Transactional vs. Relational Learning in School

I feel compelled to begin by saying that if you landed on this page hoping to find a definitive explanation of Transactional Education vs. Relational Education, you have not found that. Rather, this is a space in which I am trying to make sense of those myself. So, by all means, have a read and share your thoughts, because it sounds like you are in the same space as me- wanting to better understand these concepts.

I’m not sure where I first heard these terms (I believe it was in a NAIS workshop), but there is something to these approaches to education that seems so foundational, that it’s stuck with me as something to better understand. It seemed that a good place to start would be a simple Google search for the terms. This led mainly to sites relating approaches to business or business school. In the broadest sense, transactional situations center around “what can you do for me?” and relational situation center on “what can I do for you?” or “what can we do for each other?” The former is focused on the bottom line and individuals pushing to get ahead of those around them. The latter is focused on the growth of the whole institution and a social construct that is more vaguely defined at times, but also more mutually supportive. (I gleaned most of that from this nice post on the UVA Darden site.)

So, where does this leave me in terms of school approaches that may be considered transactional vs. relational? Some clear parallels could be made between the dog-eat-dog business world (transactional) and student striving for grades and spots on limited college enrollment lists. I can clearly see a traditional content-centered approach being the center-point of this system. Alternatively, relational educational experiences would, perhaps, de-emphasize grades in favor of work that groups enter into together with the goal of achieving some collective outcome that lifts all involved in some way (and possibly whoever they are working on behalf of?). This seems to match up nicely with what I have heard described as the future of school, which Jamie Casap often embodies with the phrase “What problems do you want to solve?” A team approach to seeking solutions, in which real problems are actually addressed and problems solving skills and conceptual understanding of principles involved (that’s me really trying to stay away form the term ‘content’) are developed.

OK. I can live with that, though I may be finding myself there because I lean towards those outcomes more anyway.

Now, I also asked for some clarity on Twitter and got the following form @boadams1 (Bo Adams from Mount Vernon Institute for Innovation):Screen Shot 2018-04-16 at 8.13.42 PM

First, Bo gives me perhaps me more credit for knowing anything than I may deserve, but I try. Second, that seems to fit what I pulled together above, so that feels good. But then this reply happened:Screen Shot 2018-04-16 at 8.18.33 PM

To be honest, I wasn’t sure if April was referencing something specific or simply making a vague reference somewhat related to my las name. So, back to Google.

It turns out that Paulo Freire had a thing or two to say about education, especially as it relates to social class. This, though not a direct quote of his, stood out to me:

“There is no such thing as a neutral education process. Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate the integration of generations into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity to it, or it becomes the ‘practice of freedom’, the means by which men and women deal critically with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”

— Richard Shaull, drawing on Paulo Freire
You’re either working towards becoming a cog in the ever-turning machine or your working towards reshaping that that needs reshaping. Sounds an awful lot like “what problems do you want to solve?” Another hefty quote from a paper titled The Freirian model–a place in health promotion and education (I apologize for the out of context citations, but please follow the link to get proper context):
“In Freire’s eyes, students were viewed as fully empowered participants in the education process, which significantly shifted the traditional mentality of teacher-control. He believed a reciprocal relationship should exist, with the mentality of “teacher-student with students-teachers” (p.80). Traditional education uses “banking” as the mode of information transfer, with the emphasis placed on the process of teachers depositing knowledge into the students. This in turn has created students who accept the passive role imposed on them, and therefore learn to adapt to the world as it is and not to act upon it and impart change (Rudd & Comings, 1994). Freire recognized the importance of the dynamic interaction between personal growth and participation in community change (Wallerstein & Bernstein, 1988), and felt it could be interwoven with many disciplines to evoke change.”
All of this begins to come together for me. The clear need to move past the “filling of a vessel” approach that served so many so well in the young industrial age and towards a place in which we come together to learn about problems we see around us, issues we feel strongly about, and to learn grow and solve together. If that is indeed what relational learning is, count me in.
This does raise other things I wonder about:
  • How does this change the role of a teacher who can no longer know the answers and direct the learners towards them? Surely, they are more of a coach and co-learner in almost all things (after all, if they know the answers already isn’t that problem solved?)
  • How are we to every change the complex system of education that weaves together grades and content and testing and college admission and success in life in such a way that any step away from it feels like you are risking so much? (This issue is real, but also reminds me of Neo learning to bend a spoon in The Matrix and being told to remember ‘there is no spoon.‘)
  • Where, if anywhere, might a transactional learning approach be better? There must be somewhere strict competition and focusing of your own progress is beneficial. Though I can’t think of one right now.

