Category: Aoife’s Blog

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Abraham H Maslow (1908 – 1970) observed human behaviour and developed what we now call Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. As adult educators it is helpful to pause to consider the needs of learners within this context.
All of us have basic needs which were neatly packed by Maslow into a pyramid divided into 5 distinct parts.
Each of us is on a journey to what Maslow called ‘Self Actualisation’ which is when you are fulfilling your potential. That is as important for our learners as it is for us in our own lives. However according to Maslow there are 4 distinct levels that individuals most move through in order to fulfil their potential.
At the bottom of the pyramid are physiological needs. It is obvious that we all must have basic human needs and rights met in terms of shelter, food, water and sleep. However we all can cite examples where learners have times in their lives that these basic needs are not being met and how this gap can make learning difficult.
Once our physiological needs are met our next need is for safety. This is very evident in our adult literacy environment where people need to feel secure in their learning environment. They need to be sure that that they are treated with respect, that their experiences and knowledge are valued. They need to feel assured of the discretion of our service.
Once safety is achieved people need to have a sense of belonging. We all see how learners make our Adult Literacy and Basic Education Centres their own, they feel secure in the space, they have a roof over their head to learn, they have well equipped room and they start to make friendships with students and develop relationships with all staff. Having different kinds of relationships in different settings is an important things for our learners. A sense of community is critical at this level.
Esteem is the next level. This can be built internally by learners themselves finding the confidence to value their own input, finding their own voice, realising the skills they have. A big part of this is also having the recognition from others, having a sense of achievement from completing a task well or achieving certification. Our events to mark achievements are important. Whether we present certificates of attendance or QQI awards it has the same impact in terms of building self-esteem.
The final level Maslow identified is self-actualisation. At this level Maslow talked about flow. I understand this concept best as ‘when I am in the zone’. We all know that feeling when it all clicks into place, when it appears effortless, when it just happens.
Maslow was viewed to be in the Humanist tradition where learning is viewed as student centred and the belief is that the student can reach their potential by being facilitated and supported. This is a powerful philosophy that underpins the work of the Adult Literacy Service.
Having considered this model I am sure you can each think of a learner who, over a period of time, you saw them move from one level to another. It is a great privilege to be able to bear witness to this transformation.

The Green Ribbon

Each May ‘Wear the Green Ribbon’ is promoted to get people to talk more openly about mental health. It is really important that the stigma surrounding mental health problems is challenged.
Having 8 Adult Literacy Centres and providing hundreds of Adult Literacy courses provides people with an opportunity to not only improve their literacy skills but also to make connections, develop friendships, be part of a group or activities. While we focus our work on the improvements in literacy and numeracy skills we can all cite examples of changes in a person’s demeanour and their social skills which are critical factors to supporting good mental health. There is always a challenge for us in education to manage our boundaries when students raise serious mental health issues and we support each other in this.
A few months ago while on a walk I listened to (and later watched!) a Ted Talk by Guy Winch about called ‘Why we all Need to Practice Emotional First Aid’. He talks about how we all practice good personal hygiene and understand how important good physical care is but that we are slow to see a health professional when we feel emotional pain such as guilt, loss, loneliness or failure.  His podcast is worth listening to and is available at this link
In this podcast he talks about the destructive effects of loneliness, failure, lack of self-esteem and worry. He advocates the building of emotional resilience so that you can thrive and fulfil your real potential. He says that if you build your ‘emotional resilience …you will thrive.’
In many ways the podcast resonated with me because it can be what our students describe to us about their lives and how they feel when they arrive to Adult Literacy and Basic Education. They can feel lonely or isolated, the can feel like a failure, the feel the loss of opportunities that they never had and rejected by society. What is interesting about this is that Guy Winch describes the proven physical impacts that this emotional pain can have on people’s lives. He states that loneliness is scientifically proven to increase your likelihood of an early death by 14%. He says ‘Loneliness creates a deep wound – scrambles our thinking, makes us afraid to reach out.’ He also says that ‘Failure …. misleads us. We all have a default set of feelings and beliefs that gets triggered when we meet frustrations and setbacks.’
Later in the podcast he refer to rejection and that that ‘it is extremely painful. We think of our faults and shortcomings’ and that when ‘your self esteem is low you are more vulnerable to stress and anxiety … it takes longer to recover’.  A stark statement he makes is that practicing poor emotional hygiene can be ‘as significant risk to your long-term health as cigarette smoking’.
Isn’t it a real testament to our students that those that have experienced rejection in their lives whether at school or work, or those who experience isolation and loneliness can find the strength and reserve to reach out to our service and to attend week after week. It is therefore extraordinary that many are now busy preparing portfolios (under your guidance and instruction) and have participated in classes that you have facilitated with professionalism and care.
So while we wear the Green Ribbon to challenge stigmas May is also a month to celebrate the achievements of our learners in overcoming very real obstacles to learning.
Please note that for all staff and their families the Employees Assistance Programme is available to help at challenging times. Please contact your ALO/ DLEO for further details.

