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Science & Environment

Experiment Tests If Teacher-Student Relationship Helps Performance

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Let's take a minute to explore the relationships between students and teachers. A good teacher tends to be well- trained and well-informed. Turns out, though, it might help kids just to have a teacher they like. NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam has come across some research suggesting that. He sat down with our colleague Steve Inskeep.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Hi, Shankar.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: What's the research say?

VEDANTAM: Well, this is a study from Germany, Steve, and it measures how well and how quickly kindergartners solve pattern recognition problems. So things like here are a whole set of pictures, can you identify all the pairs that are clustered among the apples? Here's the catch. The researchers at the University of Vienna and the Technical University of Dresden displayed a series of pictures to some of the students. The pictures were shown very fast and in some cases, the photograph was of the kindergartner's own teacher.

INSKEEP: Subliminal messaging. There's a picture of the teacher and then go on again, OK.

VEDANTAM: Exactly, so the images are presented so fast, the child is actual not processing that this is a photograph of his or her teacher. But the researchers find that kindergarteners subliminally seeing pictures of teachers whom they like solve problems faster than kindergartners who don't see pictures of the teachers they like.

INSKEEP: Wow, what's going on here?

VEDANTAM: Well, I think the study points to the idea that, I think, the relationships between students and teachers can actually make a big difference in the performance of students. When you're confronting something difficult, a challenge, it really helps to know that you have a sympathetic figure at the back of your mind.

INSKEEP: I'm thinking about why that would be in the mind of a kindergarten kid. The kid might feel more comforted, might feel more secure, might feel more focused - any number of things that would have nothing to do with actual teaching technique of the teacher.

VEDANTAM: Yeah, I think that's right, Steve. And, again, I think at one level, this is sort of obvious. I think we all know that relationships between students and teachers matter. But when we talk about education policy and reform, we often start by talking about what's in the curriculum and what's in the textbook instead of focusing on the relationship between student and teacher because that's where learning might actually begin.

INSKEEP: Focus on whether the teacher is really engaged with a particular student.

VEDANTAM: Exactly right, Steve.

INSKEEP: Shankar, thanks very much.

VEDANTAM: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Shankar Vedantam who regularly joins us to talk about social science research and also explores the power of student-teacher relationships and other ideas on the podcast Hidden Brain. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.