The Education Now webinar, "Socially Distant — and More Connected than Ever," with (clockwise from top left) Dana Winters, Junlei Li, and Richard Weissbourd
In a conversation about the power of human connection — and how a single strong relationship can turn an intolerable situation into a tolerable one, in even the most turbulent times — the Harvard Graduate School of Education drew a virtual audience of about 3,400 people from around the world to the premiere of a new webinar series aimed at parents, educators, and school leaders.
The series is part of a new initiative at HGSE called Education Now — resources, strategies, and thought leadership from HGSE faculty, all offering a response to the dramatic disruption in the field of education in the wake of coronavirus. The Education Now webinar series — 30-minute episodes, with a focus on actionable takeaways — aims to offer valuable ideas to help navigate today's complex education and parenting landscape. Richard Weissbourd, co-director of HGSE’s Human Development and Psychology master’s program and director of HGSE’s Making Caring Common Project, is the host, and future conversations will explore the ideas of leadership in times of crisis and the complexities of college admissions today, among other topics.
In the first episode — "Socially distant — and more connected than ever" — Weissbourd led a conversation with Senior Lecturer Junlei Li and Dana Winters, faculty director of academic programs at the Fred Rogers Center. Li and Winters are early childhood development specialists who lead an initiative called Simple Interactions, which supports educators and caregivers in cultivating strong bonds with young people.
“I think all of us are feeling deprived of human interaction in some ways. I think many of us are also really appreciating human interaction and feeling its preciousness right now,” Weissbourd remarked as the trio discussed the importance of sustaining the simple moments at the heart of daily life, which empower relationships and enable learning.
Inspired by the legacy of Fred Rogers, Li and Winters have studied the power of human interaction in settings like orphanages, group homes, and hospitals, where feelings of isolation and disconnection are common. They shared examples from their lives and their research, highlighting the ways in which human connection can mitigate toxic stress.
“I believe we really can trust the power of having at least one human connection in our lives and that includes being that [connection] for someone else, or reaching out to ask for one,” Li said, adding that while the disruption caused by the virus does push pause on big moments like graduations and birthday celebrations, the strength of connection is really rooted in ordinary moments.
He encouraged participants to find ways to keep up routine interactions, like calling a family member or taking a minute to be silly with your child, albeit at a distance in some cases. “I believe that all of us, no matter our circumstances, can trust in the power of what we as human beings can bring to other human beings,” he said. “From teachers to caregivers to families, people seem to be able to creatively and adaptively find ways to express care for people who are near and people who are far.”
Also important is the intention behind those small moments of interaction. As adults and children often connect through a screen these days, Winters and Li recommended that people think about the ways in which that moment (or device) encourages, enriches, and empowers the human connection. They observed that the laughter brought on by something as minor as a YouTube clip offers the building blocks for a moment of richer connection.
“Learning takes place in a lot of contexts and, while this may not seem like the perfect context for learning, it does not have to be perfect to be effective,” Winters said, noting that thinking about the ways people can allow a little bit of grace for themselves and each other is ever more critical.
Throughout the conversations, participants found small ways to connect via Zoom’s Q+A feature. They greeted one another, asked questions, and shared what they were doing to support their own families and communities. Most were curious about equity, how to support teenagers at home, and how they could find ways to help others.
The next Education Now webinar is Wednesday, April 22, at 3 p.m. It will feature a conversation about how to lead for equity (and with compassion) through crisis and disruption, with Sonja Santelises, Ed.M.’99, Ed.D.’04, CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools.