ‘Put it down to experience’ can be translated as ‘Add it to the rich compost of life, and a bit more growth will happen.’

2. Reflection If experience is a compost heap, reflection is more like a clearing in the woods. It’s a space where we can pause and have a go at making sense of where we’ve come from and where we’re going. It’s a space for remembering; for sorting; for making connections; for seeing possibilities.

3. Outcome
Reflection is largely pointless unless it makes a difference out there in the world. Where we say ‘outcome’, some versions of the learning cycle use the word ‘action’. For us, though, this is too restrictive, because it doesn’t embrace, for example, the enlightenment that comes from a slight shift in perception, or the transforming effect of a sudden surprising connection in the mind. Both of these examples are outcomes of a very real kind, and may well lead to changes in behaviour. They cannot, though, be construed as ‘action’. So we prefer to stick to the word ‘outcome’, in the sense that people say things like ‘Something will come out of this, I know it will.’

Cycle at work
Lately we’ve been offering groups of school staff space of a particular kind, inspired by the work of the educationalist Gerda Hanko. The idea behind each session is that it’s an opportunity to focus on a particular child who is causing concern. Without quoting a real case, the process goes something like this:

‘This kid’s behaviour is impossible. We really want her to be part of the group, but she’s wrecking the life of the class. We can’t go on like this.’

‘Let’s take an hour together, away from the classroom, to concentrate on this child. What do we know about her? What has she learned from her life so far? How does the world look from her point of view? Why might she need to behave like this? How can we make things better for her, while also looking after everyone else?’

‘We’ll give it another go. We’re seeing this child rather differently now. We understand what’s likely to trigger one of her outbursts, so we’ve changed some routines in ways that will benefit everyone, not just her. We will make sure she is listened to and feels safe. We will talk to each other when feelings run high … and so on.’

The need for balance It’s important to notice that, in this small story, each of the three phases is absolutely necessary to the overall process. If any one of the three components were missing, the learning cycle would be incomplete, and change would not take place. In a way, it makes no sense to talk about experience being necessary, because experience is given; it’s part of being alive. Here, though, we are saying that it is necessary for all the protagonists to remain present in the situation, and therefore available for learning.

Outcomes are necessary too. Without them, we are either trapped in self-indulgence, or simply keep going round in ever-decreasing circles. Outcomes take us out of reflection and back into the world, giving us the means to change it and our way of being in it. Outcomes feed new experience, and that leads to new growth, as the learning process cycles round again. In the space between experience and outcome is reflection. Without the hour set aside in our small illustration, the outcomes might never have been arrived at, and although change would undoubtedly have happened, it probably wouldn’t have been change for the better.

Not only is every part of the learning cycle absolutely necessary to the whole, but each part depends on every other part. More than that, each part needs to be present in the right proportion to the others. If too much experience is put into the mix, we become exhausted. Too much reflection, and we become too inward-looking. Too much outcome, and we start to fly by the seat of our pants, which means that sooner or later we will crash.

What is a problem is that so many people not only never have time to answer their own questions, but find that their own questions – arising from their own experience – are simply dismissed as irrelevant

Thinking in circles I’ve described a learning cycle with carefully delineated stages. Linear language provides us with a reasonably clear way of understanding roughly where we are at any one point, and marking out some of the territory. But if we want to think about reflective space, linear language can only get us so far.

The reason, of course, is that what we’re talking about here is relationship. The statements that I made about the learning cycle – that every component makes a vital contribution to the whole and that the balance of the ingredients is critically important – are both statements about relationship.

The space between is a place of learning, but a place of mysterious ingredients and throw-ins rather than tick boxes and targets. It’s an unpredictable place of surprising connections and unexpected encounters, where the imagination dances and plays. Above all, it’s a place of elusive, ever-shifting, infinitely complex relationship.

Behaviour as a question The behaviour of the child in our small story might be thought of as a question. It certainly calls for a response: it’s behaviour that simply refuses to be ignored. Tragically, it may be the only way the child knows of asking for help: ‘I’m in pain here, but I’m only a kid. You adults think you know it all – what are you going to do about it?’ Good educationists understand this. They also understand how often the questions voiced by the marginal children, the ones who are constantly at risk of exclusion and feel they have nothing to lose, are in fact unspoken questions for us all.

Dismissed questions What shocks us at The Circle Works is the number of times people say, ‘This is the only place where I can talk honestly and openly.’ Of course, professionalism will always demand a degree of restraint. Of course there will always be feelings and opinions best expressed in private. That’s not a problem. What is a problem, though, is that so many people not only never have time to answer their own questions, but find that their own questions – questions arising from their own experience – are simply dismissed as irrelevant.

The system is out of balance because the space between politics and the person is under threat. On the one hand, policy and regulation penetrate our working lives in ways that we wouldn’t have dreamt of in 1985. There is less and less room for us to address our own questions, because we are too busy trying to keep up with the policy-makers’ answers. If there’s no space for a balanced conversation between the policy makers and those on the ground, we are depriving ourselves as a society of a very important resource. We are missing out on an opportunity to temper, enliven and inform public policy by mining a rich seam of experience. If that’s the case, we should not be surprised if people feel alienated from politics, or if education or the health service stubbornly refuse to shift in response to yet another round of structural change.

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Gerda Hanko Gerda Hanko’s model for solving problems in tackling behaviour through staff dialogue is outlined in her book Increasing Competence through Collaborative Problem-Solving: Using Insight into Social and Emotional Factors in Children’s Learning, published by David Fulton.

In this book, Hanko describes a collaborative approach to problem-solving that involves a whole-school strategy aimed at meeting the needs of children deemed to be more difficult to teach because social and emotional factors contribute to their failure to thrive as learners. She argues that working collaboratively has many benefits and prevents a fundamentally ineffective prescriptive approach that tells teachers what they should be doing.

‘Ultimately,’ Hanko argues, ‘collaborative problem-solving creates conditions favourable to finding workable solutions, and produces a climate of commitment and mutual respect in which the teachers themselves, as individuals and as a genuinely collaborative team, implement their conclusions, and observe and consider what needs to evolve.’