Relationships are key to learning and equity. This has been one of the most frequently discussed themes of the past few days.
I feel like most people know and understand this on an implicit level. Personally, when I think of my high school experience and when people would ask me what my favorite part about my school was, I’d almost always first say something about the relationships I had with my teachers. I asked some of my peers today, who are also alums from my high school, “What are the top 3 things you liked most about high school?” and they also all said something about relationships as number 1. (And this is three years after graduating high school – the relationships are still what sticks with us.) Granted this was a small sample size, but I was just curious, so I texted a few people I knew I could get quick responses from. This little mini survey confirmed my hypothesis that as learners we definitely value relationships, but what has really intrigued me the last few days is learning about how relationships aren’t just valuable because we like them, there is actually ample scientific research that states strong positive relationships are critical to the learning process and to creating equity in education.
Equity is about every learner getting the resources to meet their specific needs. It’s important to distinguish that “equity” is different from “equality.” Equality is where every learner is given the same resources despite their individual needs. Our closing keynote speaker, Dr. Pedro Noguera, discussed how bullying, sleep deprivation, depression, and suicide are all examples of equity issues. These issues also bring us back to the topic of mental health and the need to educate the whole child which I discussed briefly night 1 of the conference as it has been another major trend of the week. Furthermore, these are issues that often are ignored in schools especially if students are making good grades in spite of these additional challenges in their lives. And the crazy thing is that we have the tools to combat these issues – people that care.
The prefrontal cortex, amygdala, and hippocampus are some of the primary parts of the brain involved with learning and development. What I learned this week from Dr. Pamela Cantor with Turnaround for Children is that these parts of our brain are affected by two main hormones: cortisol and oxytocin. The former is the hormone associated with stress and the former is released due to trust and love. It turns out that oxytocin, the trust and love hormone, is actually the stronger of the two hormones and can even help protect against future stress. Therefore, these relationships we all value so much because we feel good having them – true relationships that are built on trust and consistent interaction/support – also help our brains stay healthy and create positive neural connections that enhance learning. Strong relationships are one of the most helpful positive enrichments for the brain so they are absolutely necessary to have in school.
This is the “why” behind the need to educate the whole child. So if you were skeptic about the movement to educate the whole child, which makes sense from purely an engaged citizen leader mindset in my opinion, then listen to the science which also says relationships are key to learning and equity.