Why a web of connections—not a single relationship—should surround students

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Oct 12, 2018

Advocates for personalized learning have bold and plentiful ambitions for students: higher rates of engagement, greater persistence, healthy development, and expanded opportunity—not to mention improved academics. All of these ambitions to support healthy, whole child development often fall to a single, key relationship at the heart of any school: the relationship between students and their teachers.

Putting student-teacher connections at the center of personalized learning efforts is clearly a good idea, especially to curb a tendency to focus on technology over teaching. Both champions and skeptics are taking pains to make that point. Saro Mohammed of The Learning Accelerator has written that “Perhaps the best-kept secret of research on edtech is the fact that teachers and teaching remain the most important influences on learning.” And veteran educator Peter Greene summed it up well in his recent Forbes article detailing inevitable tensions between personalization and scale: “It’s nearly impossible to personalize instruction with just one person involved,” he wrote.

Greene’s sentiment may be a correct, but overly conservative, estimate: it may also be nearly impossible to successfully personalize instruction with just two people involved.

The reality is that teachers shouldn’t go it alone. Beyond clear academic research that overwhelmingly points to teachers as the leading variable driving student learning, other research points to relationships more broadly as core determinants of students’ chances of getting by and getting ahead. Research from an array of youth development and social capital scholars is clear: students will most benefit from a web of adults supporting their healthy development, academic success and access to opportunity.

Webs of Connections

According to the Search Institute’s comprehensive body of social science research, connections that they dub “developmental relationships” are core to healthy development. Search Institute has studied these across different categories of relationships that arise in young people’s lives: family, teachers, mentors and peers. Not all of these developmental relationships will look the same but they tend to include a mix of five elements: expressing care, challenging growth, providing support, sharing power and expanding possibilities. With greater access to such connections, students show higher levels of engagement, attain better grades, report higher aspirations, and participate more frequently in college-preparatory activities. And although a single, strong, positive relationship can deliver on these benefits, the benefits increase the more developmental relationships at a students’ disposal.

Other research echoes these findings when it comes to specific metrics like graduation rates. One study from nonprofit organization America’s Promise Alliance found that young people who dropped out of high school were far more likely to report that they did not reach out to anyone for help when they had trouble in school. For those who re-enrolled, caring adults proved to be a key driver in students’ lives. In some cases, these caring adults were students’ parents. In other cases, it was a teacher, mentor, coach, sibling or family friend that motivated them to persist.

Schools of course are no stranger to the power of relationships that studies like these highlight. Not all schools, however, are designed to ensure that a single relationship—much less a web—reaches each and every student. And in fact, Search Institute data suggests that particularly as students enter older grades, fewer and fewer report developmental relationships with teachers. Among 12th graders in Search’s recent national survey, only 16% of students strongly agreed that their teachers “really care” about them and “push them to be their best”.

But a number of schools best known for their efforts personalize instruction are in fact working to shore up ‘webs’ of adults surrounding students—including, but certainly not limited to their teachers. For example, in Alabama-based Piedmont City School District, the middle school has implemented “Team Time” designed to increase the chances that adults in the school building forge deeper, year-over-year connections with small cohorts of students. As one Piedmont administrator, Jerry Snow explained, the school created Team Time in an effort to move beyond just academic connections. “We wanted to create a family atmosphere inside the school so every students has an adult here that monitors them and knows them from year to year, so that student has a support system at the school,” he said.

The design of these teams reflects what America’s Promise research on caring adults has confirmed: webs of relationships function best if there is at least one stable, “anchoring” relationship which can act as a gateway to this wider web of support.

Other schools are taking this to heart and redesigning support structures to deliberately include family and community members. At Achievement First Greenfield, each student is now surrounded by “Dream Teams”—composed of in-school and out-of-school adults—who participate in student-led conferences, goal setting and reflection. These adults remain with students year over year.

Networks to Help Students Get Ahead

As schools redesign their approaches to double down on these close-knit webs of support, a different body of research also suggests the importance of broader networks that could help students get ahead. Social capital scholars have long pointed to the fact that opportunity flows through individuals’ networks. In fact, according to some estimates, nearly 50 percent of jobs come through personal connections. In some cases, these come through strong ties, but they can also come through looser connections—what researchers call “weak ties”—which tend to offer up new information not necessarily contained in stronger-tie networks.

Schools looking to prepare students for the workforce and open doors for their students are pursuing models designed around the critical role that social capital plays in expanding access to opportunity. These models hinge on approaches that get more students outside the four walls of the school and bring more outsiders into schools. For example, Big Picture Learning leverages partnerships with local employers to empower students to learn beyond school, immersing them in real-world work environments. By doing so, Big Picture Learning schools are not just teaching students skills, but also networking them into companies around their local community. These networks pay the dividends sociology research would predict. Although the majority of Big Picture graduates go on to college, a study of three of the organization’s California campuses found that 74 percent of those who choose a career path immediately after high school secure their job through a connection they made as part of their internship.

Other schools are starting even earlier, bringing career exploration into younger grades using a host of online tools and community partnerships that connect students to professionals they might otherwise not meet. For example, Cajon Valley’s World of Work model connects young students—starting in elementary school—to local employers and online industry experts through an online tool called Nepris.

The takeaway? Personalized learning should indeed be built on the premise that teacher and student relationships are sacred and critical. But schools shouldn’t stop there. As it turns out, a web of relationships with an array of adults—rather than a single connection—appears to be the most potent buffer against risk and a core ingredient to healthy development and expanded opportunity.

This post originally appeared in EdSurge as part of an EdSurge Research series about how school communities across the country are changing their practices to meet the needs of all learners. 

Julia is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. She leads a team that educates policymakers and community leaders on the power of disruptive innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres. Be sure to check out her new book, "Who You Know: Unlocking Innovations That Expand Students' Networks" https://amzn.to/2RIqwOk.