Building Capacity in Lead Learners: Part II

Relationship, Collaboration, and Community

Image Courtesy of Pixabay CCO

For most of you, part one wasn’t much of a revelation. In fact, it is likely that some portion of what I put forward was part of your own professional formation.

How many times though, have you felt that exceptional practice was akin to the photo above? At times, you are the lighthouse, showing the way for others to follow, but isolated and exposed in your practice. At times, you are the ship at sea, heading towards shore but somewhat lost and needing support and guidance. You want to emulate the practices, but you can’t seem to find the way. I would argue that the architecture, cultures, curriculum, pedagogy, and accountability measures current in the education world have built walls (or created oceans!) that have separated and segregated learners. Matthew R. Morris gestures to this isolation in his latest post:

Good pedagogy is built on knowledge of learning/knowledge of self surely, but it is also, I would suggest, founded on our knowing others and our ability to build connections to strengthen and deepen that knowing. As a lead learner it is crucial to be able to build relationships and knowledge about the children we work with, with our colleagues, administration, and support staff, and with parents and the larger community/world.

In my experience working with those who are studying to become teachers I have noticed that they often hide behind the curriculum and their advanced knowledge — in relative comparison to the learners they are working with. I don’t think this is strange give the current culture and the pressure put on student teachers to be ‘successful’. Building relationships is hard and it takes time. It is much easier to use a proven resource, lesson format, or task to get to point B for those starting out. And certainly, since their immediate goal is a passing grade, this makes sense (although it opens up a whole other topic that needs examination — for an idea of where my head is on this topic you might look at an article by Arthur Chiaravalli).

My concern is, that for many of these potential new lead learners, they never get out from behind the curriculum. It becomes their shield as well as their first point of reference when working with younger learners. This dynamic is anathema to good pedagogy.

Learning is about a series of skills, about mindset, and about core competencies — all true, I believe — but these things mean nothing without the context of other people. By extension, I am suggesting that an educational system that only envisions these three things is essentially teaching learning out of context. And as the research has repeatedly shown us, learning content and concepts out of context results in shallow learning. We reduce the impact, effectiveness, and we drastically limit the number of students we reach when we don’t take people and relationships into account.

For that reason, it is my belief that building relationships should be a significant portion of any lead learner formation. Like my take on learning about learning, I think that this element is also about reflection and self-knowledge, but let’s start with the obvious: Why would you build connections with the children you work with — and how do you go about learning how to do it?

Knowing our learners is important for many reasons. Engagement, for example, is what happens when our teaching choices build on learner interest, context, experiences, and choice. We can only engage students when we understand these elements and incorporate them intentionally into our planning. Knowledge of our learners at this level also makes it much easier to recognize patterns and groupings of experience and interest, which allows us to build independent and/or collaborative opportunities for them.

Risk-taking is also directly connected to relationships. I don’t think I have ever read a set of report cards where every teacher did not at some point comment on the learner’s willingness to take risks in the classroom, and to encourage them to take more! However, where there is no relationship, there is no risk-taking. It may be incredibly obvious to say, but trust is part of what is built in any healthy relationship, and trust is the foundation that makes risk possible.

Connected to risk-taking is the idea of advocacy, of students feeling like they have a say in their learning, and that they have the green light to share what they need, and what isn’t working, with the lead learners they are with. It is also critical that this advocacy matters — can have tangible effect for learners. Again, when we know our learners and when they trust us, we start with the belief on both sides that positive things will come out of such an interaction.

I often work with students in conflict with one another. Sometimes there is a catastrophic event that precipitates the conflict, but not often. Almost always, the conflict is caused by either a miscommunication or a lack of communication, and is exacerbated by a poor relationship between the students. I always remind students that when we have an unhealthy relationship with someone it drastically alters what and how we perceive things. When we do not have a good relationship, we tend to interpret their words and actions in the least favourable way. The reverse would be true when a relationship is healthy and strong. When a relationship is gone or non-existent, the potential for conflict is much, much higher, and it tends to escalate much quicker.