Managing Professional Boundaries

Last September 2016 I attended a NALA event to celebrate International Literacy Day. At the event a speaker from Galway ETB gave a presentation entitled ‘Stay in your Hula Hoop’ … which was actually about managing professional boundaries! She outlined the many scenarios that adult educators can be in that can make it challenging for us to manage our professional boundaries. Her honest stories reminded me a lot of the work we all did together in 2014 when we developed the ‘Managing Professional Boundaries’ document. It was a real team effort with all staff contributing to it through meetings, workshops and written submissions. It is great to see, now 3 years on that the document is being used throughout Kerry ETB and was adapted for use in the schools and across Further Education and Training provision.
We all had really constructive discussions when the document was being developed. We could all cite examples of when we felt ill at ease, when it was most difficult and strategies we used. It was through real sharing that we all learned so much.
At the time we felt that it was important to develop a document that we could use as a guide to help us maintain our professionalism in a wide variety of situations. The aim was to clarify the boundaries between professional and personal relationships. This document is available on the website (click here to download it) and also available from your Adult Literacy Organiser.
Part of the learning for us all on developing the policy was in defining the difference between helpfulness and friendships. Our professional relationships always focus on the educational needs of the learners. The focus on helping learners is from an empowering mode of practice and is focussed on meeting learners educational needs.
The document deals with a number of different areas such as providing advice, being approachable, respecting confidentiality, identifying warning signs and self-awareness.
It has guidance on a number of issues such as alcohol and illegal substances, creating dependence, personal disclosures, financial issues, when professional boundaries are breached by a learner and more.
It is good for us all to read the document from time to time to remind ourselves, support ourselves and to affirm our practice.

The Power Flower

In literacy we often talk about power. Some of our learners will tell us how they feel disempowered by having a literacy difficulty or by their experience of engaging in the education system in the past. One of our key roles is helping people not only develop their cognitive skills but also their affective skills such as a sense of power, self-worth, self- confidence and identity. In the delivery of our service we have to be acutely aware of the power relationships that are at play and how our role as educators is best delivered by building collective power through collaborative learning and working together. Essential to this process are clear group agreements and clear professional boundaries. In doing this there is an equality in the adult literacy setting; the tutor acts more as a facilitator of learning while still bringing their expertise to the fore.
On my Erasmus + mobility on ‘Motivation, Leadership and Interculturalism’  I was introduced to the ‘Power Flower’ tool. Essentially, the ‘Power Flower’ tool helps groups identify how close they are to decision making power in their lives or how powerful they feel in relation to a variety of identities such as race, sexual orientation, social class, religion and spoken language.
When we used it on the Erasmus mobility we coloured in the inner petals if we felt empowered in the segment area; if we felt distanced we coloured in the outer petals. With learners who feel distanced from power in our society this can be a way of expressing this by working individually or in small group settings. This can be an important step for personal development groups to take or for any marginalised group. It is important that when using this tool that time is taken to explain the purpose and rationale, allow people to work individually and in small groups or pairs and to take time to reflect together on the results.
Another way to use this is as an evaluation tool – by taking out the named segments you could insert areas that you wish to evaluate and ask participants to ‘colour’ the inner or outer petal depending on how confident they felt about that area. I have found that this has worked really well with a wide variety of groups. So, for example, you could use it to see how confident a learner is in relation to punctuation. The learner could colour the inner petals to show that they were confident using a full stop or a question mark but might be filling an outer petal for their confidence in using a comma. Visual and kinaesthetic learners will be engaged by this and you will quickly see what areas you will need to work on together. It will also help you measure progress as you will hopefully see more inner petals being coloured in as you move through your tuition together.
If you want to learn more about the Power Flower tool I suggest you read a paper written by Wenh-In Ng called ‘A Tool for Everyone – Revelations from the “Power Flower”’ which can be found on
This article also has a copy of the power flower template.
I also suggest you visit this website for more tips

