Want Your Students to Learn? Build a Positive Relationship With Them.

I’ve always been keenly interested in building relationships.  It’s what drives me in almost every arena of my life, and looking back over the years, always has.  Because of this, I found that relationship was always at the heart of my career in education.  As a teacher, I made it my mission to find ways to connect with students and build a positive relationship.  I didn’t have any data to back it up, but it seemed indispensable to fostering intrinsic motivation in my students.  If they liked me and knew I cared about them more than my subject, my paycheck, or my peace and quiet, I reasoned, they would want me to be proud of them, they would trust me to be there for them, and they would be more likely to give it a go in my classes.  All in all, I observed this to be true.  Students seemed to do better when we built good relationships.

As I moved into administration, I took this belief with me and searched out ways to promote this in my schools and throughout the faculty.  In hiring, I always search out educators who demonstrate a sincere love for kids more than a love for whatever academic area they teach.  My mantra is that we can teach you better pedagogy or improved unit planning procedures etc, but if you don’t genuinely have that love for kids, I probably won’t change that – it’s who you are.  Here again, I would say my experience bears this out to be true.  The teachers who come at education from a place of genuine concern for kids, and have that burning desire to build relationships and make a difference in the lives of their students, tend to be the most successful in guiding kids in academic growth.  But that’s just my experience.

Here’s the thing though.  Brain research now backs this hunch up with research based findings.  It turns out our brains really do learn best in the context of positive, relationships that attend to and support our students’ emotional health.  In their study, We Feel, Therefore We Learn: The Relevance of Affective and Social Neuroscience to Education,  Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and Antonio Damasio assert:

Recent advances in the neuroscience of emotions are highlighting connections between cognitive and emotional functions that have the potential to revolutionize our understanding of learning in the context of schools.  

…In teaching children, the focus is often on the logical reasoning skills and factual knowledge that are the most direct indicators of educational success. But there are two problems with this approach. First, neither learning nor recall happen in a purely rational domain, divorced from emotion, even though some of our knowledge will eventually distill into a moderately rational, unemotional form. Second, in teaching students to minimize the emotional aspects of their academic curriculum and function as much as possible in the rational domain, educators may be encouraging students to develop the sorts of knowledge that inherently do not transfer well to real-world situations.

As teachers, with ever increasing pressure to deliver measureable academic results, I think we can become hyper-focused on the cognitive side of our profession, pushing for higher and higher levels of academic performance and content mastery from our students.  While this is not an incorrect goal for our students, we need to remember that we will be most successful in reaching it if we also attend to the social, emotional, and cultural needs of our students.  This, I contend, is nearly impossible outside of attending to the building of real, healthy interpersonal relationships with our students, and guiding them in developing real, healthy relationships with their peers.  Immordino-Yang and Damasio conclude their paper writing:

After all, we humans cannot divorce ourselves from our biology, nor can we ignore the high-level sociocultural and cognitive forces that make us special within the animal kingdom. When we educators fail to appreciate the importance of students ’ emotions, we fail to appreciate a critical force in students ’ learning. One could argue, in fact, that we fail to appreciate the very reason that students learn at all.

 

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