LBS Practitioner Training

Professional development support for Literacy and Basic Skills educators in Ontario

2.4 The Learning Environment

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In this section we will:

  • identify factors that promote success or create barriers for working with adult learners in groups.
  • examine some particular issues of diversity that can exist within groups of learners and look to find how the learners’ perceptions of differences can affect how successful the learning will be, not only for the individual learner, but also for the group as a whole.
  • identify some strategies for:
    • creating a positive learning environment,
    • responding to diversity issues within the group,
    • promoting unity within diversity.

“Can I learn here?”

For a long time now, educators have recognized the connection that exists between a positive learning environment and successful learning. For adult learners, a positive learning environment is all about the perception of whether or not learning can happen here. It is a very subjective reading that every learner takes, either consciously or unconsciously, that results in either “I feel good here”, or “I don’t like it here”.

For the learner, believing in the possibility of learning has to do with such things as:

  • the look and feel of the space – is this a comfortable place to be; is the space inviting; does it draw you in; does it look like a place for adults, i.e. are the things in the room (displays, furniture, resources, etc.) things for adults?
  • the learner’s relationship with the instructor – does a learner feel welcomed, valued and respected; does a learner feel tall and full, or small and diminished; will there be understanding, acceptance and help for personal challenges? Learners want to know, “Does the instructor like me; does he really want me in his class; does he believe in me and value what I know?”
  • the other learners: Learners want to know, “Do I fit in? Do I have a place here? Are the other learners a lot smarter than I am? Will they think I’m stupid? Will they respect what I have to say? Will they believe me and accept my experience as valid? Am I OK with them?”.

Creating a positive learning environment begins with being aware of the unspoken anxieties and questions learners have and by planning ways to send positive messages the learner will readily understand.

Explore Effective Learning Environments and read the article by Susan Imel on some practical strategies for creating an effective learning environment.

SIDETRIP for experienced instructors

This next reading, also by Susan Imel, takes a deeper look at the learning climate and considers factors that promote “inclusivity”. She also has some interesting insights into the broader issues of power and control that affect learning, and she offers guidelines for creating an inclusive learning environment.

Click on: Inclusive Adult Learning Environments Side Trip

Learners in groups

As soon as the learners enter the classroom and begin to attend the program on a regular basis, they pay close attention to the other learners. They take stock, measuring their own abilities, learning needs, and views against those of others in the group. They begin to make some judgments and draw conclusions based on the differences they see; they start to form opinions about the other learners and how they themselves fit into the group.

During this time of measuring, the instructor has a window of opportunity to set the right tone for the class and to model what she expects of learners in their working relationships. She can put certain things in place that will help learners set aside their differences when they enter the class and head off potential diversity issues which could make learning together difficult. Despite best efforts, however, diversity issues may still rise to the surface, and the instructor must be prepared to meet them head on with skill and with wisdom.

What impact can these differences have in the classroom?

Read the following four links on specific diversity issues.

Age-related Diversity Issues
In this link two instructors tell what they discovered about age-related diversity and how it can affect learning in the class.

Literacy Programming for Women This short excerpt highlights a couple of possible and interesting reactions that might occur when asking women to take a more active role in the class.

Cultural Diversity Issues in the Classroom
This links to a fascinating account of how a cultural issue affected one particular group of learners. It outlines how the instructor responded and what the results were.

Instructional Strategies for Diversity Issues This article by Jane Burnette gives some excellent information and suggestions for instructor behaviours and instructional strategies for working with diversity issues that stem specifically from cultural differences.


JOURNAL REFLECTIONS: What do you think?
Can you know ahead of time when learners are likely to be comfortable with the differences that exist within the group, and when learners might be made severely uncomfortable? Could certain prior information alert instructors to potential problem areas? What kind of information would help? What would an instructor do differently if she had this kind of information?


Question “Is it possible that we are getting sidetracked from our primary responsibility of teaching by devoting so much attention to things like the learning environment and diversity issues? Haven’t there always been differences between learners, and don’t we all just have to learn to deal with diversity in our own way and get on with the business of everyday life?”

