Relationships and Why They Matter

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Dr. Newell is presently the Director of Assessment for EdVisions Schools, and has served as the Director of Learning Programs for the Gates/EdVisions replication efforts. Dr. Newell was a founder of the Minnesota New Country School and EdVisions Cooperative. He has published four books that explain the rationale and practices behind the learning program and governance of the EdVisions Schools. His work with development of coaches training, staff development and evaluation has lead to creation of processes and materials that enhance the development and sustainability of newly created charter schools. His work with Mark Van Ryzin in development of the Hope Study has lead to an assessment of school culture that is becoming nationally recognized.

Dr. Newell was a high school history teacher and coach, a mentor teacher, a college professor, a Director of Clinical Experiences at two universities, and is a founding member of the EdVisions Leaders Center. His interests are learning theory, adolescent development, alternative assessment, decentralized distributive education, use of technology in education, and development of new curriculum for the development of Life-long Learning Skills.


Relationships and Why They Matter

By Ron Newell, Director of Assessment

Recently a group of Japanese educators came to visit EdVisions schools in Minnesota. I witnessed them question a panel of students from the Minnesota New Country School in Henderson. What I found interesting was that most of the questions were around the perceptions of the students as to their social and emotional state as a result of being in this school. Interesting also were the answers. To the students, what turned them around as non-performing students to performing students were the relationships formed with their advisors and each other. The advisory-based, project-based school completely turned relationships from teacher centered to student centered.

Visitors from the Institute of Project-Based Learning in Japan talk with an MNCS Elementary student about her project.

The usual teacher-to-student relationship is the teacher tells, the student listens; the teacher designs the lessons, the student follows along with assignments; books and other curriculum guides designated what was to be learned; the teacher governed behavior based on students “going along”; assessments were created from teacher made material, always with right and wrong answers; expectations were expressed in grades, hours, and courses “passed”. These relationships create an “us-against-them” mentality. No autonomy, no sense of belonging, only a mastery goal orientation, with students competing for grades and recognition.

These relationships actually inhibit learning. Authentic tasks and experiential learning are more compatible to how the brain works. By fashioning a process-oriented, student-driven, project-based system of learning, tied to state standards, EdVisions has changed that paradigm from one of authoritarian teacher-telling, to intrinsically motivating teacher-advising.

The present course-based system is predicated on the belief that not all children are going to learn and some naturally will fail. Taking into consideration personalizing learning styles and utilizing self-interest, EdVisions schools have found that all can learn if the system is not course and hour based. With a high degree of active participation, allowing for greater student choice, students become intrinsically motivated. Students become transformed by an education that matters to them personally.

MNCS Elementary students share their work with a visitor from the Institute of Project-Based Learning in Japan.

Taking time to create a community of learners who work together does not take away from learning content, and fosters greater ability to collaborate and interact with others. Not only advisor/teachers, but also other students and the greater community. Students learn to collaborate, respect other’s opinions and interests, become more willing to help others, and learn to express themselves well.

Project-based and place-based learning does not mean there is no rigor. They actually allow students to go deeper than the shallow course-based curricula of many high schools. Abstract exercises of the mind without authentic context do not lead to deep learning. Important skills and content are best developed along with contextual learning, such as happen in project-based learning. Rigor is involved with students learning what they are interested in, and core knowledge is inherent in real-world activities of project-based learning.

When asked how do we transform a school to where students are socially and emotionally engaged, and how can they institute project-based learning, I always start with “change the relationships!” Change how teachers interact with students. Give them more autonomy, let them study what interests them, learn what is their preferred learning style and how they best perform, so as to allow intrinsic motivation. Allow students to do independent learning, interact more, and do more outside of school. Require more adult-like behavior from them, with academic and personal support, and do so where there is no “us-against-them” mentality. And if it takes changing the whole structure of how school is done, then do it! But always remember that you must change the relationships; that is the number one priority.