There are two basic principles that I think as a field, psychologists and learning theorist’s agree upon: The importance of relationships, and that we learn to be like those in whose company we grow up in (and want to be like).
In fact, a 32-year longitudinal study, with about 1000 participants, found that social connectedness was a better predictor of well-being than academic achievement. (http://dro.deakin.edu.au/view/DU:30046123)
By learning I am not really referring to the remembrance of facts (though, even the remembering of facts depends upon the context of the above factors). There are studies that when they control for (which means do not take into account) all other factors find certain methodologies to be more effective than others—how many repetitions, the order presented, levels of mastery, and so forth. However, to me, what really a matters when we look at the big picture of schooling and learning, is what kind of people we become, what we care about, what is our attitudes toward others, toward learning, and toward the society we live in, and as importantly, how we view ourselves.
If we start with these, relationships and the company we keep as our basic principles of learning, then the design of our school, classroom, learning environment need to reflect that. In other words, do the designs of the above, hinder or support strong relationships and creating a context for students to be surrounded by the kinds of people that we hope they become?
One aspect of creating this environment is thinking about the time and space for all members of the learning community to get to know each other. One factor is class size ratios. With too large class sizes (or numbers of students a teacher has on their total class load), teachers cannot get to know their students (and their families) well. In California, with class sizes often around 30, (and for high school teachers, multiply that by 4, 5 or 6 as they teach multiple groups of students). I argue that such large classes make strong relationships difficult. Half that, or maybe two adults in the room (or both) would make it more realistic.
I also recommend that students stay with teachers for more than one year. From my personal experience teaching, both having times when I had my students for only one year, and others where I had them for two or even three years, I found I was able to develop much deeper relationships in the second year. It also allowed for a sense of trust of giving students time to grow. (There are also many other advantages to multi-graded classrooms and keeping students for multiple years, for that you can read this previous blog).
School size also matters. The relationship built are more than just within the classroom. The school itself needs to be a community, with all the members having relationships with each other. This matters in part because students do move from teachers to teacher. It also matters because students see what kinds of relationships the adults around them have. They learn as much from watching others as they do form their direct experiences. They learn what it means to be an adult by watching adultas The teachers, and staff of a school are the adults in a working, non-family role that they see most, and most intimately.
However, the curriculum also has an effect. If the teacher’s job is to either be in front lecturing, or monitoring students doing worksheets, neither of these behaviors are likely to foster meaningful relationships no matter what the class size. Curriculum that allows the participants to share their ideas, work together and be creative are more likely to foster relationships. Curriculum that allows the teacher to tailor the the learning to the child/ren, to what is happening in the moment, also fosters relationships, caring.
Besides what goes on in the classroom is the larger learning community. In the majority of school’s children are told their job is to do what the teacher says, who in turn does what that principal says, who in turn does what the school board says, who in turn does what the State mandates. This is the company children keep during probably the majority of their non-family time—the time that represents larger society, a place that they are required by society to be.
If we want students to learn to be people who understand how a democratic society works, and how people who can make decisions over their lives and society act, then the adult in the learning community need to be doing such things. That means the way the school itself runs should be a place where the adults make the important decisions over what goes on in that community—the schedule, the work environment, and how the teaching and learning is structured. If the adults in the schools are mainly following orders from above, then that is what children will learn. They may want to reject that social order, to rebel against it, but the will not be learning how to do so effectively. Or they may reject it by just wanting to be the one’s who are on top, but again not seeing an alternative to the top down model of governance.
In sum, if we want to have healthy well educated students who know what it means to be a citizen of a democratic society, then the schools they grow up in need to reflect such a world, and they need the ability to build meaningful relationships with the adults and each other in those schools. Those adults need to be able to act that students would want to be adults like them.