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Four Lessons From Students and Families About How Learning Happens

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By Jacqueline Jodl

Any educator knows that an essential element of learning is the ability to listen. That's why the Aspen Institute National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development has spent the past several months engaged in deep listening with communities across the country about how our children learn. We've been visiting school districts from Cleveland to Tacoma, Wash.; soliciting input from national groups of researchers and educators; and producing in-depth case studies on some of the most exciting and innovative practices we've seen so far.

rsz_jackie_jodl1.jpgWe recently heard from the most crucial voices yet: those of students and their families. The National Commission's Youth Commission and Parent Advisory Panel released dual Calls to Action on what they want from their schools. These powerful documents are a crucial part of the roadmap to creating more schools that support the whole student. They galvanize us to recognize and act on the needs of students and families.

Here are four lessons I learned from the inspiring youth and families who wrote these calls to action:

1. Every student needs to learn and be evaluated as a whole student and a whole person

Students want to be known and valued for their individual strengths. They have rich and varied backgrounds and abilities and want their teachers to respect these differences and create learning environments and practices that are adapted to them. They expect learning experiences to be connected to the real world, and they want to be evaluated in ways that allow them to demonstrate their learning and growth beyond performance on tests. Families want the same: they want schools that offer personalized instruction for each child and are committed to supporting teachers in transforming classrooms into environments that more effectively support the ways children learn best. 

2. Students need teachers who know and support them

Students want the adults in their lives to take the time to know, trust, and support them. As our youth commissioners have expressed, students need support on academic matters as well as issues related to home, work, and peers that affect their ability to learn. Trusted relationships with adults are key to providing students with the support they need to thrive in the classroom and beyond. 

3. Students need schools that are safe with a strong sense of community

Our youth commissioners have called on us to ensure schools are both physically and emotionally safe. They want schools where they have the intellectual safety to take academic risks and try new things. They want the social and emotional safety to share their views, even if they're different from the views of their peers; to resolve conflicts on their own terms; and to take on leadership roles. Having this social, emotional, physical, and intellectual safety will allow students to learn in the ways and at the pace that best suits them. 

4. Parents and communities need to be embraced as essential partners in student learning

Parents, families, and community members want to be involved in their children's learning. Our Parent Advisory Panel called for schools to focus on clear, frequent communication with families. And some of the most exciting examples we've seen of fully integrated social, emotional, and academic development have come from places where community partners like universities, museums, and even zoos are deeply involved in creating meaningful learning experiences for students.

All too often education policy and practice are crafted without listening to the voices that matter most. The Commission and its advisory groups are committed to hearing what students and their families have to say and are keeping these lessons front and center as they develop their recommendations for release later this year.

Jacqueline Jodl is the executive director of the Aspen Institute National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development.

Photo courtesy of Jacqueline Jodl

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