Ready to learn? Teacher, textbook, classroom, classmates; what else do we need? Well, according to experts on both learning and teaching, the missing ingredient is love, the love of teachers for their students. The relationship between teachers and students is at the heart of learning.
As poet Maya Angelou says, people may forget what you say or do but they will never forget how you make them feel. The brain-science explanation for this is the chemical called “oxytocin.” Oxytocin is released when you feel loved. It gives you that good feeling all over that you get when somebody hugs you or kisses you. Amongst other things, it helps you to remember things better.
We are not suggesting that all teachers need to hug or kiss their students, although here is a video of a teacher in Brazil doing just that. See how it makes you feel. Maybe you will experience the effects of oxytocin on your brain just by watching it. Ranger Nick, who teaches people about wildlife and the environment, says that to teach people you need to let them know you care about them. He explains that caring has four parts: Celebrate students’ mistakes (because each mistake is a chance to learn), Appreciate differences, Relay
feedback, and let students Evaluate themselves.
The reason that teacher-student relations are so important for learning is not difficult to understand if we think about the history of learning. Before there were schools and classrooms and maybe even houses, there were groups of people who moved around, just trying to stay alive. As they moved, they learned things about the place where they lived, things that they needed to know to stay alive (don’t eat the red berries) and to live well (spring is a good time to plant rice). This knowledge needed to be passed on to children. Why? Because the children would need to know how to look after themselves when they grew up and the older people would need the children to look after them. So, the first learning and teaching was done inside a small group of people who cared very much about each other. This is the way people learned (and taught) for thousands of years.
And what is happening now? Students are sitting at home in front of their computers. Their teacher may be nearby or far away, but their virtual classrooms do not allow them to hug their students, or even to make eye contact. It has become very difficult for teachers to show their students they care about them. It is not surprising then, that research is beginning to show that online teaching is less effective than in a face-to-face classroom.
In an extreme case, John Searle imagined a person in a room with a set of instructions. The person would receive messages in a language they did not understand. Following the instructions, the person could write an appropriate reply to the message, without understanding the message, the reply, or why the reply is appropriate. Sometimes, if we are not careful, school can be like that: students doing what teachers expect them to do but never really understanding it.
What can teachers do to avoid this situation? We have already seen that caring about the students is like a magic ingredient that makes learning possible. If we care about our students, we will provide them with lessons that are meaningful, valuable, and interesting. We will make a strong social and emotional connection with our students. We will help them to understand that, if they make an effort, they will get better at doing things (using English, solving math problems, etc.). We will care about them as people.
So, there it is. The ingredient that turns a classroom (real or virtual) into a place where every student can make progress. It is the strong personal relationship the teacher forms with each student. You don’t believe it? Just listen to a student talk about her learning:
“The high point of her secondary school education was Mishka, her art teacher. Mishka taught her a lot about painting, encouraged her ideas, and had high expectations of her. Then she went on to study Visual Arts at university. Louise, her sculpture teacher, liked [her] answers to her questions and, if she thought she could get a better answer, she pushed her again. Another art teacher at university, Julie, . . . invested in her and expected her to do well. . . She added more names to this list of helpful teachers, but I don’t have space to list them all here.”
It is not a one-sided relationship, though. Listen to what a teacher says: “My eyes were
suddenly opened to the joy of being able to understand and help someone else on their language learning journey. That was the start of my falling in love with teaching!”
love of students + the joy of teaching = the best conditions for learning