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Connection as a Design Principle for Learning

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By Sarah Luchs, Program Officer for Next Generation Learning Challenges

2018_March_For_Our_Lives_05.jpg

"Today I learned things about colleagues I thought I knew well but didn't. I underestimated the power of 2 minutes of really listening to another person. I appreciate more fully how sharing my own authenticity and vulnerability can create lasting bonds."

This feedback from a participant in a recent workshop on diversity, equity, and inclusion I facilitated echoes more universally our cultural thirst for personal connection. We want to feel known. We want to belong--at work or school, in the places we frequent and reside, and in our virtual communities.

I'm wondering how we've come to accept, ignore, or simply not see the extent of our disconnection?

This is what I'm thinking about as I watch the student-led revolution that birthed the March for our Lives movement. It's also my response to Curtis Ogden's reflective question offered in our collaborative blog series, Networks for Learning. He asks, how do you know and observe the power of connection in your work and life?

I'm noticing that the culture and conditions of disconnection are similar in many workplaces and schools in the U.S. It's an American thing. Our schools and workplaces struggle to foster community and nurture authentic connection even when there's some evidence that doing so improves levels of satisfaction, retention, and productivity.

It's important to recognize this limitation as a design issue. The prevailing design inspiration of yesterday was mechanistic not humanistic. In his article, It Will Take a Political Revolution to Cure the Epidemic of Depression, Michael Bader traces the many influences of human suffering and contributions to greater understanding of the potential to alleviate it. A cultural over-reliance on individualism and competition, combined with a diet of scarcity and fear from command and control management tactics, can erode trust. Instinctive empathy and interdependence atrophy when not used and valued, and can give way to increasing feelings of isolation, despair, and loneliness.

In the article, One Teacher's Brilliant Strategy to Stop Future School Shootings--and It's Not About Guns, author Glennon Doyle Melton says, "...all violence begins with disconnection. All outward violence begins as inner loneliness."  

As this article illustrates so well, there is an available antidote to loneliness. And, we each hold the potential for healing--ourselves and one another. Our opportunity now is to become better attuned to our own internal signals and to the emotions of others. Brené Brown consistently provides an enlightened modern perspective on why expressing and attending to our feelings in healthy ways proves personally and professionally beneficial. Learning to recognize and express our emotions, to be curious about them, and to discover ways to use them to build healthy relationships and connections is in my opinion an underrated 21st century skill.

Vulnerability, Empathy, and Compassion in Learning Design

Many educators intuitively understand that aptitudes for emotional intelligence are equally important as the publicly touted skills of self-direction, critical thinking, public speaking, and problem solving. Jesse Lewis Choose Love, a new program started by a Sandy Hook mom (Scarlett Lewis), offers educators and students promise and tangible support for nurturing positive, safe, and humanistic school culture and climate. Students practice skills in fostering empathy and compassion. In doing so they build healthy social connections essential to learning.

This is one of many foundational shifts we can make in education--a move away from compartmentalized learning toward an expanded understanding of learning as social, collaborative, and interdependent. Making this shift is critical to our capacity to embrace and address increasing complexity in our world. Jesse Lewis Choose Love resources provide an early and consistent system of support to make those much-needed investments in students' social-emotional skills, self awareness, and ability to foster meaningful bonds. The resulting connections support their own learning and strengthen learning in any of the communities to which they belong.

I come back to the question Curtis Ogden posed: How do I know and observe the power of connection? Like many things, I can see and feel it clearly when it's missing, when the impact of disconnection is so damaging. But I also see and feel its positive power when we come together, when we really listen with our whole selves present as my workshop participant did, when we open ourselves up to make meaningful bonds, when we design for community, belonging, and interdependence in learning. When we choose connection.  


Photo by Rosa Pineda, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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