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November 1, 2008

It's All About Relationships

Innovative British school practices show how we can learn withstudents—notfor them.
Twentieth-century education policy was all about getting more students into better schools for longer periods of their lives—and ensuring high-quality teaching. Many people suggest that 21st-century education policy should be about pupils accessing learning through the Internet and other technologies rather than in school settings. I think the future should be about neither, at least not primarily.
The key issue for this century is whether schools can provide more children with relationships that support learning. What tools, policies, and institutions we use to achieve that goal is secondary.
If we want to design schools that promote student ownership of learning, one underlying principle must come to the fore: Relationships are essential for learning.
Learning is best done with people, not for them. It is most effective when learners are participants rather than recipients. The central element in promoting learning, therefore, is promoting relationships—teacher-pupil relationships; peer-to-peer relationships; and children's relationships with siblings, mentors, and role models. All the traditional and high-tech resources of education—from whiteboards to the Internet and even to classrooms themselves—are best understood as different kinds of interfaces for relationships that support learning.
Learning also happens between teacher and pupil as they share ideas and knowledge. Such sharing of ideas is vital if students' learning is to evolve into a self-managed activity. Gradually pupils move from learning from a teacher to learning with a teacher to learning independently or with peers.

Innovative Approaches to Relationship Building

For the past few years, I have researched and visited innovative government-funded schools in the United Kingdom that use personalized approaches to learning. Most are secondary schools, serving pupils from age 11 to 18. All these schools serve populations who come to school at risk of low achievement. They set raising students' aspirations and changing their attitudes toward learning as main goals. Their reforms—redesigning classrooms; introducing new curriculums; changing timetables to offer variability in the pace, place, or style of learning; creating new teaching roles; or providing extensive social support—also have the common aim of enhancing relationships for learning. Four aspects of building relationships are key: encouraging participation, providing recognition, helping students feel cared for, and fostering motivation.

Build Participation

Authentic learning relationships build participation. For example, at EastFeast, a collaborative project of 16 schools in East Anglia, pupils participate in a schoolwide vegetable-growing project that culminates in a harvest and a feast the school cooks for the local community. Much of the learning in EastFeast schools is organized around this goal. I observed pupils learning about math and biology as they planted carrots in the school's garden plot, making ceramic plates in art class, and creating a dance and song about food with a local musician.
Teachers whom I interviewed talked about the garden allotments as leveling environments in which adults and students cooperate more openly than in a classroom. This project creates a "third space" for learning between the school and the community. Pupils learn side by side with teachers, artists, gardeners, and parents.
At Bridgemary, a secondary school in the south of England, this ethic of participation underlies an extensive program to promote student voice in running the school. More than 100 pupils take part in Bridgemary's student leadership. They run clubs and school teams and represent their classes on the school council. Student leaders interview staff members before they are appointed.
Because these schools see students as resources, not recipients of services, they draw out students' contributions to their own learning.

Offer Recognition

Children need to be recognized for who they are, where they come from, and what they achieve. If young people feel disaffected with school because they are unrecognized there, they may search for affirmation outside of school, sometimes through drugs, crime, and sex. But schools can be what social observer Avner Offer calls "economies of regard"—places where people can build a positive reputation. Recognition must go beyond academic achievement; for youth, the affirmation that counts comes from peers.
The schools I explored are invested in building up such economies of regard. For example, at Bridgemary, which serves a distressed community with a history of low school achievement, pupils are grouped and taught by ability rather than by age. Older learners are encouraged to act as mentors or tutors to younger ones. Bridgemary also has a highly flexible learning timetable to give youth opportunities to work to their highest potential. Teachers devote more time to those who need it to develop core skills, whereas about 20 percent of pupils accelerate their learning, including taking standardized exams a year early.
Bridgemary recently introduced an "early window for learning"; they allow 50 upper-grades students to arrive at school at 7:30 a.m. and leave at 1:00 p.m., often to pick up siblings from school or pursue out-of-school activities. In the past school year, the number of Bridgemary pupils who passed at least five General Certificates of Secondary Education (a qualification indicating mastery in a specific subject) at high levels rose from fewer than 35 percent to more than 50 percent.
Cramlington Community High School in Northumberland, with 2,300 pupils, is creating personal learning plans that give pupils greater scope in recording and presenting work they feel personally proud of. Cramlington's strategy includes what they call Learning to Learn programs that make students better able to plan and reflect on their own learning. All students in year 9, for example, undertake an extensive project together as a team, such as researching and planning a charity initiative. Beginning in 2008, Learning to Learn will become part of the school's core curriculum for years 7 and 8.

