Relationships for learning: making the implicit explicit

In a new blog piece published by the Relational Schools Project a teacher reflects on the discovery of the importance of Relational Thinking in the class room, acknowledging that things like the teacher-pupil relationship should be part of the pedagogy.

“An overwhelming number of students, when asked questions about their motivation and engagement at school, responded with ‘it depends on the teacher’. Follow up interviews conducted by the Faculty of Education reinforced the correlation: students’ perception of the quality of the connection that they had with their teachers played a significant part in their engagement in lessons, subjects and with school as a whole”, she writes.

Then, a little later, she describes an observation from a study among teachers, about their teaching and the relationships with their pupils:

“For many colleagues it was the first time that they were being directly invited to focus on their pedagogy in this way. Arguably one of the most fundamental aspects of their teaching had become tacit knowledge and a number of them found it hard to identify the relational elements of their practice – it was just how they taught.

While there’s a place for nostalgic reminiscence of teacher-pupil relationships in ‘My best teacher’ articles and leaving speeches, it’s a subject relatively devoid from professional dialogue, teacher training, aside from the ubiquitous ‘don’t smile until Christmas’ NQT adage. Should this occurrence be a matter let to teachers’ own personal idiosyncrasies, given the potential impact that it can have on learning and engagement?”

Would  you like to read the whole article? Please go here.

The Relational Schools Project is launching the premiere of the documentary the Relational Teacher during the 2015 Relational Thinking International Conference, taking place in Cambridge, 16 – 18 September. There are still tickets available!

 

 

The Relational Student: developing social capital capacity

CAMBRIDGE – By Robert Loe, Director of the Relational Schools Project.

This week saw the final day of filming for “The Relational Teacher”. The film explores a pedagogy for relationships and has followed six outstanding teachers and their classes. Whilst we have sought to highlight teacher practice/behaviours that lead to strong relationships in the classroom, the film has explored the view of students as well; their objective perspective has been crucial in understanding the subtle nuance of relationship building.

In turning the spotlight on the students, it becomes clear that being a Relational Teacher is not a solitary pursuit. The best Relational Teachers describe the environment of the Relational School (highly suited to their way of working); the Relational Staffroom (teachers who build relationships in community) and the Relational Student. A fundamental question has arisen from our work; to what extent do we need to develop the relational capacities of young people so that relationship building in the classroom becomes a shared responsibility?

In an attempt to analyse, observe and describe the ways teachers build social capital with those around them – I was struck by the need to develop the same social capital capacities in the very young people in their care.

Do relationships with teachers even matter?

The theory of social capital was distilled into two words by Field: “relationships matter” (Social Capital, London, Routledge 2003). The significance of a relational dimension is depicted in most models of social capital. The building blocks of social capital include: trust; engagement and connection; collaborative action; shared identity as well as shared values and aspirations.

When students have a positive teacher-student relationship, they adjust to school more easily, view school as a positive experience, exhibit fewer behaviour difficulties, display better social skills, and demonstrate higher academic achievement (Buyse et al., 2009). They are also more active participants in class, express a greater interest in [schooling], and maintain higher grade point averages (Hallinan, 2008)

Although both parental and teacher support are important in predicting students’ achievement, several studies indicate that student-perceived teacher connection was the most closely associated factor with progress through Key Stages 3 and 4 (Gregory & Weinstein, 2004). Positive student-teacher relationships serve as a resource for students at risk of school failure, whereas conflict or detachment between students and adults are the foundations of disconnection and, specifically, outcomes such as truancy. Research by the Centre for Social Justice (2000) suggests that over two-thirds of all those who truant do so in order to avoid a particular lesson, with ‘relationship with the teacher’ cited as one of the principal grounds for relational breakdown. Where relationships are strong in the classroom, they can surmount social inequality; where they are poor or dysfunctional, evidence suggests they reinforce educational disadvantage. Simply put, students who have difficulty forming supportive relationships with teachers are at a greater risk of school failure (Ladd & Burgess, 2001).