Now imagine a classroom setting where there isn’t a healthy relationship between learners. The lack of trust leads to mistrust and destructive introspection about the motives of others. Risk-taking disappears. Advocacy is seen as insubordination. Engagement is replaced with compliance.

Collaboration, or relationships with other lead learners, peers, administration, and support staff is another part of this dynamic. I would also quickly add that this kind of relationship is also important with our children — we should be equal partners in our journeys, happy and willing to allow them to lead. I don’t believe I have ever met a child who didn’t know more about something or another than I did, and we should always maintain the humility to accept this truth.

As part of a new school build, a build that was meant to combine 3 school communities into one, and do so in a building that looked nothing like a traditional school, I discovered that the most valuable skills and understandings to have were around collaboration. However, there was a huge disconnect between what people thought collaboration was, and what it could or should look like in a school setting. The adults believed that collaboration meant sharing resources, teaming up for special lessons and projects, helping each other, and being supportive. What we learned is that true collaboration is really about sharing a vision and working selflessly towards it. It is about seeing all learners as yours as opposed to individual classes/cohorts. It is about sharing practice, inviting people in and being willing to learn from others. It is about letting go of things (ownership of space and resources) and about embracing people. It is about having hard conversations in the pursuit of the best for all students, and being willing to follow and lead as necessary. I don’t think any of us was, at the start of that journey, close to a practice and pedagogy consistent with the second definition, but we worked at it. I personally felt that it was an effort to shed the assumptions and expectations that had accrued like a shell around my practice, and I know I wasn’t alone. To be honest, some couldn’t accept a different definition of collaboration and opted out. In order to avoid the cliques that Matthew mentions in his article, I think we need to start our formation with this richer definition of collaboration and build in some capacity in our new lead learners to grow in this direction. Otherwise, we get groups of like-minded individuals who simply reinforce each other’s practice and habits — hardening their shells so to speak — rather than pushing them to continue to learn and grow.

Community is the next and logical extension of this discussion about the ‘why’ of relationships. We all recognize (I think) as educators that we don’t know it all — can’t know it all — and that learning is something that requires the support and involvement of parents, outside agencies, and the larger community. Having a network of relationships strengthens our practice by increasing the variety and depth of what we can offer to our learners. It also allows us to word in concert with the goal of learner development, betterment, and achievement. When these relationships are poor or adversarial it is stressful for both the child and the lead learner and usually leads to confusion, duplication, or outright resistance.

In my current role as a principal in the system, I am often called on to get parents to agree to something that the staff believe is in the best interest of the child. In almost every case, the staff are correct, and have the best intentions in mind. However, if the time and effort is not put into building connections with parents and support agencies, the messaging received is that the parents are somehow not doing their jobs or that the child is in some way deficient. The conversation should never reach this point; parents are partners not obstacles. I am not for a moment suggesting that there are not situations where parental resistance or the apparent inaction (or action!) of a support agency disrupts what the school is trying to do despite a great deal of effort to work with them on the school’s part — this happens and it is frustrating.

However, it happens much less when we begin from the same place — the place of wanting to do what is best for the child, without judgement, and when we have spent the time to get to know both the parents and the child well, and when we understand the role and perspectives of the support agencies. When we do this consistently, we build trust, and our point of view is heard without suspicion of ulterior motives.

Communities are big places, and it isn’t just parents and support agencies who teachers need to be able to connect with. Government officials, university professors, electricians, retail stores, graphic designers, retired persons — I could go on ad infinitum — all add to our communities in meaningful ways and all can have a role in what happens in our schools. When lead learners can tap into the collective skills of the larger world, they become more effective in what they do for children because they are connecting content and its application. They contextualize learning, making it stickier and more transferable.

So, if it is true that building relationships is an important part of effective pedagogy, how do we create this capacity in our candidates?

This is a more difficult question, I think, than what to do to learn about learning, and so my suggestions are certainly likely to cause more debate — and that’s OK!

I recently read an article on Medium by Shane Parrish about relationships and how to get better at them. You can find it here:

There was lots of good stuff in it, but one particular section stuck out for me.

