“You are unteachable”

Linno Rhodes from Olympic Adult Education discusses attachment theory.  

Linno Rhodes

Linno Rhodes from Olympic Adult Education

In June 2017 I was awarded an International Specialised Skills Fellowship. I wanted to investigate the idea that attachment theory, and associated therapeutic theories and practices are relevant to the teaching of vulnerable adults and can make a substantial difference to the success experienced in the classroom by learners and teachers.

Attachment theory posits that the foundational relationship style established between infants and primary caregivers, will continue into adulthood in subsequent relationships. Teachers can be attachment figures in the classroom situation – for children and adults.

Many vulnerable learners have had negative classroom experiences (learning traumas) – through bullying and other negative behaviour from peers and teachers. Only recently I heard of a teacher telling a high-school student in Melbourne – “You are unteachable”. These experiences and messages cause stress – which releases cortisol which in turn triggers the flight/fright/freeze part of our brain and results in a disengaged or hyper-aroused student (maladaptive behaviours) which are learnt coping methods to function in hostile environments. Students who also have lived experiences of other traumas may always be in a state of hyper or hypo arousal. The part of the brain that scans for danger or threat is always on – and can easily interpret neutral or regular interactions as dangerous. Children and adults who live with constant stress experience so much cortisol in their systems that their learning part of the brain is impacted so greatly that learning new ideas and information is hardly achievable.

Educators of vulnerable adult learners could do well by flipping old and outdated teaching methodologies and practices in favour of more relationally based and brain aware pedagogy. We can begin by establishing a safe working relationship and safe learning space. Only then can learners be in a regulated space that allows the part of the brain responsible for learning and feeling relaxed – the pre-frontal cortex to be switched on and in control. There is a lot of scientific knowledge about the brain that also informs a more relationally based teaching practice. Google will link you with a vast amount of credible information, and there are multiple books about education and neuroscience such as my favourites;

  • (2013): “The Social Neuroscience of Education: Optimizing Attachment & Learning in the Classroom“, Louis Cozolino, WW Norton & Company, New York. W W Norton page
  • (2014): “Attachment-Based Teaching“, WW Norton & Company, New York.
  • (2014) The Invisible Classroom: Relationships, Neuroscience & Mindfulness in School, Kirke Olson, WW Norton & Company, New York

I travelled throughout the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom meeting with psychologists, therapists, educators and academics who have an interest or speciality in the areas of neuroscience, violence, trauma and learning. It has been a life-changing experience for me and one I hope to continue learning about and sharing.

Linno Rhodes

International Specialised Skills Fellow 2017,


Olympic Adult Education Melbourne