Making Time for the Student-Teacher Relationship

Practice   21 April 2016
By Orly Friedman


…most school-children today won’t receive thirty minutes alone with their teacher, talking about their hopes and dreams, in an entire school year.

Orly Friedman
School Director, Khan Lab School

PUTTING STUDENTS AT THE CENTER OF THEIR LEARNING CAN RESULT IN A POWERFUL SENSE OF OWNERSHIP AND AGENCY. Before we can expect students to take complete control of their learning, schools and teachers must provide students with strategies and the time for reflection in order for them to grow into self-directed learners. At Khan Lab School (KLS), where we currently serve sixty students five to thirteen years-old, students are grouped by independence level, so that they receive as much structure and freedom as they can successfully handle. At the core of this model is an individual advising meeting between student and teacher that we are developing to meet the needs of students at every level and to cover academic, as well as personal and social/emotional growth.

At KLS, the student experience is primarily driven by goals students set at the beginning of each term with guidance commensurate with their independence level. We have a Graduate Profile that specifies requirements that all KLS students should meet to graduate, but our students direct how and when they achieve these requirements, as well as any additional goals they have. These goals determine their weekly schedule—and where and with whom they spend their days. Goals could range from the purely academic—“I will be able to solve three-by-two digit division problems”—to the personal—“In two weeks, I will have a business plan for my neighborhood cooking class”—to the self-reflective—“I will collect feedback from two of my peers on my contributions during advisory discussions.” Because KLS begins at five-years-old, many of our students are still learning what a “SMART” goal is and most older students still require guidance from a teacher in goal-setting.

Thirty Minutes Once a Week

To provide the appropriate guidance in goal-setting and achievement, every student has a thirty-minute one-on-one meeting with their teacher, more aptly known as their “advisor,” once a week. By setting aside this time each week, students are held accountable for their self-paced work and are guided in figuring out what steps come next in their learning. Evaluating work completion and indicating next steps are tasks that could easily be automated, but these advising sessions serve another purpose: Developing a meaningful connection between student and teacher that we hope will advantage students in the long term.

Thirty minutes per student once a week may not sound like enough time to have an impact, but, in fact, most schoolchildren today won’t receive thirty minutes alone with their teacher, talking about their hopes and dreams, in an entire school year.  What teachers offer during these sessions is an opportunity for every student to feel known and be supported within the school walls. Gallup and Purdue University conducted a study in 2014 that showed that college graduates who reported having a professor who encouraged their goals made them excited about learning, and cared about them as a person were twice as likely to respond that they were also thriving in all areas of their well-being. We believe that having a similar relationship with a teacher in K-12 education would have at least as positive an effect on student well-being and, by association, on academic performance. A number of K-12 schools around the globe have come to this conclusion independently.

One school that, for the last decade, has put student goal-setting meetings at the core of the learning experience is Kunskapsskolan, a network of schools that began in Sweden. The network’s logo has a picture of a student at its center and the phrase “Coaching” ringing the third layer in support of “personalized goals” and “personalized strategies.” Kunskapsskolan has a broad view of what these advisory meetings might cover and acknowledges that the content of these meetings should evolve as students are ready to take on greater ownership of their education. In Medellin, Colombia, another group of psychologists and educators developed The Fontan Relational Education system, which calls for a set of “Learning Coaches” distinct from the traditional educators in the school. The Learning Coaches focus primarily on the learning process and personal development with every student.

Teacher-student goal-setting meetings also imitate best practices from today’s most successful companies. In the corporate world, goal-setting meetings with a supervisor are standard practice. Google initiated Project Oxygen to determine what makes a good manager—and its findings provide insight that can easily translate to a school setting. For example, while the Google study is about what makes a good manager not what makes for good one-on-ones, they did find that good managers empower without micromanaging, which would suggest that in a thirty-minute session advisors should focus on asking the right questions to allow students to notice and troubleshoot their own challenges. Google also found that good managers express interest in and concern for an individual’s success and personal well-being, which if extrapolated to the school setting means that advisors should remember to include general well-being questions alongside the goal-specific discussions.


Our understanding of how to make these advising sessions successful will only improve as more schools try out such practices.

Orly Friedman
School Director, Khan Lab School

Keeping a Lab Mindset for the Field

As personalized learning schools develop new models of education, there is an opportunity to define best practices around the routines of student-centered learning. Some questions that we at KLS are investigating are: What is the appropriate length of these sessions? How frequently should students of different ages meet with their advisor one-on-one? Are these conversations led by content specialists or an entirely separate staff? How do we train such a staff for this new advising role?

Our understanding of how to make these advising sessions successful will only improve as more schools try out such practices. What is clear from studies of what works in business and education is that the human relationship is still the driving factor in student success and satisfaction. We can turn more content delivery over to technology and allow students to do more and make discoveries on their own, but the success of a student-centered program remains grounded in the strength of its student-teacher relationships.

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