The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Sarah Hopp

For the love of learning: using the positive niche construction framework

Balancing pupil wellbeing and academic catch-up is challenging. Sarah Hopp explains how the PNC framework can help all learners flourish.

In the recent Opportunity for all white paper the government announced that by 2030: 

  • 90% of learners should reach the expected standard in English and maths at the end of KS2
  • the average GCSE grade in English Language and maths should be a 5
  • a new test of national performance will be introduced. 

However, taking such a standardised approach risks ignoring the fact that learners develop at different rates and in different ways.

Not all learners have the same starting position or have access to the same resources. Some have learning differences which affect working memory and the way that the GCSE exam is designed does not lend itself well to someone with such a difficulty.

Moreover, some learners are still recovering from the effects of the pandemic including social isolation and constant school disruption. When schools and colleges first returned to face-to-face teaching, the government focused on the mental health and wellbeing of learners, but now the narrative already appears to have a focus on grades, placing more pressure on learners and teachers.

Recovering from the pandemic

Nevertheless, psychological and academic recovery take time and cannot be rushed. Ackers et al. (2021) suggest that successful recovery requires innovative strategies to make education more resilient, inclusive and equitable. This then leaves the educator in a predicament: focus on wellbeing recovery or on obtaining ambitious achievement grades?

We should be stretching and challenging our learners but not to the detriment of their or their teachers’ mental health and wellbeing, which at present are still vulnerable. We therefore need to contextualise the learner’s individual disposition and use this as a starting point for learning. 

The government will put into place educational measures that it feels appropriate, so how do we approach this dilemma in a constructive way? One possible strategy is to use Positive Niche Construction (PNC) as a teaching framework.

What is PNC?

PNC is a holistic strengths-based approach towards teaching and learning. The approach, advocated by scholars such as Thomas Armstrong in his book Neurodiversity in the Classroom, derives from a concept within biodiversity, suggesting that the classroom itself is a type of ecosystem and that the human brain is diverse or neurodiverse.

PNC recognises that in nature an animal uses its strengths to adapt to its environment in order to thrive, for example, a spider weaving a web. Similarly, the human brain may flourish given the right working environment, resources and opportunities for a person’s individual context, interests and needs. Armstrong (2012) argues:

We do not pathologize a calla lily by saying it has a ‘petal deficit disorder.’ We simply appreciate its unique beauty…Similarly, we ought not to pathologize children who have different kinds of brains and different ways of thinking and learning.

Armstrong’s PNC works on the premise of creating ‘a holistic life space’ in which a learner may flourish. This is accomplished through seven components.

  1. Assessment of the learner’s strengths.
  2. The use of assistive technology and Universal Design for Learning.
  3. Enhanced human resources.
  4. The implementation of strength-based strategies.
  5. Envisioning positive role models.
  6. Activation of affirmative careers aspirations.
  7. The engineering of appropriate environmental modifications to support the development of the learner.

The approach is simple and learner centred. Too often in education, due to the pressures of the classroom, the process of validating a young person’s strengths, finding the right resources to fit those strengths, and nurturing a love for learning is overlooked.

PNC gives educators the opportunity to think outside the box and be creative with learners, taking cues for learning opportunities from dialogue with them. It provides a framework that enables equity, diversity and inclusivity to be established in the classroom for all learners.

Improve wellbeing to improve learning

Although this approach may not guarantee a grade 5 or above at GCSE English language and maths, it can maximise learning opportunities, raise self-esteem and help engagement in the classroom. I have observed an improvement in learners’ grades when their confidence has risen, so by taking a holistic approach such as this one, learners have the best chance of obtaining optimal grades.

Of greatest importance, however, is to help learners understand that their identity and human worth are not defined by grades or qualifications. A framework like PNC may help them to realise this and to flourish in an educational world that measures success and achievement by grades and standardisation.


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