Late last year ETBI and SOLAS launched ‘Support Connect Inspire’ – a Strategy for Technology Enhanced Learning in Further Education and Training 2016 – 2019. It is available on line at
The focus of this strategy is on using technology to enhance learning for students in Adult Literacy programmes and all Further and Adult Education programmes. The strategy aims to have a focussed effort so that learners can become more confident in using technology and so that all adult education practitioners become more confident about using technology in the teaching and learning process. As the Strategy states ‘Technology is increasingly part of how we live and thrive in our day-to-day lives. The ‘internet of things’ has become a reality, where everyday tools, services and other objects are designed and connected digitally, and people need digital competence in order to access and benefit from these innovations. In modern education and training, it is essential that all learners are equipped to understand and exploit the full advantages of technology in their work, at home and within their communities’.
Here in the Adult Literacy and Basic Education Programme in Kerry there are great examples throughout the county of technology enhanced learning taking place. The introduction of smart technology in some classrooms has helped in this. Tutors have made great use of the technology for teaching, evaluation, engagement and building motivation. Many of you have heard me comment on how I have observed a change in the ‘geography of classrooms’. Students are up and at the top of the room using the Interactive White Screens to learn, to show others what they know, to work alongside the tutor. In the coming year we will focus on providing you with opportunities to enhance your own knowledge and confidence around using technology in the classroom. We plan to run sessions on using the Interactive Whiteboards and on using smartphones and i-Pads and a variety of apps. All of these enhance the teaching and learning experience for both learner and tutor.
It is important that we deliver our services in line with national policy and that we identify ways to support technology enhanced learning during the lifetime of this strategy. We will support you in that journey over the coming years.

Skills and Attributes of Today’s Learner – Our Own Self Assessment


Our work as Adult Literacy practitioners allows us to work alongside our learners to help them bring transformation into their own lives, their family life or the wider community. While our focus is on literacy skills development we do so much more than this and our work is across many different areas. Recently I came across an Educator’s Self Assessment Tool by Jackie Gernstein. There are 30 questions across 12 areas that I found to be a very interesting self-assessment.
Her theory is that today’s learner needs a variety of skills across many different areas to be able to adapt, function, live and flourish in today’s world.
All of us need effective oral and written communication.  This is the core of our work, it takes time, expertise and creativity to be done well.  On a daily basis all of us collaborate across networks whether with colleagues or family. This is true as much for our learners as it is for us and to be able to enhance learning this skill is required.
We all need to be agile and adaptable to change so the skills we learn must be transferable to situations outside of the classroom. Resilience at times of change and at times of difficulty is an important skill and ‘grit’ is an important quality for any work or activity.  We all see this with our learners how they stick with their learning and coming to the Adult Literacy Centre when life is chaotic and hard. Having empathy for others and an understanding of the wider world is important as it is having a vision of how the world can improve and change. This can involve small steps in the home or larger ones in a parish, village or town. Being able to self-regulate in terms of motivating oneself and reflection are important tools to help deepen the learning process. Curiosity and being inquisitive are important qualities in life and taking the initiative to take control of our own learning is important. This is something that many of our learners have already done by returning to education. Critical thinking and problem solving are essential skills and ones that we nurture and develop through our range of programmes.
The great thing about our work is that learners have many of these skills already before they even come to our centres and that learners learn from each other in the mixed small group settings.
This Self Assessment Tool is a good tool in helping us realise how valuable our work is across many areas. It helps us realise the impacts we have and the important outcomes for learners that we work with them to realise.



Recently at the Adult Literacy Organisers’ Forum I had an opportunity to listen, learn and reflect on leadership and innovation in adult literacy. It was wonderful to have this time with colleagues from around the country and to hear new perspectives and experiences. In my role as chairperson of the Adult Literacy Organisers’ Association I said a few words on the topic and shared my own views of leadership in adult literacy. I would like to share this with you all now!
There are many publications, much research and much academic writing on leadership – whether it is the essential characteristics, the attributes, skills or habits. One that resonates with me is Warren Bennis who wrote in ‘On Becoming a Leader’ about there being a number of basic ingredients. He identified 6 essential ingredients to leadership.
First of all a leader must have a guiding vision, that is a clear purpose and idea of what you want to do, along with skills to persist even when there are set-backs. Secondly a leader must have passion, this can be a vocational passion, a professional passion but you must love what you do. Thirdly he identified that a leader must have integrity, and he outlined that this must be drawn from a clear self-knowledge and maturity mixed working in a manner that is true to your principles and learned experience. Reflective practice is a key component of integrity. Fourthly he wrote about trust and how this must be earned, then about curiosity – the spirit of wonder and learning and the final ingredient in daring – experimenting, innovating and taking risks.
The Adult Literacy Services around the county are a little bit like baking a Warren Bennis cake – the six basic ingredients are evident and used daily by ALOs, DLEOS, tutors and learners. Each one shows leadership in different ways, at different times and in different contexts. In each centre they mix together to different degrees and produce some wonderful results. It is important to celebrate these results and reflect on ways to continue to achieve these great results together.
I extend warm wishes to you all at Christmas and for the New Year.

