Teach to Heal: Start by Finding Out What They Already Know

Teach to Heal: Find Out Know image

Once we’ve built a safe classroom and trusting relationship with trauma-impacted adult learners, how do we help them build a path from limiting beliefs and behaviors to ones that better support achieving their personal or professional goals?

Use your secure teacher-student relationship to elicit limiting learner beliefs.

The next step is to harness your secure student-teacher relationship to strategically elicit and then challenge limiting learner beliefs. Resnicow & McMaster (2012) describe this as a shift in teaching tasks from “comforting the afflicted to afflicting the comfortable,” (p.4) an often scary but generally important step in transformative learning.

But how do we move to eliciting and exploring limiting beliefs as stage setting for considering more useful alternatives in a way that preserves safety and security for the trauma-impacted adult learner? To do this we need to understand how learning happens and then use teaching strategies that map onto this natural process.

Learning happens as a result of changes-of-body-states or COBS.

The way our brains learn is that we have experiences with the environment that initiate changes in our body states and these “changes-of-body-states (COBS)” (Sheckley & Bell, 2006, p.43) result in the formation of new neural connections in our brains.

Sheckley & Bell (2006) note that the more frequently we have a particular COBS experience around a topic and the more vivid it is, the greater the likelihood that the brain will form a lasting connection related to that experience. This concept is illustrated by the sticky phrase, What fires together wires together. Together, the changes-of-body-states (COBS) form our experiences, which then form our consciousness, which influences our reasoning and problem-solving (Sheckley & Bell, 2006).

Start with awakening and eliciting COBS to find out what they already know.

To work with the way the brain creates new learning we need to start by connecting with, awakening, and eliciting our students’ COBS experiences related to the outcome of our class or training. It is important to understand that COBS are made up of our current and prior experiences with a topic, feelings we’ve had about those experiences, nuances of taste, touch and smell related to the topic, reactions we’ve had in the past, tacit (preconscious know-how about the topic) and imagined future experiences with the topic (Sheckley & Bell, 2006). The brain integrates all these components into a coherent narrative becoming what the learner knows and believes about the topic.

We start by finding out what students know and believe about our topic or outcome for a couple of reasons. First, eliciting what they already know helps us start at the right place, build upon their strengths, lived experience and current understanding, and sets us up for the next step which is to facilitate learners in addressing limiting beliefs and behaviors that are barriers to further growth.

The second reason we start by eliciting existing attitudes, beliefs and knowledge is that having learners do this is the first step in chronicling their learning experience. Research has shown that learners who create a record articulating their learning over time outperform students who do not capture their process of growth and development (LeGrow, Sheckley & Kehrhahn, 2002 as cited in Sheckley & Bell, 2006).

Eliciting COBS experiences happens through Gain Buy-In and Elicit Mental Models activities.

As I review some combined Gain Buy-In and Elicit Mental Models examples from curricula and training I’ve designed and delivered, I can identify the ways in which these activities stimulate and elicit students’ current, past and imagined future experiences around the topic, the nuances of their sensory memories, along with their tacit know-how about the topic (their COBS). Following are a couple of examples of COBS eliciting activities I’ve designed and used with success.

Elicit COBS experiences with the Destination Adulthood activity.

In a parenting class for incarcerated moms and dads, (many of whom did not have successful educational experiences and most of whom have varying levels of trauma impact), I open the 12-week session with a no-fail overview of what it means to intentionally parent one’s children. I create a wall-sized picture metaphor that likens parenting to a long road trip. As I tell the story, I attach the pieces of the picture to the wall (much like a felt board story) and ask parents to respond to no-fail prompts. I ask them to identify Destination Adulthood by listing what they want for their children once they are grown – one idea per sticky note, along with their initials. Each parent creates and shares a list of sticky note hopes and dreams with the class as they hang their list on the wall under the mortarboard titled Destination Adulthood.

Next I provide demonstrations using blocks, silly putty, and a flexible, linked chain representing three kinds of parenting: putty, brick and backbone parenting and ask them which style of parenting would help them help their children reach the Destination Adulthood they described in their sticky notes posted below the mortarboard. Most select backbone parenting so I then I post the backbone-parenting highway.