A big thanks to Bo and April for feedback that led me down very cool and informative rabbit hole.

Growing the Future

I just read this article from Sam Chaltain about “seeding” ideas for theimg_0219 future. In essence (though you should read the article), the idea is that you can continue working in your traditional ways, while planting the seeds of new approaches that may, in fact, make your traditional methods obsolete.

The appeal of this to me comes from the idea that this acknowledges the inherent duality of the times we live in as leaders of learning. We live with some basic facts about school such as AP classes, grades and GPA’s and testing like crazy.  At the same time, we can see that the future is calling for new approaches.  In my own experience, I have often simply transplanted one traditional method for one that I felt was more in tune with what I perceive as “future friendly.” As is the case with many transplants, some go smoothly and successfully, some…not so much.

As I wrap one school year and begin to think about the next, I will think about what it means to work within the system around me, while seeding and nurturing ideas for the future that may make the  current system obsolete.

Shifting the Way We See Education’s Purpose

Quote of the day from a recent piece in the Washington Post:

“Forget the Common Core State Standards and high-stakes testing. Forget vouchers, school choice, charters, abolition of teacher tenure, and merit pay. Forget school grades, union busting, academic rigor, new technology, flipped classrooms, and most of what’s being written about educating in the mainstream media. And forget those lists that rank nations according to the purported quality of their educational systems.

Deal successfully with the problem that the above and dozens of other scholars have pointed out (all quotes on the ways fragmented curricula necessarily create a  ‘product’ beneficial to nobody you should take the time to read), and the curriculum that emerges will be so illuminating, so powerful, so relevant, so useful, so easily taught and learned, it will change everything it touches.”

I know that I am late to the game in many ways, but this is where I am mentally, though not in my classroom entirely.  I still wrestle with questions and methods. I still worry about how to best serve my students in a fragmented system.  I still question the path currently laid out before me and how to move the path rather than simply stepping off of it.  There are times that I feel I haven’t done enough, but I do see the problem and I do wrestle and question and worry.  I search for ideas and connections and the courage to do what I know to be right.  It is the last portion of the above quote that drives me.

“…the curriculum that emerges will be so illuminating, so powerful, so relevant, so useful, so easily taught and learned, it will change everything it touches.”

After a lifetime dedicated to the craft of teaching, I really want to be a part of that type of learning landscape.

Great Minds (and mine) Think Alike

I just read this within a Ted Ideas Article:

“We are prisoners of the pictures and experiences of education that we had,” says Tony Wagner, expert-in-residence at Harvard’s educational innovation center and author of The Global Achievement Gap. “We want schools for our kids that mirror our own experience, or what we thought we wanted. That severely limits our ability to think creatively of a different kind of education. But there’s no way that tweaking that assembly line will meet the 21st-century world. We need a major overhaul.”

This clearly states one of the ideas that has been rattling in my head for some time. I have become somewhat obsessed with thoughts on what school should look like and accomplish. At least I know that my thoughts are in line with some great minds in the field. We don’t need adjustments, we need to let go of our ingrained ideas on what schools look like, what skills students need and what teachers do and build a smart system from the ground up.