Intrinsic Motivation

Some of you were lucky enough to explore the concept of motivation while on Erasmus over the summer. Being self motivated is really important in the learning environment but sometimes even the most motivated of us need a help along. It can be all the more challenging when some learners are mandated to be in our environment, where traditionally we provided services to people who attended voluntarily.
However there are ways that you currently use to motivate students to learn, to participate and to share. You all have strategies that you developed over the years. We have all learned some of the best motivation lessons from very difficult situations.
This is a visual that I am sure you will all relate to. It is one that I came across yet again while browsing on line .  While developed primarily for working with younger students it has resonance and applicability in our adult literacy environment.
The visual outlines strategies to appeal to learners intrinsic motivators. These are the motivating factors that provide people with internal rewards. For example students can get great personal satisfaction when they read a full piece of text or a book or when they write a complete sentence.
In many ways it outlines some of the ways we work in Adult Literacy, how we remain student focussed, how we build trust, agreement and give students choices.


We read for different reasons.  I read for pleasure, I always have at least one book ‘on the go’ – it helps me enter into another time and space, to learn about different lives and cultures, different times in history, experience language and learn new words.  I read for information, for news, for work. I read.
The sheer enjoyment of reading a good story, of having the opportunity to share it or discuss it or simply privately enjoy the experience myself is actually a privilege.
The ‘simple’ act of reading, that so many of us take for granted, actually involves a number of skills. Dublin Adult Learning Centre identified these skills a number of years ago in their publication ’Starting Out: A Handbook for Volunteer Literacy Tutors’ as:

Being able to recognise and distinguish the sounds in words
Having the ability to match the sounds with letters
Recognising the words by their shape
Understanding word order
Predicting words from contextual clues
Expectation of letter order

All of these ‘decoding’ skills are important but equally important are the development of comprehension skills to make sense of it all. Being a critical reader is an important skill and we often need to remind ourselves that ‘a beginner reader is not a beginner thinker’. Students have opinions and experiences that when shared in class can make the experience of reading richer for all. There are of course different reading styles including skimming, scanning, proof reading, reading for information, critical reading that when you are a competent and confident reader you can take for granted.
There are many methodologies that you can use to help your student develop their skills and confidence reading. The language experience model is one that we advocate strongly in adult literacy. It is built on the student’s own language and vocabulary. It allows a partnership be built between tutor and student to develop reading materials. The text is then familiar to the student and helps them value their own words. Students are often amazed how they can create a piece of text and are often very proud of this achievement. The text, that they own, helps them develop familiarity with words that they can build on for writing activities.
You all use a variety of strategies to help build learners’ confidence with reading. You take into account student learning styles, you prepare resources appropriate to the style and level, you encourage discussion, use questioning, use phonics, use critical reading skills. More and more you are using technology such as tablets and the interactive whiteboards to help develop reading skills.  The Reading Challenge, which started with Elaine Clifford and Mary Concannon in the Killarney Centre is a great example of a way that reading skills, confidence and pride can be built. It is great to see this happening in other centres across the ETB.
It is worth reading the NALA publication ‘Read all about it again: action learning project with adult literacy tutors’, where the excellent work of Jane Savage and Elaine Clifford is documented.
For more information and ideas visit our ‘Read, Write and Spell’ section on the’ website.


I hope you all enjoyed the summertime this year. It is always good to take time to relax, unwind and try a different routine. You are all very welcome back.
Over the summer months I had time to read through some of the student evaluations from the 2015/16 academic year. They are very positive affirmations of your work. Many students note the friendly atmospheres you create, how you put them at ease and how helpful you are.  Many refer to ‘having a laugh’ and how they like that they help each other. Indeed, quite often the word ‘fun’ is used. Students report each year that they had fun while learning. It is very positive to hear this. We all know that adults learn best when they feel comfortable, safe and supported and in a fun environment.
One way to bring fun into the learning environment early on is with ice-breakers.  They are great ways to help students settle in, relax and build social skills. The right kind of ice-breaker for the right group will help students form friendships and alliances, allow them get to know each other and exhibit the variety of skills and knowledge that students already have before they embark on learning something new. It helps you create the learning environments that are productive and transformative for students.
As well as with new groups, icebreakers are a good way to help a group gel together after a change or to re-energise a group that is flagging a bit.
It is really important that you are very clear on the purpose for using the icebreaker – is it to help students get to know each other? Is it to help them develop empathy? Is it to help them develop an awareness and appreciation of difference? Or it is simply to help students to relax or find a safe way to participate?
A website that I find particularly useful is There is a huge number of ideas on this website and what I really like is that it links the practice to the theory e.g. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs or Johari Window.
Of course such icebreaker games are not for everybody and it is always best to use your professional judgement on which groups are best to use games with.

Personally I have found that People Bingo works well with a group that is getting to know each other and that needs to be re-energised as they must move around a room and talk to each other. I have made my own ‘Bingo’ cards with questions like ‘In this square write the name of the person who is left handed/ wearing blue/ plays a musical instrument. This is a great way to get to know people’s hidden talents. However a good level of literacy skills are needed for this game but it can be adapted using pictures. For more information on how to make a People Bingo card visit Best of luck in the coming term and academic year.