Improving Schools: Relationships, Personalization, Learning
Repeated refrains of the 2013 ASCD Whole Child Virtual Conference, held just two weeks ago, were the importance to form relationships with students, develop a personalized approach to teaching, and enhance learning. These concepts are all around us in education today:
"Kids don't learn from people they don't like."
—Rita Pierson, who has been teaching for 40 years, during her TED Talk, "Every Kid Needs a Champion"
"We work WITH the kids. We're all in this together."
—Mark Pinder, principal of Oregon's Milwaukie High School, the winning school of the 2013 Vision in Action: The ASCD Whole Child Award
"A good school helps everyone discover their talents."
—Pasi Sahlberg, director general of the Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation, Helsinki, Finland
"Human beings are naturally different and diverse ... [however] education under No Child Left Behind is based not on diversity but conformity."
—Sir Ken Robinson during his TED Talk, "How to Escape Education's Death Valley"
"The hallmark of this brave new Information Age is the interconnectedness of everything: ideas, information, and people. Relationships are key. It's no longer what you know or how much you know, it's who you know and how to connect with them."
—ASCD's Walter McKenzie, in his blog post, "Connected Community"
It's not a surprise; people learn by assembling pieces of information and adding them together to form understanding. For a new piece of information to be understood, it must be linked to something we already know and the most effective teaching introduces skills, concepts, and information in the context of the learners. Context helps people link information to prior understanding.
It's exactly why a scripted curriculum or a standardized process is at loggerheads with effective pedagogy.
Effective pedagogy screams that context must be taken into account around not only what we teach, but how we teach. Yet policies that demand greater standardization without allowing teachers the freedom to contextualize and personalize learning are doing learning (and students) a disservice.
Is it any coincidence that Finland allows its teachers some of the greatest degree of autonomy of many OECD countries? Is it also a coincidence that many of the world's leading education reformers are saying the same thing?
"This 'fourth' way of educational reform heralds the next stage for educational improvement—a movement which reverts educational authority back from centralized bureaucracies to educators and communities, diversifies skills and content taught to suit each community and context, and is driven by the inspiring and also basic belief that there are skills and aptitudes that are just as critical as content knowledge."
—Andy Hargeaves and Pasi Sahlberg in their blog post "Where Are We Going and Why?"
Now maybe Rita Pierson is being a little too simplistic in stating, "Kids don't learn from people they don't like," but the premise is correct. Teachers need to know their students, their environment, their likes and dislikes, their interests, and their issues. Being liked by students is a bonus: what is key is knowing your students well enough so you can craft the teaching. And in this environment, the skill of the teacher comes to the fore. Teaching is not—as too many of our policymakers seem to think—merely about transferring content knowledge, filling an empty vessel with the bits of information needed. The skill of teaching is knowing your students and adapting your teaching to best meet their needs. It is done by introducing new information that is linked to prior information, scaffolded by students' experiences and environment, and contextually relevant.
How do teachers plan for this? They form relationships with their students, develop a personalized approach to teaching, and enhance learning. That's the skill of teaching.