Organic Learner Farms

FreshLast year, my students and I watched a film called Fresh as in introduction to a long-term project we were doing on gardening.  This film is basically a look at some of the issues related to our industrialized agriculture system and solutions some individual farmers have developed as alternatives to the status quo.  Here is part of the film’s synopsis:

“FRESH celebrates the farmers, thinkers and business people across America who are re-inventing our food system. Each has witnessed the rapid transformation of our agriculture into an industrial model, and confronted the consequences: food contamination, environmental pollution, depletion of natural resources, and morbid obesity. Forging healthier, sustainable alternatives, they offer a practical vision for a future of our food and our planet.”

In examining the current state of agriculture in America and potential solutions, an economist in the film has determined that the way to “feed the world” is not to take agricultural ideals and grow them to scale, but, rather to embrace medium-sized, local, organic practices.  Interestingly, the movie profiles a small number of farmers and all of them have a unique approach to their work with the common theme of mimicking nature in their efforts.  All of them have been very successful in the work they have undertaken.

Since watching this film, I have been pondering how this concept of adopting smaller scale answers to issues that seem to have developed from adoption of practices on large scales and have found that this most certainly applies to the field of education.

Like the large-scale industrial farms, the development of large-scale public educational systems developed from good intentions, the desire to prepare young people for the world in which they will have to work.  As is fairly well understood at this point, that world of schooling that was developed was one of industry and conformity.  Here is a nice description of it from the website of The New American Academy:

“Horace Mann, credited as the father of the American public school system, studied a wide variety of educational models before implementing the Prussian system designed by Fredrick the Great. King Frederick created a system that was engineered to teach obedience and solidify his control. Focusing on following directions, basic skills, and conformity, he sought to indoctrinate the nation from an early age. Isolating students in rows and teachers in individual classrooms fashioned a strict hierarchy—intentionally fostering fear and loneliness.

Mann chose the Prussian model, with its depersonalized learning and strict hierarchy of power, because it was the cheapest and easiest way to teach literacy on a large scale.”

So here we are, entrenched in system that gives many indications that it is not working and that does seem to haA WHole New Mindve kept up with times that have changed inconceivably from the point of view of anyone living in the year 1852 (around when this system was adopted).  I have read many books and blog posts and articles and tweets about how and why this system no longer fits our world and, in fact, is preventing us from preparing our youth for the world they will be running.  (My favorite of these has been “A Whole New Mind” by Daniel Pink.  I can’t recommend that book enough to people interested in developing a new approach to teaching and learning.)

The parallel to the farming issue seems clear to me.  The large-scale, one-size-fits-all, industrial, teacher/content centered approach to education is one that brings about such negative consequences that it should be traded out for medium-sized, individualized, learner-centered approaches that serve the needs of those interested in that approach.  Much like the cast of characters in Fresh each handled agriculture in a personalized way that made sense to them (growing grass rather than animals, raising plants and animals through aquaculture in the city of Milwaukee, turning away from large-scale, antibiotic dependent hog farming), educational institutions need to examine the world of today, including research on learning, and use understanding and creativity to develop methods of guiding learners towards results that both fit the school’s philosophy and best serve the learners.

It seems obvious that there is no one method that is going to be universally successful for all learners in all situations. Developing a variety of methods with a variety of foci (and, yes, I would prefer to incorrectly say ‘focuses’) seems a better system in the long run.  I am constantly wondering why that isn’t happening.

Even in my day to day experience, among myself and colleagues that I respect and value, there is a default position that adopts the industrial mindset of delivering content to rows of young people. I believe that a big part of the reason for this is simply habit.  Our own educational experiences typically occurred in such a system.  So did our parent’s and their parent’s.  This is simply how it is and how it has always been done.  Nobody before us worked hard to change it, so it must be working.  Right? The answer to why nobody was attempting to change my schooling experience back in the 1980’s may be that the world then was actually more like 1852 than it is like 2014 in terms of information availability.  Yes, I had easier access to books than my 19th century counterpart, but that pales in comparison to my ability to grab information right now.  (As an experiment, I stopped typing this to see if I could find a piece of information I did not already know.  I chose “what is a catalytic converter?”  I spoke that question into my phone and, within a few seconds, I learned that a catalytic converter is “a device incorporated into the exhaust system of a motor vehicle, containing a catalyst for converting pollutant gases into less harmful ones.”  As I sit here now, it seems like I should have known that.  I didn’t.  Now I do and it took less than 20 seconds.)