PIO metaphor image

Then I give each parent a car cutout for each of their children and ask them to write their child’s name, age and a positive characteristic of that child. They hang their cars (representing their children) up on the highway in family clusters, sharing aloud with the class about their children.

Next I give each parent a cut out of a service station attendant and ask them to write their name and all the ways they “fill up” their kids to help them make the journey to the desired destination. They do so and hang that up next to their family car cluster, again sharing aloud with their classmates.

From here we go on to put up signs and guard rails to detail the course content around child guidance and family leadership over the remaining weeks and to provide a graphic organizer/syllabus/big picture view of where we are going and what they’ll be doing in the course.

If we unpack this activity, we can see the ways in which each part of it elicits the parenting story or the parenting COBS experiences of our learners. We've elicited what they already know, value and assume about what children need (how they’ve defined Destination Adulthood) and the nuances and tacit knowledge around what being a good parent looks, sounds and feels like (filling in their gas station attendants with what they do to “fill up” their kids for the journey). We have also elicited the past, present and imagined future of their parenting story. So, in a welcoming, engaging and fun activity where they can’t get any of the answers wrong, we’ve primed the pump for learning by calling forth what learners already know and what they think is important. As the teacher I've learned a great deal about where my students are to start, and it is all written down and tagged with students’ initials for future reference. This picture metaphor lives on the wall for the 12 weeks of the parenting course. It is the starting place for chronicling their learning journey.

Elicit COBS experiences with the 3 Training Horror Stories activity.

In another example, I open a presentation skills training for subject-matter-experts-turned trainers by sharing three true training horror stories that have happened to me. I tell the stories right up to their cliffhangers. In other words, I don’t share what I did to respond to the situations in the stories (I save that for later, sharing the story endings as examples of classroom management strategies I teach in the training). Instead, I stop and ask – who can relate? Next I invite them to set a learning goal for the day around a training terror they’ve experienced for which they’d like to create a better ending. After giving them time to reflect and write I ask for a sampling of goals from the audience.

This usually results in folks sharing and commiserating around their training challenges. Several important things happen with this combined Gain Buy-In and Elicit Mental Models activity. Adult students share their narrative around classroom management, I have a feel for their assumptions and values around how they see themselves, their learners and their role as classroom managers, and I gain an understanding of what types of challenges are still a struggle for them. They also record their starting place on a learning goals handout. They will use this handout at the end to reflect on any changes in their knowledge, attitudes and beliefs surrounding their learning goal challenge, thereby chronicling their learning journey throughout the presentation skills training.

Finding out what learners already know is your starting place for new learning.

When we start with learners’ experience and elicit and invite what they already know, we are able to use their COBS experiences as “Velcro strips onto which new concepts or ideas can adhere” (Sheckley & Bell, 2006, p.47). When I coach clients in instructional design or lead design and presentation skills workshops I typically describe this process using a metaphor of a very organized clothing closet. Let’s say in your closet you have the pants hanging together, then your shirts or blouses, and finally your blazers or suit coats. Within each category you have hung things by color family. If we are going to talk about blue blazers today, I have you find and describe the blue blazers you already have in your closet, when you wear them, what you wear with them and wear you hang them. This helps you review the criteria for “blazers” and find and create some space in that part of your closet to hang the new blue blazer you will get today.

By eliciting learners’ prior COBS experiences, you have helped them remember what they already know, you’ve prepared a place in their brains to attach the learning to come, and you have a beginning sense of their values and assumptions based on their past, present and future imagined experiences with the topic. If you’ve had them write it all down, you’ve taken the first step in preparing them to examine their assumptions and experiences and to chronicle their journey of constructing more complex and nuanced COBS, enriching their knowledge related to the learning outcome.

Next time – help learners examine the values, assumptions and beliefs living within their COBS experiences and the impact of those on their lives and goals. 

Please join the conversation and share in the comments section below what you've done to elicit what your students already know about your topic and why this step has been important in their learning. 


Resnicow, K. & McMaster, F. (2012). Motivational interviewing: Moving from why to howInternational Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity 9:19.

Sheckley, B. G., & Bell,S. (2006). Experience, consciousness, and learning: Implications for instruction. In S. Johnson & K. Taylor (Eds.), New directions for adult and continuing education: The neuroscience of adult learning (Summer ed., Vol. 110, pp. 53-61). San Francisco: Wiley Periodicals, Inc.