Monday, 16 November 2015

Connections-based Learning in Living Education eMagazine

This post by Sean Robinson was originally published on p.31 in: 2015 Fall Edition Living Education eMagazine (Vol. XIV)
2015 Fall Edition Living Education eMagazine (Vol. XIV)

We are all looking for something to base learning on. We see it in the contemporary educational titles: project-based learning, passion-based learning, competency-based learning, inquiry-based learning.  These titles may seem like buzz words but they are important; they set the tone for teacher conduct, curriculum foci, and student actions.  Should we base our learning on projects?  Passions?  Competencies?  Student inquiry?

Each of these educational titles is a way to guide the priorities of our pedagogy.  “Blank”-based learning methods, in particular, are an attempt to describe a learning process that is meaningful to students.  With project-based learning, genuine reality-based projects become the vehicle for learning. With passion-based learning, students’ passions are leveraged for learning.  In competency-based learning, learners focus on progressively mastering smaller elements of a greater learning objective.  And with inquiry-based learning, students form skills around developing great questions that can’t simply be “Googled”.

With all these methods of structuring learning, it begs the question: do we really need another ‘blank’-based learning? 

Ponder how these meaningful learning approaches include interpersonal connection.  In project-based learning, we see collaboration as an important element.  Students often work together as part of a group while completing projects.  Imagine how better the process might be if the focus of student activity includes fostering effective collaboration among team members, building relationships with community partners and topical experts, and sharing learning with the world.  It would take project-based learning to the next level.
We also see connection in passion-based learning.  An environment where students feel connected to one another provides the safety to reveal passions.  Is it possible to take this further? As student passions are discovered, embraced and leveraged during the school year, could groups with common passions work together with outside organizations to achieve common goals?
The mastery focus of competency-based learning requires a good teacher-student connection.  Understanding where students need to work is a key component.  Students who have mastered a certain concept shouldn’t be inundated with its lessons.  Students need to work on concepts that are tailored to their needs, not a one-size-fits-all shotgun approach.  Without a great teacher-student connection, these needs can go undiscovered.  Imagine the effect of a teacher focused on making a strong connection with each student and supporting students as they discover their own target zones for learning.
And connection is also found in the tenets of inquiry-based learning.  A sense of community and connection is crucial as students develop and share their genuine questions.  Could the students build a connection with others outside the school who are also working on finding the answers? Could students partner with those around the world who have the same concerns, the same wonderings, the same dreams?
The idea of connection is weaved throughout these four approaches and the many others that are popping up.  In some cases interpersonal connection is already a part of the process but could be developed further.  In other cases, adding a focus on connection changes the whole dynamic of the learning.  Could it be said that what underlies the meaningfulness of these approaches is the human connection?  Connecting with the teacher.  Connecting with the class.  Connecting with the community.  Connecting with experts.  Could there be a method of educating that is based on these connections?