Developing Relational Resilience 

So, how do we actively create social capital within school communities?

Research indicates that not all students have equal access to the opportunity to develop close relationships with their teachers. According to Jerome, Hamre, and Pianta (2009), some subgroups (including certain ethnic minority groups, males, those of lower ability or those who exhibit externalising behaviours such as aggression or hyperactivity) experience teacher relationships with more conflict than their peers. Likewise, students with emotional disturbances, mild learning disabilities or students who display more problem behaviours at home have more conflictual relationships with teachers than with students without these problems.

Whilst education has witnessed a shift in focus in relation to the students’ role, the learning and assessment processes, teacher-to-student relationships remain asymmetrical. As such there is, perhaps, an expectation, that it is the responsibility of the teacher to develop the  professional working relationship between them and the student. But that some groups of students struggle to build close relationships with teachers, more than others, suggests relational capacities of young people are exceptionally important to building strong relationships and need to be developed. We need to help to develop relational resilience in students so that when they meet others who aren’t as good at developing relationships, they can overcome perceived obstacles. Students need to know where to begin and not passively to expect the teacher to initiate the process.

picThe Culture of Open Dialogue

One area that can be focused on to build relational resilience is the area of communication. Effective communication is fundamental to building relationships and consequently students with poor communication skills will struggle to build relationships. One way to develop this is through the practice of dialogue (West-Burnham & Otero, 2004). This dialogue needs to be rich – not just focused on ‘instructional conversation’, but including community conversation, where people can share views and develop social capital. When students practice dialogue with their teachers and classmates, they will develop their communication skills, and likely feel greater mutual respect, thus building relational resilience.

The National College poses eight interrogatives to assess the Relational culture of your classroom/your school. How open is your school’s culture of dialogue?

In our view, there is no surer route to community building and to fulfi lling the promise of democracy and lifelong learning than through the deepening of good, ongoing dialogue. Such dialogue can increase student achievement, transform teaching and learning and renew relationships that connect communities to schools (Preskill et al, 2000)

The Relational Teacher is released this September.

Why relationships matter in schools

By Robert Loe

 The ability to connect to classrooms and to each other is crucial because, in a sense, it is playing out in school, your later relationship with society.


I know relationships matter
.
 Relationships matter far more than we like to openly talk about and yet I haven’t met someone yet who didn’t agree. On Monday 26th January, however, I listened to Prof Colleen McLaughlin speak about why relationships matter in the context of education. I have never heard someone speak with such authority on the subject. Prof McLaughlin, drawing on decades of research (a lifetime’s work), asked her audience to accept several “assumptions” about why relationships matter. Why “assumptions” I thought? The evidence presented was utterly compelling and supports everything that I believe and that Relational Schools Project has uncovered in its own research in the last year. So why “assumptions”?

I take it the reason is that, in Professor’s McLaughlin’s view, she is “yet to see a school take relationships on as a topic“. Well this is the work I would like to do for a lifetime. Today, I want to share with you why relationships matter, and the reasons many of the schools we work with have already taken on this challenge.

Relationships matter because “learning is mutual and deeply social”

McLaughlin reminds us that relationships matter because they lie at the heart of the way children learn. Learning is not an individual cognitive thing; it is a social thing. I know I make this sound a little trite but it has enormous implications for how we view classroom environments. You cannot learn if you are frightened. You cannot learn if you are unhappy. You cannot learn if you feel you don’t belong in a classroom.

What’s more, you cannot hope that by adding an intervention, yet another activity to the ever-growing list of a teacher’s workload, you can make people feel engaged. Rather this is a radical change in mindset. You have to change everything.

Everything matters

You have to change the way children relate to each other in the classroom. You change the way you do learning in a way that assimilates mutuality and relationships. You have to change the way teachers relate to each other in the staffroom and challenge the values that teachers are made to operate under. And let’s be clear when teachers hear the message of Relational Schools Project, they like it and they like it because it reminds them of why they became teachers in the first place: they love children and they want to see them grow up, mature and send them off to build a society not just hold down the job. Such values are distinctive from the values of our current system which espouses competition, standardised testing and fear. In Singapore they have a word that encapsulates this value: the word is “kiasu” – be afraid to fail.

