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How do we ensure our youngest learners stay engaged and maintain important relationships with their peers and teachers?

My contribution focuses on navigating authentic relationships with young children whose well being depends on human connection.

Photo of Susan Johnston
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I am a.....

  • I am a retired early childhood specialist, PD consultant, & public school teacher and administrator.

Tell us about your idea

When we put relationships first, everything else changes.  This is not a new idea (Vygotsky's et. al. developmental theories are found in most progressive views of education) but becomes a much greater challenge in an environment that puts distance between children’s peers and teachers.  Online group meetings and traditional lessons tend to put relationships in the background.  My proposal would include one-to-one conversations with children and their parents to understand the child’s life including their personal passions and interests.  Using that knowledge teachers would design curriculum with open parameters for children to read, write and talk about the things that interest them most.  The reading and writing that children and families already do together would be integrated into the school curriculum creating more time and fewer layers for families to navigate.  Teachers would be working with individuals and very small groups of children who are like minded and working on similar projects.  This idea requires us to abandon the adult constructs of school that limit choice and freedom, both of which lead to stronger engagement. When you approach learning with a student-centered stance, the relationship has to be strong. The teacher is doing more listening, more coaching and working to connect the child to the required curriculum rather than forcing the child to connect with pre-conceived lessons worksheets and random assignments.   A quote from the attached article:

“While maintaining the formal relationship between students and teachers, teaching through relationships, when done well, recognizes the human stories of the learners themselves (they are not blank slates), as well as that of the teacher. It is an approach that embraces our complex identities, biographies, and the stories we bring that serve to humanize the subjects we teach.”

 


What part(s) of the pre-COVID school system do you wish to leave in the past? Why?

National and state assessments, worksheets, fragmented curriculum, isolation of families from the learning process, rote lesson design, pressure on teachers to create new lesson plans every day rather than blocks of time and support for high interest, connected learning opportunities. Traditional professional development driven by publishers of curriculum materials would be replaced strategies for engagement. All of these things take time away from having real relationships with children and families.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and what inspired you to share this idea.

My educational career spans 35 years as a teacher, administrator and consultant.  I finished my career at the Buffett Early Institute under the executive leadership of Dr. Samuel Meisels who has been an inspiration in the field for decades. As a retired educator I have currently been watching my young grand children going through worthless activities each day since COVID began that have no connection to their lives.  It’s excruciating and unnecessary.   The ONLY thing that matters is making human connection as authentic as possible. It has always been crucial and is even more so now.

What region are you located in?

  • North America

Where are you located?

I live in Nyack, New York located about 20 minutes from NYC.

3 comments

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Spam
Photo of Peter Worth
Team

Thank you for your idea submission, Susan Johnston . Your quote, "The ONLY thing that matters is making human connection as authentic as possible. It has always been crucial and is even more so now," is very powerful. I wonder how that might be implemented as a design principle across remote learning platforms. Thank you!

Spam
Photo of Susan Johnston
Team

Thank you, Peter. First, I am focused on our youngest learners...PreK-Age 8, however this principle applies to all ages. Teaching through relationships has at its foundation the notion that when you know more about your students you are better able to teach them. The most fundamental design principle is to slow down, take time to know your students individually- what they love, what they don’t, how they spend their time and what they want to learn. Considered a progressive approach, the idea has been around for a very long time and over my career I observed that certain teachers just ‘know’ how to put the relationship first, while others struggle with the difference between teaching through the relationship and fraternizing. I have come to believe that the teachers who just ‘know’ are not magical or special, they simply are not afraid to slow down and spend time talking with children about their passions. They view that as a fundamental part of teaching rather than a waste of time. They are comfortable with knowing their children.

So how does that look as a design principle? One might view it as a continuum. At the beginning of the process are individual conversations with students—simply getting to know them. On a more complex level the teacher is to be able to use that information to engage children more deeply using his or her interests to fill the content void that often exists in thinly designed, skill-oriented curriculum. Skills are learned better when they are used for a purpose, and that purpose should connect to the child and who they are. I have seen too many teachers robotically deliver rote skill lessons with absolutely no awareness of how their children are feeling or responding. It’s painful to watch. Yet, when skills are taught in the context something interesting to the child, engagement skyrockets.

This idea requires us to abandon the adult constructs of school that limit choice and freedom, both of which lead to stronger engagement. When you approach learning with a student-centered stance, the relationship has to be strong. The teacher is doing more listening, more coaching and working to connect the child to the required curriculum rather than forcing the child to connect with pre-conceived lessons worksheets and random assignments. What if teachers were to ask children what they wonder about within a unit of study? Those questions would be organized so that individuals or small groups of like-minded students could do investigations. Within the investigation, children would ask questions, and the teacher would recommend books, links to videos, pose probing questions, and help children find ways to represent their learning through writing, drawing, presenting, etc. Teachers would meet weekly (minimum) with individuals or small groups to talk about what they are learning, to chart their findings and share products. Teachers would still work with children on skills-- writing, reading, math, but would attempt to tie it meaningfully to the investigations. Often these investigations stem from the disciplines of social studies and science and the representations of the learning emerge from the language processes and the arts. It’s all real, unique and engaging.

Further, the learning will take on a stronger connection to the family and home environment as the child is allowed to be themselves in both school and home environments. Imagine reading a book at bedtime that is part of a school investigation? Quite a concept.

From a design standpoint, there are templates that could be used to guide the investigations, standard methods of assessment, and platforms to share resources and products. So, truthfully, I'm not a designer but could provide more specific materials and curriculum design options using themes, projects and investigations.

I am adding this article to my research section. The author does a good job of describing teaching through relationships. A quote from the article.

“While maintaining the formal relationship between students and teachers, teaching through relationships, when done well, recognizes the human stories of the learners themselves (they are not blank slates), as well as that of the teacher. It is an approach that embraces our complex identities, biographies, and the stories we bring that serve to humanize the subjects we teach.”


https://www.edutopia.org/blog/importance-teaching-through-relationships-stacey-goodman

Would love to hear your thoughts. I have not formed this fully as a design principle for remote learning but I fear if we miss the opportunity we will be even further removed from those precious children in our care.

Spam
Photo of Peter Worth
Team

Thank you, Susan, for your response. This really helps to highlight the overlap between human-centered design and progressive education. Both require listening, deep empathy and understanding of the user or student. We see this in the emphasis on advisory or crew in school networks like EL Education and High Tech High.

Perhaps one consideration for designers of remote learning programs would be something along the lines of, any experience should support or encourage the development of the learners' relationships (with the facilitator/teacher or other learners). Or it might lead to a question of, how will doing this activity help me know my student (or my teacher) better? Again, thank you!