What is Connections-based Learning?
Connections-based Learning is a not a new way of doing education.  It’s a new way of seeing education.  It celebrates the way connections are formed and leveraged through education.  It reminds us to seek ways of learning that facilitate the building of relationships.  It declares that significant learning requires a significant relationship.  Connections-based Learning makes it a priority to leverage interpersonal connection at each step of the learning process.  Whether it is the teacher-student connection, the connection with members of the class, school, and community, or the connection with experts in the field of study, thought is given to maximizing these relationships.
Teacher-student Connection
Fundamental to learning is the teacher-student relationship.  Good teacher-student connections help students learn.  It has been found to be true time and time again.  In her NYU Steinhardt article, “The Effects of Teacher-Student Relationships: Social and Academic Outcomes of Low-Income Middle and High School Students”, Emily Gallagher gives a plethora of studies that support this idea:
Aligned with attachment theory (Ainsworth, 1982; Bowlby, 1969), positive teacher-student relationships enable students to feel safe and secure in their learning environments and provide scaffolding for important social and academic skills (Baker et al., 2008; O’Connor, Dearing, & Collins, 2011; Silver, Measelle, Armstron, & Essex, 2005). Teachers who support students in the learning environment can positively impact their social and academic outcomes, which is important for the long-term trajectory of school and eventually employment (Baker et al., 2008; O’Connor et al., 2011; Silver et al., 2005). - Gallagher (2013)
While working with inner city schools, James Comer found that the strong social bonds that help students develop the proficiencies to learn were missing.  He created the School Development Program in 1968 to help schools recreate those social bonds.  It worked.  The students he worked with began to thrive.  Students flourish in a positive teacher-student relationship.  Asking questions, seeking to understand, treating students as individuals, and making time to build relationships are crucial to building that connection with a class. As James P. Comer says: "No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship".  Robinson, S. (2015)
Connections within the Class, School, and Community
But learning through connections doesn’t stop there.  Why does the student, who never writes more than a few sentences, write pages to the buddy or the pen-pal?  It is the human connection.  Why does the learning seem to become galvanized for the student who tutors another?  It is the human connection.  Why is the whole of a group working together greater than the sum of its parts.  Human connection.
Picture a class studying Aboriginal Education.  The class looks at culture, customs, and artwork.  They draw pictures. They hear stories.  And they never once talk to an aboriginal person.  That is a missed opportunity to get firsthand information, to build a relationship, to honour another.
Now picture a Home Economics class developing cooking skills.  The teacher has made a connection with a local homeless shelter and once a week, the students cook there.  Picture how that one connection will impact the students.  Picture how it might affect those at the shelter.  Connections add meaning and they provide opportunities to make a difference.
Connections with Experts
As Lee Crocket, Ian Jukes, and Andrew Churches state in Literacy is not enough: 21st-century fluencies for the digital age:
Electronic technology in wired, and wireless communications has quite literally meant the death of distance.  There has never been a time in which distance has meant less than it does today.  Students learning about civil war could be talking directly with kids in Serbia or Afghanistan.  Kids trying to understand the impact of oil spills could talk with students in Louisiana, Mississippi, or Florida.  Students want to understand the impact of natural disasters such as earthquakes or tsunamis could talk to students in Japan or New Zealand. – Crockett, L. (2011) p. 69
Learning in the 21st Century must take advantage of the connected world we live in.  We are no longer confined to study other countries from afar.  They are only an email, text, tweet, Skype-chat, Google Hangout away.  And whether it is space, politics, animal behavior, or dinosaurs, there are numerous experts to contact.  All the students need to do is ask; they might be surprised who responds.
Human connection leads to well-being.  In Kelly McGonigal’s TEDtalk on "How to make stress your friend", she states:
And the cool thing is that all of these physical benefits of oxytocin are enhanced by social contact and social support. So when you reach out to others under stress, either to seek support or to help someone else, you release more of this hormone, your stress response becomes healthier, and you actually recover faster from stress. I find this amazing, that your stress response has a built-in mechanism for stress resilience, and that mechanism is human connection. – McGonigal, K. (2013)
If we were to base our teaching on anything, I believe it should be developing connections.  The classroom becomes a thriving environment of learning.  We make local or global contributions that can in turn teach others.  We become healthier people.  With a focus on developing relationships, there is no need to teach good citizenship.  As they work on these connections, students are being good citizens.
Connections are accessible to all.  Anyone can get an email address.  Anyone can ask a question.  As I have been having my students make connections, I have found the reception to be excellent.  Researchers, academics, agency leaders have responded to a simple question: “Could you help us learn?”  And what a difference it makes when students are asking real people questions.  They are engaged.  They bring their best.  They feel important.  They become part of a global process to advance understanding.  And they learn.

Crockett, L., Jukes, I., & Churches, A. (2011). Literacy is not enough: 21st-century fluencies for the digital age. Kelowna, B.C.: 21st Century Fluency Project.

Gallagher, Emily. (2013). "The Effects of Teacher-Student Relationships: Social and Academic Outcomes of Low-Income Middle and High School Students" Applied Psychology Opus. Fall issue. Accessed July 2, 2015 on the World Wide Web:

McGonigal, K. (2013). Transcript of "How to make stress your friend" Retrieved July 27, 2015 from TED IDEAS WORTH SPREADING on the World Wide Web:

Robinson, S. (2015). “What Relationships do for Learning” Retrieved August 28, 2015 from ON THE SIDE OF TECHNOLOGY on the World Wide Web:

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