So here we are, with a wealth of ready knowledge, clinging to the idea that knowledge is scarce and that the prime directive of education is to make sure that students get the facts into their heads before trying to do anything. We’re also clinging to the idea that what the students must know when they graduate is fairly standard.

But what if we didn’t think that way?  What if the default position as a school or a teacher was to ask “what would you like to know?” or “what would like to do as you get older?” and take it from there.  It would require nimble teachers with a set of skills much different than sharing facts or ideas and then testing to see if those facts or ideas have been remembered well.  What if we regularly took students out on experiences that raised questions within them, which we could then seek to answer together?  What if the default was to assume that not everyone will need to solve for x or know what a mitochondrion does or be able to understand the symbolism of the phrase “good fences make good neighbors”, but to assist those who want to know those things with all of our own passion for teaching?

The point is that there are many ways to get to the results we want.  It seems to me that schools would be better served to begin to let go of our current assumptions, develop new attitudes and creative methods and work towards starting up our own Organic Learner Farms.

We All Work for R&D

A few years ago there was an idea that was put forth at my school- “We all work for Admissions.”  In essence, what this means is that we all work for sales at the school.  We need families to see what we do and put forth our product in the best light possible.  I agree with this sentiment, but feel like it also misses a larger, and I would say more important, idea-
“We all work for Research and Development.”

I am not a pioneer in modern education.  In many ways, I arrived late in the game and am a newbie when it comes to understanding the potentials and the best practices of educating in the 21st century.  That said, I have learned a great deal from a wide array of sources and now recognize that, if we are going to view education or learning experiences as ‘products’, we need to be exploring new frontiers in these areas and we need to be doing it collaboratively and with purpose.

For years, I have been hearing the calls for giving teachers (and students) room to fail.  Mistakes are indeed learning opportunities and should be embraced as such.  The culture of a school needs to be one in which teachers are explorers and inventors.  However, there is a big difference between a research and development team and a lone mad scientist type.  We are looking for the next great step in education, not the educational equivalent to Frankenstein’s monster. Teams of teachers dedicated to understanding learning, willing to explore and learn potentially valuable technologies and excited to explore new approaches to teaching are essential for the continuing health of a school.  At a recent ADVIS workshop on Online and Blended Learning, Brad Rathgeber, the Director of the Online School for Girls, explained that when they are looking to hire new teachers the key feature they look for is that the candidate has a “growth mindset.”

I certainly believe such a mindset is important for individual teachers, but also feel that the school itself needs to have that same mindset. Schools need to be willing to be critical of their own programs and willing to do the research and development of new programs that make sense in modern times.  They need to actively push groups of teachers to learn about different facets of teaching and learning and creatively develop ideas that utilize them in ways that enhance the philosophies of the school itself. It is through this purposeful and adventurous exploration that schools can develop high quality products that provide students with the knowledge and skills needed to thrive.  Create that and you will make the job of the sales team in admissions much easier.

Environmental Science Genius Hour

Recently I heard about a “new” idea that has roots in what is now something of an old concept. It comes from the creative release time that some companies are utilizing with their employees. Companies like Google and the like give their employees 20% of their time to work on independent projects and this leads to some very creative innovations. Teachers, being the innovators they are, recognized the worth in this and have begun to incorporate 20% release time for their students. In the classroom, this is often called genius hour. During this time, students are allowed to pursue interests of their own and create products related to those interests. Different teachers would of course set different limitations, but the idea is that students get to pursue some learning independently. Heading into the 2014-2015 school year, I’ll be teaching an honor section of an environmental science class. This is my first time teaching environmental science at this level and teaching environmental science at all in many years. I’ve been thinking about what to include in the course and the Genius Hour is very appealing to me.

