Featured News Apr 4

Relationship building in the classroom: observations from The Learning Accelerator’s study of Along

Jin-Soo Huh

Partner, The Learning Accelerator

The Learning Accelerator (TLA) partnered with Gradient Learning to study the conditions that lead school staff members to adopt tools like their product, Along – an edtech reflection tool designed to help educators develop stronger relationships with their students. From January to June 2023, TLA recruited teachers from six pilot schools and asked them to use Along to send weekly reflection questions to their students to strengthen relationships. Their students responded privately using text, voice, or video. TLA Partner Jin-Soo Huh shares insights from this recent study.

Schools are seeing alarming numbers of students struggling with mental health and chronic absenteeism. At the same time, students report feeling less connected to the adults in their schools. A YouthTruth survey from SY 2022-23 found that fewer than a quarter of students reported that their educators understood their lives outside of school, and only four in ten shared they had an adult in their school to talk to when having problems. While these challenges existed prior to the pandemic, the disconnection and isolation during it exacerbated them.

Developing strong teacher-student relationships plays a crucial role in ensuring that students feel safe and valued in their learning space. Strengthening these relationships can reduce poor mental health and increase attendance and academic performance. Technology tools like Along give educators a manageable way to make connections with their students by providing prompts, multi-modal ways to interact, and a way to track student responses.

Teachers who participated in TLA’s recent Along study shared how this relationship-building tool supplemented existing strategies used to create these crucial bonds with their students whether students used the tool at their own time, or if students used the tool during designated times like advisory or as a bellringer activity. The study also revealed four key insights, including how the platform helped teachers and students form connections and how its flexibility provided options for students to engage with their teachers. 

Extend the Power of Teachers to Foster Meaningful, Reciprocal Connections

Since teachers interact with large numbers of students each year, technology can help streamline the process of relationship building. For example, with Along, teachers can access a platform that provides a library of research-informed prompts, reducing the burden of constantly generating new prompts while still giving teachers the option to create their own. 

Teachers in our study shared how they responded to prompts that revealed personal aspects of their lives, such as favorite holiday traditions, how they overcame challenges, and the stories behind their names. These responses helped students see their teachers as real people, fostering stronger and more meaningful connections. In turn, students could respond to the teacher with their answers to the prompt. For example, an elementary teacher asked, “What is your favorite type of music?” and noted how much students loved learning about her favorite genres and artists, and how excited they were to share theirs. 

Another teacher reflected, “I think [students] enjoyed watching what their educator was answering to the question in addition to what the expectation of the answer would be,” Adding, “I also think it helps them get to know me in ways that would not have organically come up in class.” As seen in the study, technology tools like Along can provide an additional avenue to foster connection.

Boost In-Person Interactions

While edtech tools like Along are online platforms, they can help bridge the gap between digital and in-person interactions. For example, one high school teacher in the study noted how crucial it was to reply to student responses so they could see he was genuinely interested in what they had to say. He noted that while he would sometimes respond on the platform, he also initiated conversations by bringing up students’ responses when he saw them in person. Similarly, an elementary teacher said her students regularly referenced her Along responses with comments like, “I didn’t know you liked cheeseburgers!” 

Conversations that start digitally between teachers and students on online platforms can continue virtually and/or in person, which can help reach more students. Participating teachers shared that using a virtual platform not only enhanced in-person interactions but also provided a means for teachers to engage with students who might not typically speak up in a traditional classroom setting. As one educator explained, “[Along] is a great way to add another layer of getting to know your kids. Some kids do not talk, and Along is awesome because they will want to talk and do not feel the pressure in the moment.”

Nurture an Inclusive Environment

Technology tools can provide multiple means of engagement for students and allow a wide range of students to access content and experiences through a variety of modalities. With a reflection tool like Along, students have the option to respond to prompts with video, audio, or text, accommodating diverse learning needs and preferences. Since the student responses only go to their teacher, it’s a space for them to share thoughts and engage with their teacher one-on-one. 

An elementary school teacher in the study shared, “[Along] provided me opportunities to speak to students about things that I didn’t know were happening. I could pull them aside and ask them if they were ok. I felt like if I didn’t ask the question that week, I wouldn’t have known that was going on in their lives.”

Another elementary school teacher said providing students the choice in how they responded to prompts honored their voices and preferences, increasing their motivation. He assigned a prompt every Wednesday, and students could complete it at a time and method of their choosing. Some would use free time during school, but others preferred to answer the prompts at home, taking the opportunity to level up their production and use props in video responses. This was an unexpected way students creatively showcased their personalities and aspects of themselves that they might not as readily have shared in school. 

By providing multiple means of engagement and expression, technology provides additional opportunities for teachers and students to develop relationships instead of being limited to live, real-time conversations. In this way, edtech tools can be used to reach a wider group of students.

Use Technology Intentionally to Strengthen Teacher-Student Relationships

In the current educational landscape, students need strong relationships with their teachers more than ever. Edtech tools have the potential to remove barriers for students and teachers, enhance critical relationships, and complement in-person interactions: an English Language teacher in the study remarked that she used prompts with her students to provide them with language support, helping to create a safe opportunity for them to practice their English through multiple modalities. 

As we navigate the challenges of education, let’s leverage technology to create school environments where every student feels valued, heard, and supported in their educational journey.

Jin-Soo Huh is a Partner at The Learning Accelerator. He is an experienced educator and school innovation leader and has expertise in school design, education technology, professional development, and student-centered learning. He believes strongly in the power of collaboration and works to share resources and connect people in the education space so challenges can collectively be solved. Prior to joining TLA, he spent over a decade as a math teacher and school system leader.

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