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What Role Do Relationships Play In Learning?

May 3, 2013
Originally published on September 4, 2015 8:00 am

Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour episode Unstoppable Learning.

About Rita Pierson's TED Talk

Veteran teacher Rita Pierson believes that relationships are crucial to education. She talks about how classrooms lack the kind of human connections kids need to feel inspired and to learn. Pierson gave her talk as part of the PBS Special TED Talks Education.

About Rita Pierson

Rita Pierson worked in education for over 40 years. She served in numerous roles, including elementary regular and special education teacher, junior high school teacher, counselor, assistant principal, director, testing coordinator and consultant.

She was also licensed professional counselor. Pierson developed and implemented a school and community involvement program for a large urban elementary school, as well as organized and trained an in-school crisis team for students in need of immediate intervention. For the past decade she conducted professional development training and seminars for thousands of educators. Pierson died June 28, 2013 at the age of 61.

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It's the TED Radio Hour, from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, we're talking to TED speakers about how learning happens, how ultimately, it's an unstoppable process. And as we heard from Sugata Mitra earlier in the show, learning doesn't happen in a vacuum. It still depends on making a connection between a child and his mother or between two kids or even a student and her teacher.

RITA PIERSON: We learn from the environments that we live in, which includes people. So I don't think we do anything on our own or alone.

RAZ: This is Rita Pierson. She's been an educator for more than 40 years, and when she gave her talk at TED Talks Education, she spoke about the power of human connection and how it impacts learning. Here's her talk.


PIERSON: I have spent my entire life either at the schoolhouse, on the way to the schoolhouse, or talking about what happens in the schoolhouse. Both my parents were educators, my maternal grandparents were educators, and for the past 40 years, I've done the same thing. And so needless to say, over those years, I've had a chance to look at education reform from a lot of perspectives. And we know why kids drop out, we know why kids don't learn. It's either poverty, low attendance, negative peer influences, low influence with parents, we know why.

But one of the things that we never discuss or we rarely discuss is the value and importance of human connection, relationships. George Washington Carver says all learning is understanding relationships. For years, I have watched people teach. I have looked at the best and I've looked at some of the worst. A colleague said to me one time, they don't pay me, they don't pay me to like the kids, they pay me to teach a lesson, the kids should learn it, I should teach it, they should learn it. Case closed. Well, I said to her, you know, kids don't learn from people they don't like.


PIERSON: I have had classes that were so low, so academically deficient that I cried. I wondered, how am I going to take this group in nine months from where they are to where they need to be? How do I raise the self-esteem of a child and his academic achievement at the same time? I gave a quiz, 20 questions. Student missed 18. I put a plus two on his paper and a big smiley face.


PIERSON: He said, Ms. Pierson, is this an F? I said, yes. He said, then why'd you put a smiley face? I said, 'cause you on a roll. You got two right. You didn't miss them all. I said, when we review this, won't you do better? He said, yes, ma'am, I can do better. You see, minus 18 sucks all the life out of you, plus two said I ain't all bad.


RAZ: I love that. I love that you did that to that kid's test.

PIERSON: I don't know why we celebrate failure. Somewhere along the line, we started to think that if I point out to you what you don't do, or you didn't do, it will inspire you to do.

RAZ: Yeah.

PIERSON: That doesn't make sense to me. If I tell you what you've done right, it inspires you to do something else that's right. I want my students to always see the value of possibility, and that's what I wanted him to see. That I am worth more, I can do more, I am more. Plus two said that, minus 18 would not have said that.


PIERSON: For years, I watched my mother take the time at recess to review, go on home visits in the afternoon, buy combs and brushes and peanut butter and crackers to put in her desk drawer for kids that needed to eat, and a washcloth and some soap for the kids who didn't smell so good. See, it's hard to teach kids who stink.


PIERSON: And kids can be cruel. And so she kept those things in her desk, and years later, after she retired, I watched some of those same kids come through and say to her, you know, Miss Walker, you made a difference in my life. You made it work for me. You made me feel like I was somebody, when I knew at the bottom, I wasn't. And I want you to just see what I've become. And when my momma died two years ago at 92, there were so many former students at her funeral, it brought tears to my eyes. Not because she was gone, but because she left a legacy of relationships that could never disappear. Can we stand to have more relationships?

Absolutely. Will you like all your children? Of course not. And while you won't like them all, the key is they can never, ever know it. We teach anyway, because that's what we do. Teaching and learning should bring joy. How powerful would our world be if we had kids who were not afraid to take risks, who were not afraid to think and who had a champion? Every child deserves the champion, an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection, and insists that they become the best that they can possibly be. Is this job tough? You betcha. But it is not impossible. We can do this. We're educators. We're born to make a difference. Thank you so much.


RAZ: That's Rita Pierson's TED Talk and we'd heard from Sugata Mitra earlier in the show, and we're going to hear a bit more from him in a few minutes. And, you know, and he talks a lot about how sometimes adults just get in the way. They don't allow kids to just kind of figure it out and learn on their own.

PIERSON: And to a degree, that's true. Sometimes, I think we do need to be quiet and say, okay, let's see what you come up with. Let's see what your idea is. Tell me how you would figure this out. So yes, it is very, very true that sometimes adults do get in the way of learning. But they cannot be absent from learning.

RAZ: Can learning happen without that?

PIERSON: I don't think so. And I may be wrong. Children thrive on structure, but freedom. But I think that it is reassuring for children to know that while I may not always want an adult in my business, so to speak, I want to know a positive and nurturing adult is there if I need them.

RAZ: Rita, that kid who missed 18 questions, did he ever get better?

PIERSON: Of course he did. I insisted that he did. Learning sometimes occurs because someone insists that you recognize the excellence in yourself. Sometimes it's as simple as, I know you can do this. I feel like you are better than you showed me on that paper. Let's learn how positive and potent you are together. So yes, he did better. Of course he did.

RAZ: Rita Pierson. She's been an educator for more than 40 years. She gave her talk at the TED Talks Education on PBS. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.