Education Can’t Minimize Relationships

Minnesota Council on Foundations, Philanthropy Potluck, December 19, 2013

David O'Fallon

 

Today on the blog we welcome David O’Fallon president of Minnesota Humanities Center. He shares his perspective on what we need for real education reform, a topic he presented on at MCF’s 2013 Philanthropy Convening.

At the Minnesota Humanities Center (MHC), we are developing a strategy to transform education founded on a simple premise: Underlying the achievement gap is a relationship gap.

An authentic person-to-person relationship is the foundation of learning, and it depends on real human engagement between teacher and student. In school, the stronger and more authentic the relationship, the greater the likelihood that a student will learn. A wealth of research supports this.

Relationships are possible and strengthened only when essential stories of the many people and cultures represented in the classroom, school and community are present. These stories – currently unrepresented —  are called absent narratives.

Person-to-Person Problem
Top-down reform and large-scale system-improvement efforts overlook or minimize the all-important relationship. This is a person-to-person problem. Thus, change brought about by technical or structural fixes – curriculum alterations, schedule modifications, high-stakes testing or the introduction of iPads – will be incomplete and have unsatisfactory results.

Since A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform was written in 1983, hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent to transform education. Results have been disappointing. Obviously, the challenges are complex; no single intervention will transform education.

Reorient School Culture
Our strategy is founded on including and articulating the absent narrative and focused on relationships among people in the human school community and between members of the communities that engage, or would like to engage, with people in the school.

The absent narratives approach reorients school culture. It invites community members to examine how they engage with each other and, most critically, how teachers engage with students. All members of the school community are involved in the discovery and articulation of the missing narratives, which provides a new sense of agency and purpose.

Key Elements

1. Reclaim the absent narrative: When the story of a group of people is marginalized or completely left out of school curriculum, it is an absent narrative. This absence ignores some (or most) of the young people in today’s schools, especially youth of color. Use of a dominant narrative limits and even damages the teacher-child relationship.

2. Create the innocent classroom: This strategy calls on us to see anew the power and the essential nature of the teacher-to-child relationship. It asserts that every child is innocent — desiring and acting toward his or her own goodness. Too often, the innocence of children (especially that of children of color) is obscured by the burden of unexamined and unspoken beliefs.

3. Reconstruct curriculum: This strategy engages teachers in examining current curriculum with an absent narrative lens. The effects are powerful, and new content and teaching approaches develop as a result.

4. Build community narratives: Schools occupy a specific place in a community. Place matters, but it is often ignored. In this strategy, the community is invited to consider place and contribute their own narratives. Stories emerge as content that enlivens the school as a human community and engages young people and adults in new ways.

These elements combine to form a powerful and effective professional development and systems-change approach that is currently being used by 60 teachers in St. Paul and in an urban district outside Minnesota.

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