My experiences with teaching about the environment go way back. I first was exposed to in high school when my most influential teacher, Doug Pens, taught me Ecology and utilized incredibly creative ways to do so. From there, I spent many years in college going up to Raquette Lake, in the Adirondacks of New York State, visiting Cortland’s educational camps there. After that, I spent years a Greenkill Environmental Education Center as a naturalist teaching young children to love and enjoy nature. Through all of this, one thing became clear, in order to truly embrace taking care of the environment students needed to first love the environment. And getting to that point is a very personal experience. For many, it means being outside and having those transformative experiences that keep you coming back outside and make you care enough to learn about and care for the natural world.

This bring me back to Genius Hour in Environmental Science. The idea here is that students will be given the so called 20% time, roughly 1 class period each week, to explore an Environmental Science topic that interests them. Ideally, it would involve research, exploration, investigation and the creation of a final product in a topic that mosts interests them. There is a part of me akin to a vestigial organ that wants to specify exactly what form this product should take. “Write a research paper”, “Conduct a scientific investigation related to XYZ”, “Make a video documentary.” These are in the class of directed assignments (and I don’t mean to imply they are bad, they just don’t seem to have the independence that goes along with my view of a Genius Hour.) I am interested in what students produce when released from the tether of my vision.

There is, of course, some risk in all of this. I have assigned small-scale projects that involved giving the students a great deal of latitude in what they did. Not all of these panned out. Some were far to simplistic, others far to overreaching. There is a sweet spot in there and I hope to give the students a chance (and the guidance) to hit it. It is the zone in which students tackle a project that is not so simple as to give no sense of accomplishment, nor not so overwhelming as to cause the student to give up. Now, getting there is the tricky part. This is new to me (experienced Genius Hour folks, please feel free to add your advice or comments.)

I do have questions that spring to mind around this concept:

-When do I introduce this idea to the class? Part of me thinks I need to get into the class a bit and cover basic concepts. The other part thinks that the point is to let the students find their own direction and run with it.
– What is my role in this process? Clearly, my role is more than to just sit back and grade papers or prepare lessons while the students do this. However, once I am involved in the process, there is an expectation that I will provide answers. That seems to run against the point of it all.
– Can my students handle such a thing? I am not questioning their intelligence or their work ethic. They are honors students that have proven themselves in the school setting. But this is different. My recent experience is that even my honors students are good at subjects and at school, but they lack independence in their learning. They need direction because they have always been given direction.
– How do I support the transition into the world of independent learning? Of course, just asking that question makes me feel the importance of pursuing this idea.

This is an idea I feel very good about and one that is certainly worth pursuing as I head into summer course planning.

Hydroponics in Biology Class- What I Learned

I recently conclImageuded a big project in my Honors Biology and Biology classes in which student researched, designed, built and shared hydroponics systems or Vertical Gardens in our school’s greenhouse and garden. This was a risky venture in many ways because I was turning my back on so much of what is expected in Biology class.  For one thing, this project took the place of all scheduled lab time.  My school’s schedule is such that I meet with my students 50 minutes each day (more or less…we actually have a rotating schedule) to go over content and 80 minutes each week to apply that content to a laboratory investigation. It is a system I have worked in and with for nearly two decades.  Turning my back on that was scary as a teacher, but it was also invigorating. We are basically done with the project (although some of the sharing has yet to be done), so it seems like a good time to reflect on what I learned from doing this.

I Like Inquiry Learning, Blended Learning and Learning Cycles
Really, all of this was possible because I have been questioning my teaching style for years now. As a traditional, “stand and deliver” teacher, the idea of NOT doing labs in lab was inconceivable. I believe that students need to experience Science to fully embrace what Science actually is.  Biology is far more than a collection of facts about living organisms.  It is a process of knowing living organisms and systems.  It is questioning, exploring, evaluating and re-questioning. The hands-on experiences are essential. So, dropping labs can’t be done in my classroom of 5 years ago (that’s really the last time I was a lecture-based teacher). By incorporating learning cycles that were based on inquiry investigations and utilizing online lectures and reading, I have reorganized how my students learn. Investigations are part of every learning cycle and set that stage for what that cycle is about.  It engages the student and creates the context for the facts that are to follow. Because investigations are regularly done in class, utilizing the “lab” time became a realistic possibility. (Not to mention that using online lectures freed class time for doing investigations.)