 What is enacted in schools and their surrounding communities on a daily basis matters because they shape the personal and social development of young people.

Why student-student relationships matter

We know that about the age of 8 or 9 young people begin to gravitate towards the peer group and they become the most significant source of emotional support. When young people are in trouble they go to their friends first. We know that if you want to intervene in the mental health of young people, the most powerful thing they can have is a friend. That’s why we worry (and we should worry) about young children who struggle to form relationships  or who seem isolated.

Being victimized by your peers at school is significantly linked to low levels of psychological well-being, low levels of social adjustment and higher levels of psychological disturbance. What’s more, we know that if problems remain into adolescence, they often last into adulthood. As the result, the most powerful thing you can do with a young person is intervene while they are at school.

How should teachers respond?

What we tend to do as teachers when we see someone experiencing peer difficulty is form a good relationship with the student. Research shows we need to do something quite different: the most effective intervention is to encourage interactions with all the people in the classroom. But this seems daunting doesn’t it? How can I achieve this? How can I maintain it? How can I control it? Isn’t this the job of the pastoral teams of the school? Teaching and learning, on these terms, becomes far more than supporting academic outcomes; it is the foundation to academic success and personal and social growth.

Most young people think they have a very good relationship with their teachers but McLaughlin found that there was a statistically significant group who have strong negative relationships with staff  and they were often young people with mental health difficulties. That is not irreparable. We know that if a child is depressed and they can form good relationships with staff they will improve.

Research, which I explored in a piece for BERA recently, also shows that students with insecure attachments in the home tend to experience dysfunctional insecure relationships with staff but if teachers can “disconfirm” historical insecurities then those students “fare better socially, emotionally and academically” (O’Connor and McCartney, 1997). Moreover, Smith and Rutter found that where young people have strong relationships with teachers, they are less like to become involved in anti-social or criminal behaviour and far more likely to have increased engagement with school.

Positive school relationships correlate well with student motivation, student engagement and academic outcomes. More recent studies of relationships in school have found historical, “concurrent and longitudinal connections with school attainment and adjustment outcomes….popular/accepted students tend to do well academically and are more prosocial, and have higher self-regulatory skills” (Blatchford and Baines, 2010: p.239). In short the more connected a student feels to their peer group, the more likely they are to flourish. Michael Rutter adds that being connected is more than just the ability to make friends and is as powerful as being literate or numerate. The ability to connect is linked strongly with feelings of self-efficacy; I feel that I can be effective in the world. Such students in his study were ten times more likely to be employed and ten times more likely to be in a stable, longstanding relationship such as a marriage.

You see, relationships matter because “the ability to connect to classrooms and to each other is crucial because, in a sense, it is playing out in school, your later relationship with society” (McLauglin, 2015).

I was inspired by Colleen McLaughlin this week. I hope you will be too?

Robert Loe is the Director of the Relational Schools Project, an education research and consultancy group based in Cambridge and a member of the Relational Thinking Network. This blog originally appeared on the Relational Schools Project website.

Relational Schools Project launched

CAMBRIDGE, UK – February 5, 2014 Relational Research has launched a new education initiative that will put relationships at the heart of school organisation, curriculum and practice.

The Relational Schools Project will run for an initial period of three years and will focus on a range of schools across the UK and internationally.

Robert Loe, Director of the Relational Schools Project, said ‘I am delighted to announce the launch of this education initiative. Education is currently in a period of sustained reform and this presents a great opportunity for us to consider what education is for. We want to make use of this opportunity to ensure that human relationships are kept at the heart of the system. In doing this we ensure that the whole community benefits.’

 

Further information

More information about the project can be found on the Relational Schools Project website www.relationalschools.org.

Alternatively, you can also send an email to office@relationalschools.org.