“ Marrying with the intention of changing the other person is insane. Better to marry right with the intention to change yourself. Learn to be a better partner and create a better environment for the relationship to succeed.”

Doesn’t this speak to what we are saying about learning and teaching? Isn’t becoming a teacher with the idea that you will remain the same and that you will change your students — isn’t that a recipe for disaster? Isn’t that how we get lead learners who feel that they have all the answers, who know the best way to teach, who refuse to change? Wouldn’t it be better to go into a learning space with the goal of being a ‘better partner’ and creating ‘a better environment for the relationship to succeed’?

One element I took from Shane is that I think that a curriculum for relationships would incorporate elements from a variety of disciplines. It would be valuable to read Hamlet or Machiavelli as seen through the eyes of a lead learner looking at someone in their class. The same could be said for studying the Oscar nominated movie Life, Animated. You could also learn much from young adult titles like The Maze Runner. You could also pull from biology, sociology, anthropology, and philosophy. The options are nearly endless, and while there would likely be some anchor texts/resources, this part of the program (like the others!) should be flexible and responsive to the needs of the learners. More than just texts to study, these resources become the source of discussion and the focus for inquiry within the classroom and should extend to the practicum placements that follow. Yes, I am saying that we should assess lead learners in training on their ability to build relationships.

This is where the knowledge of self comes in. It is pretty difficult to know what your next step is when you don’t know where you are standing! I have been a part of many, many personal inventories, emotional intelligence quizzes, and other reflective activities over the years. I don’t propose to know the best of them, but certainly I can see the benefit of doing this kind of work up front to help guide a learner down this pathway. Even the relatively simple work of articulating the things we are most passionate and curious about is a valuable part of this kind of work. We tend to be the best at leading learning when we are engaged with topics and in ways that we are excited about. This authenticity helps to build trust and generate interest with the children we work with. Many people, though, don’t spend a great deal of time considering what these things are and how they influence their lives and learning. Sir Ken Robinson is perhaps the best educational thinker in this area, and if you haven’t seen one of his Ted Talks (hard to believe anyone hasn’t) you should:

There is a great deal of finesse required to be skilled at building relationships within an educational context, as well as a great deal of danger for young lead learners in particular. Usually, the first significant challenge that a teacher will face is the difficulty that follows when the teacher has gotten the balance between mentor and peer wrong in the classroom. This usually arises from a desire to be liked by students, and leads to issues with both the kids and parents. Understanding what a healthy educational relationship looks like, why it is important, and how to maintain them properly would be a great benefit to new teachers and would greatly improve pedagogy. Currently, other than stern warnings about professional boundaries and rules about email and Facebook, we do almost nothing to prepare our young teachers for this part of the profession, and we do them a great disservice by doing so.

Finally, I would like to add a thought about the role of technology in all of this. From my perspective and in my experience it is hard to deny that the rise of smartphones and social networks has resulted in the creation of an almost global reduction in the ability of learners to build relationships face-to-face. Communication without presence or relationship is more likely to lead to misunderstanding and conflict, which makes it harder to build tangible relationships, and drives people to seek communities of like-minded individuals in virtual spaces. As this cycle repeats itself, we see people become less able to communicate, to deal with conflict, to bridge differences, to compromise and collaborate.

This problem is not technology’s fault, but is rather the result of our own misuse and unwillingness to engage in the messiness of person-to-person contact. This is a challenge that schools are uniquely positioned to respond to, but that requires that those in lead learner positions be equipped and skilled at establishing relationships. We are all of us in education called, I think to re-imagine what we want education to be able to achieve or build in our youth. The stakes are very high — as we become more sophisticated, we create ever more sophisticated problems. Who will be able to solve them? And, how will we prepare them for this work?

I could not finish without mentioning Graham Brown-Martin whose work in this area I find a constant reminder that we must do better. Much of what I write seems to find its start in ideas that Graham proposes.

It is my hope that my work starts a conversation. As always, I am happy to respond to questions, and to learn from you. In part 3, I will talk about the importance of tasks and assessment.