I Really Like Seeing My Students Engaged
This wasn’t a perfect process and did not cause a magical transformation in every student. However, I saw a light in the eyes of many students that I had not seen all year. One student in particular stands out in my mind.  This is the smart, but unmotivated student.  The one who sits in class passively and has mediocre grades because he just doesn’t care that much. Once we got outside and got tools in our hands, he was a leader and was basically running the show.  He had ideas that he brought to life and ideas that didn’t pan out. The light in his eyes is something I won’t forget anytime soon.

I Like Seeing Strong Students Struggle
My honors students get school.  They are bright, hardworking people that are used to getting from point A to point B using skills they have honed over years of schooling.  They are really good at making connections and critically examining different issues. What they aren’t good at is building a simple A-Frame structure to hold up a hydroponics system.  Neither am I.  In theory, we were simply applying basic Geometry to figure out what angles the 2×4’s needed to come together in a way that would allow the structure to stand.  We were all so stymied by this that we went with 90 degree angles that were both ugly and non-functional. It was both frustrating and exciting.  These students got a real-life lesson in the fact that it can be tough to bring theoretical idea into real life.  They also learned to adapt.  We went with one leaning system and laid the other on a table.  Sometimes it’s the simple ideas that are the best.

I Don’t Like Working Alone
I had many struggle with these projects.  They ranged from the simple construction problems described above to design problems to a host of other little issues that drove me crazy.  Here’s the thing- people who knew how to deal with these issues were all over the campus around me.  I could hear our carpentry expert working on the building next door as we struggle to put two 2×4’s together.  I was working outside the Math wing of the building where teachers may have been able to turn our problems into real life solvable word problems. All around me were people that could have been stepped in and taught my students skills and concepts that we were struggling with. One of my biggest goals lately has been to coordinate learning with others.  Whether it’s developing a school Science curriculum, sharing ideas on homework or building a silly A-Frame, I want to work with colleagues.  I am tired of being alone in my classroom doing my best to figure it out on my own.  I want this to change.  After all, there is a “me” in “Team.”

I Still Struggle with the Role of Content
I learned Biology content in High School.  I can still remember getting accolades from Mr. Powell for writing “sinoatrial node” on a quiz rather than the accepted “pacemaker.” That helped set the stage for me heading into Biology.  I was good at Biology and that’s where I went.  But what I was really good at was remembering stuff. I could just as easily have gone into the field of Movie Quotes or 80’s Song Lyrics. I wasn’t until I was teaching that I really became good at Biology. I began to see connections between the facts that I never noticed before. Ideas sprang up in my head.  I then taught Chemistry and I gained new insight into both Science and Biology. Once I had ready access to the “facts,” to cool stuff really came together. I would not have the appreciation or understanding of Biological Science that I have now without the facts.  But I also never had the easy access to them that my students do. If I teach like Mr. Powell did, and I do from time to time, am I making myself irrelevant? Why do these kids need me to explain that the stomach produces pepsin and HCl when Paul Anderson does it so well?  Can’t we start with bigger questions and go to the “fact sources” when we need to fill in what’s missing? Then again, if I had to look up every fact along the way, would I have ever gained the understanding that I ultimately developed? Honestly, I don’t really know, but hopefully the “I Don’t Like Working Alone” part of this post will help me develop an answer.

So, that’s (some of) what I learned.  There was other stuff like Home Depot is really good about returns, PVC pipe is easy to work with, but hard to drill big holes in and groundhogs eat plants left unguarded and too close to the ground.  I also learned that I want to continue in this direction.  Engaging students in different types of projects and exciting ways of learning.  I hope to gain more focus in my approach, but that’s really just the same kind of adjusting we did throughout the project. Live and Learn.