Five essential elements for a successful caring learning culture in schools

2 weeks ago, I was privileged to be asked to present the educational philosophy of the Ecole nationale pour adultes at a TEDx meeting where I tried to aswer the question :

Instead of being reduced to become managers of failures, how can schools develop a learning culture that supports the students in their educational journey and fosters their learning capacities?

What is the secret of schools that boost their students’ learning potential?


Good afternoon,

As I look at the audience today, I see that a lot of you have already finished their school careers, so let me ask you a question:
Do you think you succeeded in school?.
And if your answer is yes, have you ever wondered what factors, may they be intrinsic or extrinsic, played a major role in your success? or
to put it the other way round, what did you perhaps miss during your school career?

My name is Jos Bertemes and as a headmaster of a National school for adults in Luxembourg I passionately believe that by changing the learning culture in our schools we can make academic progress in our schools a success for everybody.

So how can schools develop a learning culture that supports the students in their educational project and fosters their learning capacities.
To illustrate the main elements of this culture, I have linked them with the central aspects of rhetoric as described by the Greek philosopher Aristotle. In his famous essay about rhetoric as the art of persuasion, the Greek philosopher defined/named/listed three essential elements of persuasion famously known as: Ethos, Pathos and Logos. I will use these concepts and show how they can be transposed into an educational context to create a supportive environment as part of a school culture.

The first element, Ethos, relates to the credibility of the members of a caring school community.
In his eminent study ‘Visible Learning’, John Hattie describes teacher credibility as the fourth strongest influence on learning (out of 150 !!). Among the teacher-related parameters, credibility even takes first place.

How can credibility be established by teachers? In fact, there are few studies about this domain, but all conclude that credibility is conditioned by the attribution of three qualities: competence, trustworthiness and goodwill. Firstly, therefore, teachers must be perceived as competent both in their subject knowledge and in their didactic ability to transmit it; secondly, students must trust them; and thirdly, they must show benevolence towards the students. The last two conditions show that credibility, in addition to containing a professional component, includes a moral connotation.

The second element of a caring school culture can be related to Pathos: in a modern educational context, this would be the need to develop empathy in the relationship between the different members of the school community.
Empathy is the ability to put oneself in another’s shoes without, however, becoming too enmeshed with the other person. As soon as we create conditions conducive to teachers, but

also learners, imagining the other as a possible version of themselves, they will find it easier to work together on a common goal.
In our school, practically speaking this can be made possible through the individual tutoring of students by teachers. Every teacher is responsible for around 4 or 5 students whom he or she meets individually every week for about half an hour. In this environment of trust, they can talk, exchange, identify problems and develop solutions, with the added benefit of strengthening the solidarity between students and teachers. In the same way, the relationship between students in the school is also strengthened, because fellow students are no longer strangers, but can be imagined as an extension of oneself, as the school makes conscious efforts to foster solidarity between the young people. Conflicts between students are still there, but they are resolved much more quickly, because everyone is ready to speak their mind much more easily, and in case of persisting problems the adult tutors can be called upon to de-escalate the situation.

If Ethos relates to credibility and Pathos to empathy, what should the meaning of Logos be in an education environment?
In communication theory Logos corresponds to the notion of logic or of decisions that make sense. In a school that builds its learning culture around the professional credibility of the teachers and the emphatic cooperation with and amongst the learners, the school must be organized in a way that consistently supports these goals. The key words would thus be coherence or consistency of the organisation.

At an organisational level, a school can no longer be seen as a collection of individuals that teach a certain number of subjects, but all the members have to share the same vision of teaching and learning. This can be difficult in schools that consist of more than 100 people (teachers, educators, technical staff, ..). In order to ensure a coherent approach, the concept of team needs to be the driving force of such a school: the school is organized not as a big, anonymous body, but arranged into small pedagogical teams where teachers work together, in regular meetings, to support the learners’ projects. The teams are responsible

for monitoring their students’ learning on the basis of tutors’ and teachers’ observations, as well as for taking measures in case of academic, but also personal problems. Staff members reflect together on how to make learning more effective. At ENAD, we insist a lot on the fact that learners must be put in a situation to develop their strengths, instead of only being confronted with their difficulties and weaknesses.

This message is coherent with Albert Bandura’s emphasis on the importance of reinforcing students’ feelings of self-efficacy in relation to their academic skills.
The collective and individual support of the learner allows to develop self-esteem, self- reflection and a sense of participation, to value the resources of each individual and to build on relationships of trust.

Still – these three elements do not cover all the aspects of a caring school culture !

Along with the well-known communication triangle Ethos, Pathos and Logos, I would like to add two other elements that are equally important for a successful school culture: TELOS and KAIROS.

TELOS relates to the notion of purpose or end goal. In our school, it is important for the students to develop a project, a goal that they are aiming at. This could be a certification they need in order to enter the labour market or to continue their studies at a higher level. This is especially important because in the school I am responsible for we often accept ‘early school leavers’ to our school. For many of them, another aspect of successful learning is to restore their ‘desire for learning’.

In psychology, desire comes from the identification of an absence: love, for instance, comes from the absence of the loved one, hunger comes from the need for food, and motivation for learning comes from the desire to obtain a certain degree.

The identification of a purpose and the careful planning to achieve the goals students set for themselves is one of the contents of tutoring sessions. It is a delicate process because the learner’s ambition must be adjusted to his/her potential. This process during which the tutor, together with the student, identifies that individual potential and the student’s possibilities, as well as the path to be ideally followed, is an essential element of successful learning.

Last but not least, the final aspect for a succeeding school culture is the notion of Kairos. Kairos relates to the Greek words for ‘right time’ or ‘opportunity’.

I feel like I have a unique perspective on this because the school I am responsible for welcomes students from 18 who have either left school early, as I mentioned before but also may be coming back to schools for upskilling.

In our school, we try to raise the students’ chances of success, by establishing if prospective students’ potential corresponds to their aspirations. We do so based on 2 elements, first an interview in which the students explain their projects and wishes, and, if uncertainties persist, orientation testing can be offered in order to identify the right path. Should it still turn out, in the course of the school year, that a student has embarked on an unsuitable course of studies, the school is flexible enough to allow him or her to change paths midway instead of waiting until the end of the school year, when the only thing left to do is to acknowledge failure.

If we want to avoid this – just being passive onlookers and managers of failure – and our aim is to prime our schools and students for success, I deeply believe that the five elements I described in this speech – Ethos, Pathos, Logos, Telos and Kairos – can make all the difference.

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