Make Students Feel Cared For

Children need relationships that help them feel cared for and secure. Many of these schools serve a significant minority of pupils who face emotional and social challenges brought on by poverty, domestic violence, or drug addiction among adults in their lives. The schools strive to make sure that pupils feel cared for and able to look after their own emotional needs through mentoring programs, family support work, or programs to foster emotional resilience. Bridgemary and Cramlington, for example, are developing one-on-one mentoring for pupils.
Darlington Education Village is a federation that brings together on a single campus 1,400 youth who previously attended a traditional primary or secondary school or a special needs school. Many of the students cope with violence and homelessness; some were on the verge of being expelled from school and were quite familiar faces in juvenile courts.
The Education Village reaches its most disaffected pupils by first recognizing that many of them come to school poorly dressed, inadequately fed, and without sufficient sleep. They provide intensive support to those with unstable home lives. The school borrows techniques from schools for students with learning disabilities to personalize learning for its disruptive older pupils. Attendance, motivation, and exam results have improved markedly.

Instill Motivation

  • A program called SECURE through which every pupil is allotted four 50-minute periods every two weeks to stretch, consolidate, catch up on, or reinforce some aspect of their learning. Students choose which subjects they want the extra time and help with.
  • A summer-term "personal challenge" program for all learners in year 9 designed to make them resilient learners. Pupils choose from activities like long-distance cycling, staging a musical, working in a nursing home, or learning to perform magic tricks. Pupils plan and prepare for their challenges as a team and also get help from particular teachers, which improves bonding throughout the school.
  • A weekly skill-building initiative through which pupils in years 7 and 8 learn skills ranging from gardening to fitness exercises from accredited trainers in the community. The program aims to get pupils accustomed to learning with nonteachers through activities they can continue outside school.
  • A personal learning plan that every pupil develops in consultation with his or her parents and personal mentor. The plan provides an overview of each pupil's achievement, goals, and other aspects of school life, including his or her personal challenge in year 9 and after-school activities.
When pupils are supported by relationships with these four features, they will learn. But too often, especially in secondary schools, students feel as if they are being processed by an impersonal education machine. The average British secondary school serves 1,200 pupils. Urban secondary schools often pull from more than 50 different primary and junior schools. In the past 20 years, the curriculum for secondary education has become increasingly standardized in the United Kingdom. Many teachers complain that the burden of centrally imposed targets and inspection regimes undercuts teacher innovation and demotivates pupils, which is one reason many are experimenting with personalization.

Two Cautions

Two cautions are noteworthy here. First, the quality of relationships must change as students develop. Early on, a student may benefit from learning by direct instruction and guidance. As the student grows older, however, student and teacher must adopt a more mature approach to relationships and accommodate collaborative and independent learning styles.
Second, many relationships besides the teacher-pupil relationship influence learning. Pupil-to-pupil relationships influence classroom discipline, collaborative learning, and how motivated and supported each pupil feels. Strong family relationships are vital to giving students motivation and a sense of care. Teacher-to-teacher relationships open up new opportunities for collaborative learning and innovative practice. To strengthen relationships for learning, an education system must have influence in settings beyond the classroom.

A Focus for Reform

A focus on relationships for learning gives schools a clear priority in redesigning their space, timetable, year groups, outreach program, curriculums, workforce, and disciplinary regimes. Many schools secure new resources, equipment, and teachers but fail to deliver change because they do not sustain relationships for learning. Often that's because they work in communities in which family and social networks do not support learning, parents are disengaged from schools, and peer relationships give learning a low status. The deficits in pupil's lives that most affect their capacity for learning are in their relationships, not in the computers or buildings they use.
The main goal of school innovation should not be to install new technology, build new classrooms, devise new patterns to the school day, or even create new curriculums, essential though those are. The main goal should be to provide pupils with the suite of relationships they need, including helping families and communities integrate support for learning into their relationships with youth. To put it a different way, a 21st-century agenda for learning needs to make learning part of each young person's lifestyle and self-image.
To effectively push such an agenda, educators must work "out there" with families and communities as well as in classrooms. Some innovative schools and children's service agencies are reaching out to vulnerable parents to build up their parenting skills and improve home relationships. The city of Manchester, for example, is spending about 1 million pounds a year on intensive parenting programs for parents whose children are at high risk of being expelled from school or taken into care by authorities.

Policy Implications

The successes of the innovative programs described here have clear policy implications: If we are to motivate youth to lead their own learning, schools need to connect pupils with the right kind of relationships. Such an approach will particularly benefit students who are the least motivated and most likely to drop out.
But it is difficult to design policies for relationships. State and federal policies work best for standardized, quantifiable services. Relationships are personal and intangible. The tools of education policy making—standards, regulations, curriculums, inspections—are ill suited to the task of building better relationships.
Instead, society needs approaches that will make it more likely that pupils can develop relationships for learning across schools, in their families, and in communities. The route to a more socially just, inclusive education system is through more personalized approaches to learning. Learningwith, rather than from, should be our motto.
End Notes

1 Offer, A. (2006). The challenge of affluence. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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