A learning partner can help you influence your organisation to move in a more emotionally literate direction, as Peter Sharp, director of learning for MouchelParkman, explains

My organisation is currently contracted to provide workforce development for the new healthy schools scheme. Together with people at the Department of Health, we are determined to try and put back some of the work on adult emotional health and wellbeing that seemed to become lost as healthy schools moved on. For me, taking care of the adults working with young people is the first and foremost task. Sometimes, though, it seems as if it is the last one.

We are all change agents in our schools, units or local authorities. We sometimes find ourselves up against people who can only be described as ‘leaking cynics’. They are the people in staffrooms who say ‘we tried that in 1983 and it doesn’t work.’ There is at least one on every staff I have ever visited. It gets more difficult when there is a handful of them.

It’s worth remembering, however, that they are never the majority. Most people want to be given the permission, the time and the resources to work in a different way.

Talking together

All my work on emotional literacy – whether with a local authority, a school or a staff group – has involved working with a small group of staff, enabling them to talk about their predicaments with each other.

Most of us have precious few opportunities to hold real conversations with each other. I think, though, that is what is needed. When Tim Brighouse was director of education in Birmingham, he made it is his business to allow every teacher in the city to work with teachers in other schools – to go out and observe them, then to sit with them and talk about it. Having those conversations enabled people to change thoughts and actions.

Moving up?

The reason the emotional literacy movement is on the up is because it has pulled together those of us who feel we have been denuded of our ability to use the affective domain in the service of raising standards effectively and humanely. Because the zeitgeist is that cognitive intelligence rules OK. Cognitive intelligence is the be all and end all.

People in the emotional literacy movement are asking: What is my potential for having influence? What can I and one other achieve? And only then exploring what we can do to improve organisations.

The strength of this movement is because it is bottom up. We are saying we want more of this and we want to take responsibility for making it happen. We want to reconnect with why we came into education in the first place. That reconnection with the motivation for coming into teaching is the bit we are helping to nurture.

Learning partners?

Change starts with one person. The most powerful thing I have done is to find a learning partner. A learning partner is someone you respect, who respects you. You need to tell them why you are choosing them. You agree to embark on a learning journey that is focused on personal and professional development. Typically this will involve meeting for about an hour every six to eight weeks and keeping a shared record of your meetings using a learning log. (See the box on the right for further ideas.)

I then suggested that my team do the same. If I had said to my team I was asking them to find learning partners, they would say it is good enough for us but not for these guys up there.

Learning organisations

Learning partners can form themselves into learning circles, to work in teams on shared aims and objectives.

The merits of a good learning circle are that it is non-hierarchical. You leave your title at the door and come in representing only yourself. You collectively identify what the objectives are for your future meetings and over what time period you will meet.

Once you have got observable and measurable objectives, then you can go on wild excursions, have fantastic discussions about anything you like, as long as someone in the group sees it as their responsibility to pull you back on track to achieve your learning objectives.

In The Fifth Discipline (1990) Peter Senge defined the ‘learning organisation’ as one where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together.

Possible objectives for learning partners

  • Further development of self-awareness
  • Getting to know your learning partner
  • Feeling creative
  • Feeling supported
  • Shared problem solving regarding current areas of work or development
  • ‘Insight learning’ that comes about as a result of discussion
  • The ability to think insightfully about complex issues
  • The ability to take innovative, action in a coordinated way
  • The ability to create a network that enables your own team and others to act in concert

Emotional literacy for teachers toolkit

Peter Sharp was adviser to this toolkit. The pack contains five short films about teachers struggling to make sense of what they had learned about emotional literacy. Available for £130 from Smallwood Publishing – www.smallwood.co.uk

This is an edited version of Peter Sharp’s presentation to the Everyone Wants to Learn conference in February. You can download Peter Sharp’s powerpoint slides from www.antidote.org.uk/learning/report9-slides.pdf.

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