Answer As our world moves more rapidly into the information age, and as demands for new learning increase, and as knowledge about how people learn best continues to develop, referring back to how things have always been is not all that helpful. While it is true that in daily life we all have to find ways to get along with people who are different from us, when it comes to the classroom and the business of learning, instructors look to find the most effective methods to enable adults to learn in the most efficient ways. This includes identifying and working with the things that promote and support learning as well as identifying and working to circumvent those things that don’t.”

Making matters worse!

Factors that can exacerbate the negative impact of diversity issues include:

  • a lack of awareness on the instructor’s part that diversity issues exist within the group,
  • an instructor’s naiveté or lack of knowledge and understanding about what diversity issues mean to the learners,
  • an instructor’s inability to see the seriousness of diversity issues and the possible consequences that may ensue,
  • a class that allows learners to be demeaned or diminished in any way, for any reason,
  • any atmosphere that discourages open dialogue or silences learners on issues of diversity,
  • an instructor’s unwillingness to confront serious diversity issue fallout (expressions of racism, harassment, etc.),
  • an instructor’s inability to recognize when diversity issues are getting out of control.

What can an instructor do about diversity issues?

Working with diversity issues in the classroom may seem overwhelming at times. Read the following two links that offer support and a number of specific strategies from fellow instructors.

•    Self-talk
•    Instructor Memo

What do you do once “the horse is out of the barn”?

How do you respond when a diversity issue becomes a disruptive or immobilizing presence and the learning process breaks down?
Explore Instructor Response Do's & Don'ts for tips on what to do and what not to do.

Diversity issues within the group

Differences that exist within the group and have a negative impact on learners and learning, primarily have to do with two things:

  • how the differences are perceived by individual learners and by the group as a whole,
  • the degree to which those perceptions affect the learners’ ability to work together and to learn in a group.

In order to work successfully with diversity issues in any group, an instructor must:

  1. know what particular diversity issues exist for the learners,
  2. recognize how those diversity issues are being perceived by individual learners and by the group as a whole,
  3. anticipate how those perceptions might create barriers to effective group process and to individual learning,
  4. make right choices and employ good strategies in order to circumvent problems when they start to develop.

To clarify:
When we talk about diversity issues in the classroom, we are not simply looking at how people are different from one another, i.e. how they come from different backgrounds and how they have different abilities and different experiences. We are looking to find out what those differences mean for each learner and what impact those differences have in a learning environment for both the individual learner and for the group.

To illustrate:
In most school board LBS programs, both men and women attend classes together. Most of the time gender diversity is not an “issue”, i.e. it does not create any particular problem for anyone; the men and the women are able to work well enough together and gender difference is not a barrier to learning. Occasionally, however, there may be a situation where, for some particular reason, it is a problem to ask men to work with women or to ask particular women to work with particular men. The problem may be of such significant concern that it becomes, in fact, an issue that threatens the success of the learning process either for an individual or for the group.

Click on A Gender-related Issue in Adult Education to see one instructor’s account of a gender diversity issue in her class and what she learned from the experience. Also, look to get insights from this story that can help you anticipate possible issues for learners that spring from gender diversity.

JOURNAL REFLECTIONS: What do you think?

Think about how well your particular learners work together in  groups. Are there some arrangements or groupings of learners that  never seem to work very well? Are there some learners you would  never ask to work together?  Why is that?

Have you identified any specific diversity issues that affect the  learning process in your class? If so, what are they, and how do they  present themselves in your particular program? (i.e. What happens  when those issues are in play?)


What kinds of diversity issues exist in an LBS classroom?

Depending on the unique combination of needs, backgrounds, experiences, and personal situations of the individual learners in the class, and depending on how learners feel about these things, any one of a number of differences could develop into a diversity issue.

Some examples would include differences in:

  • culture, customs, and values,
  • expectations for adult education,
  • levels of independence,
  • levels of support that learners expect,
  • attitudes towards learning and work,
  • personalities,
  • social skills and abilities.

As well as...

young learners
eager learners
higher LBS levels
previous formal education
low self-esteem
good interpersonal skills
inadequate language skill
unstable mental health


older learners
reluctant learners
lower LBS levels
no formal education
healthy self-esteem
poor interpersonal skills
strong language skill
stable mental health

Diversity Issues

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