Friday, January 18, 2013

The fundamental needs of students

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I was listening to public radio the other day and came across an interview with David Sazuki.  Sazuki is a Canadian scientist, you probably have seen in nature documentaries on public television.  In the discussion, he was making the point that humans have made the mistake of using nature as fuel for the global economy.  He argued that this should be reversed; that it is human invention that should be servicing the environment.  Air, he said, is a fundamental need of humans.  We can not live without it.  Therefore, air is an absolute necessity to human existance and whatever form the global economy takes, it must not compromise the quality of our air.  Humans have fundamental needs that should not be taken for granted nor should we lose sight of their value.  I pondered this for a while and then began think of it in terms of Education.  What are the fundamental needs of students?  What are the most basic of items that are indispensable for student learning to occur?

Haven. I think we could agree that a student doesn't necessarily have to have a school setting to learn. Students can receive their education online, be homeschooled, or perhaps use a natural setting to learn, but I think a location... a destination... a haven, where learning can take place unhindered, is a fundamental need. I'm sure most of us would opt for a traditional school setting but, sadly, this simply isn't the case for many children around the world. Girls in Afghanistan or children in refugee camps may not have this option. A haven where the child feels safe, protected, or sheltered from external elements, be they natural or man-made, is an absolute necessity.

Once a fundamental need is identified, you must then evaluate its condition or possible threats to it. An immediate solution should be found or else anything that follows is compromised. Common Core standards are meaningless if a student doesn't have a haven to learn. In the U.S., a safe haven may mean that students have to be protected against gun violence. In other locations, it may be that the children need heat, a roof, or clean water. Whatever the case, a student's need for a learning haven must be addressed.

Curiosity. Perhaps this seems less dire than the previous, but I think a child's curiosity is absolutely essential for learning occur. One might combine this with motivation, but in its truest form a child's inquisitiveness is key. It is the genesis of learning. Take a moment to observe any toddler and you will see that this is true. Her curiosity leads her to take her first step, utter her first words, and explore her surroundings. While we may try to encourage her interest with motivation or reward, it is self-driven curiosity that produces the greatest results for her and the greatest challenge for us. The difficulty lies in the fact that this is an internal drive and varies from person to person. We may be able to cause some positive effect by providing an environment where curiosity can flourish, in fact, it is essential that we try to do this. This not only refers back to my haven argument, but also serves as a reminder that our instructional materials should engage the learner. Bubble tests and drill work won't foster curiosity. Letter grades may encourage performance but do not serve as a replacement to the power of the inquisitive mind. Curiosity is a fundamental need and it is why we should pay close attention to the learning environments of children especially in their early formative years.

Communication. This may appear to be an obvious choice but it certainly shouldn't be taken for granted.  My appreciation of this fundamental need has only grown with my work with special needs children. The ability to receive and convey information is at the core of the learning process. Before assessing an internet connection, textbook supply, or lesson plan, consider how precious and complicated adequate communication can be. Is the content at a sufficient level of difficulty? Is the format or media used sufficient? Blind students or those with learning disabilities will certainly require special methods, but each child has communication needs to varying degrees. Reflect upon Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences and consider if you are communicating effectively with each and every student. It is a daunting task but crucial for effectual learning to occur. We have an incredible number of ways we can convey learning material today but there are just as many distinctive needs of the children that receive it. That they receive information or challenges in an appropriate format is a fundamental need.  

The students, in turn, need to be able to demonstrate their understanding. This may imply various forms of written or oral assessments, but I am more concerned with the most basic level of communication with the teacher. It is essential that each student is able to communicate in some way their comprehension or difficulties, and have an instructor that reacts to each accordingly. Even the solitary learner needs a cue of success or growth.

Foundation. The importance of having a strong base of knowledge is in direct relation to the difficulty of the task. You cannot climb a ladder starting on the 10th rung. A strong foundation includes strategies, conceptual knowledge, language, and other prerequisites. To ignore this fundamental need is to invite frustration and detachment from the learning process; this is precisely what happens when students are advanced to the next lesson or grade level before they are ready. If you accept foundation as a fundamental need then you should be receptive to the ideas of self-paced or individualized learning; the development of or, again, the multiple intelligences of each child is unique. I think it is obvious now that the way education has lumped students together and expected them to learn uniformly is one of the reasons why standardized scores seem so dismal. That is an aberration formed in large part because of our insistence to group their qualitative data by grade. Regardless, whether it is an advancement in grade level, moving from one lesson to the next, or tackling a single idea, a student must have a foundation to grow from.

Teacher. To include a teacher as a fundamental need does not infer that this is true only in the traditional sense. A teacher can come in many guises: a computer, peer, nature, or the student's curiosity could perform as the teacher in some sense. In any form, I think the primary role of the teacher is to present a challenge to the learner. It should start at the foundation and then be communicated in a way that satiates the curiosity. A quality teacher would adjust each element accordingly for the learner and then advance the idea to a higher degree. A responsive teacher would give feedback and encouragement when needed. Once again, this is a fundamental need that can be applied in many ways; additionally, what works best for one person may not work for another. The established practice is to provide an instructor until a child reaches maturity, but the independent learner - the curious - should be encouraged at all times.

So there you have it; my fundamental needs of students. A haven, curiosity, communication, foundation, and teacher are essential components for learning. A lacking of any of these components will have a detrimental affect on a student's performance and should be rectified immediately. Perhaps additions should be made or my reasoning is faulty? Think about it for a while and add your suggestions in the comments. Test your idea for various forms of learning; for instance, love may seem like a fundamental need but isn't one that a computer would supply.

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