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Must See for Learning Practitioners and Educators: Remembering Rita Pierson

If you love everything about learning, whether formal or informal, and you haven’t already seen it, you really need to take 7 minutes and 48 seconds right now and watch Rita Pierson’s TED Talks Education talk called  “Every kid needs a champion” (recently broadcast on PBS 7 May 2013).

I learned about this video only a few days ago on NPR’s TED Radio Hour – this is a curated, thematic one-hour programme that mashes up a number of TED talks, compares and contrasts their messages and goes a bit further with their authors.

This particular episode was called Unstoppable Learning, and Dr. Pierson’s NPR conversation explored what role relationships play in learning. As you can imagine I pricked up my ears at this. How people learn best is one of my enduring sources of deep curiosity. And developing good relationships and “being nice” are values that our Bright Green Learning team hold dearly. And of course you can’t just appear to be nice, you have to really be nice, caring and interested in the people who are doing the learning (because after all, we are learning too). I was just trying to explain this to a potential new collaborator a week ago. Dr. Pierson put her finger on it in one of the most memorable quotes of her talk, “Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.”  This is a profound observation from a career educator (and in my experience it also holds true for adult learners).

Rita Pierson also argued for teachers to take a more positive and appreciative approach with their students, even those – or in particular those –  who are not excelling in their work. She gave an example of a time that she gave a student a +2 and a smiley face, instead of minus -18 on his test. She said that’s because -18 “sucks all the life out of you” and +2 says “I ain’t all bad”.

I love this reframing, which is so motivating and still somehow such a rare approach for educators and learning practitioners to take. There is a reflex in many educational contexts to focus on what learners missed or need to improve, rather than on what they are doing right (and as they say in Appreciative Inquiry, in every organization or situation, something is working, even if it is only +2 out of 20).

Rita’s short talk brought tears to my eyes. I also grew up the daughter of two educators and see how students were touched by their work. Her words sounded absolutely right to me and I realised that she had articulately described my values around learning and education and those I would hope all teachers would take (including those teaching my own children).

I wanted to write this blog post to remind myself of where I could go for inspiration in my own learning work, and to connect to Rita’s talk so I could listen to it again. I didn’t know when I started this research that I would also be writing it in memorium, as Dr. Rita F. Pierson died unexpectedly last Thursday, on the day I discovered her on the NPR TED Radio Hour. Her death has left a gaping hole in the progressive educational community. She was a real thinker, shaper and feeler in the field of education and someone that everyone working in learning should listen to…have YOU listened to her amazing  7 minute 48 second TEDTalk yet?

You can read more about this remarkable woman and her impact in Remembering Educator Rita F. Pierson on the TEDBlog.

4 replies
  1. What's your great idea?
    What's your great idea? says:

    Thank You for sharing this article. Being a parent and a teacher what Rita shares with us, as well as your comments are priceless lessons affecting the heartfelt communications and connections I have with others.

  2. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    What an inspiring talk. It also brought tears to my eyes. Thanks for sharing. Cecilia

  3. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    How can one watch Rita's message on TED and not be moved, even more so knowing that this wonderful, beautiful lady has now gone to her God. I was deeply saddened to read of her sudden passing, especially since I had only just met her through the broadcast. WOW! What a message she had. Rita, I am going to miss you so much but I shall always watch you for as long as I can, over and over, because your message and YOUR legacy is with us who are educators and I can only hope to be a small part of the kind of teacher Rita was. I shall endeavour to be a teacher she would have been proud to know herself and I will, with great respect, take into my own heart Rita Piersen and remember her forever, the message she gave and let it live on inside us who admire this dear, dear lady so very, very much. We are privileged to have heard her message and let it never be forgotten, just as SHE must never be forgotten….pass it on people, pass it on.
    May your God hold you in his hands for eternity Rita…thank you for being our CHAMPION!!

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