Relationships: Why they're fundamental to learning

By Steve Weaver, FWCL Instructor

Would you buy a car from a person you never met - sight unseen? Would you allow a contractor you never heard of to build your new dream house? Would you go on a scuba dive with an uncertified dive instructor you only talked with briefly? Would you go out on a blind date to a desolate canyon? 

In our society, we value getting to know someone. Establishing relationships is fundamental in developing trust. The more we feel we truly know and respect someone, the more we're willing to do something with the other person. It's fairly logical. You need to drop your levels of uncertainty (see uncertainty reduction theory) about others by getting information from them. We've all had that teacher who was more accessible than the rest, the one that laid themselves out before us in order to get to know them better. Those who you could relate with on a deeper level. I remember Dr. Rancer at the University of Akron and the songs he would sing before class, or Sister Theresa who would tell funny jokes as her face would turn bright red from laughing, or Mr. Ryan who saw that I was struggling in chemistry and had a heartfelt one-on-one with me. They were the people who seemed to "get it" and would take the time to understand. The adults who are better able to connect with students can elicit more opportunites to learn.

According to Sara Rimm-Kaufman, PhD, "If a student feels a personal connection to a teacher, experiences frequent communication with a teacher, and receives more guidance and praise than criticism from the teacher, then the student is likely to become more trustful of that teacher, show more engagement in the academic content presented, display better classroom behavior, and achieve at higher levels academically."

An organization called the Search Institute has been conducting some really interesting research into what they call "Developmental Relationships" which they believe are essential in helping youth "attain the psychological and social skills that are essential for success in education and in life." I think the last three words from that quote are very important and telling. The relationships should not be built merely to make the learning process more efficient and easier for adults to deliver, they should be built because adults genuinely care about the lives of young people. It's what Aristotle coined "ethos" all those years back. Of course it must be mixed in with a lot of "pathos" and "logos." Kids, like the rest of us, can sense that genuine care in interactions. There needs to be the care, the logic, and the passion to help build children who not merely survive in learning endeavors and in life, but thrive. 

You can find more about the Developmental Relationships Framework on their Web site, but I'll hit on the main points. There are five components to the framework: express care, challenge growth, provide support, share power, and expand possibilities. I love some of the sub points from the "Express Care" component. Among these are being present, warm, dependable and showing interest. Presence to me is huge in learning with every student. It's devoiding yourself of all the judgments and conjecture you may be thinking and trying to be in that room at that very second and trying to understand the person across from you fully. Showing interest has, I'll repeat - HAS, to be genuine. Everyone has the need to be heard because they have a greater need to be understood. Learning things about kid's lives and then letting them know whenever you see them that you're still thinking about things they've mentioned like their basketball game, or the aspiration they have to be a painter, goes a long way. 

Challenging Growth (the next component) has to be done carefully in my opinion. I saw a graph at a conference I attended with Jon Kinyon and Ike Lasater that put it in perspective - see the graph to the left. If we push too hard, then frustration (among other feelings) may occur and the learning process may be hindered. Too little challenge over time and we get bored. The sub points to the Search Institute's framework with Challenge Growth include inspiring, expecting, stretching, and limiting. This means expressing clear expectations that would make you happy to see the student recognize. Having the expectation of yourself that you will always encourage them to live up to their limitless potential is critical. With "stretch" it's important to recognize what they can already do while showing them that they can do even more! Lastly, inspiring students comes a lot through showing your passion for learning. If you can equate learning to everything in life (which it is) for them, you can open many doors and get that "motivated" student. 

The Search Institute's third component, Provide Support, highlights encouraging youth by praising efforts and achievements, guiding by providing feedback and assistance, modeling to provide an encouraging role model, and advocating to stand up for the student when they need it. This is where you can show that you're legit. It's giving help when it's needed, but not walking the path for them. It's showing them the path and shouting "YOU GO" all along the way while they take the walk along it. It's also walking the walk you always talk. If you're excited about your family, your music, about the student across from you - show it. It's when you say you'll write any one of them a recommendation letter and then actually do it (I've written many!). Overall, it's about being there for the students. 

Their fourth component, Share Power, really resonates with me. "Hear my voice and let me share in making decisions." It's about having a "power with" approach rather than a "power over" approach. In his article, "How to Create Nonreaders," Alfie Kohn illustrates how a "working with" approach in regards to encouraging kids to become readers is more effective than a "doing to" approach because it involves the kids in the decision-making process. Kids who have more of a say in what they do in regards to tasks, like reading, become more invested and have greater potential to learn. As Kohn said, "... the fact is that kids learn to make good decisions by making decisions, not by following directions. Conversely, students who have almost nothing to say about what happens in class are more likely to act out, tune out, burn out, or simply drop out." Developing a relationship that is based on working with a student leads to much more fulfilling outcomes. 

Lastly, we come to Expand Possibilities. Adults have many, many experiences they can share with the up-and-comers. They can guide students toward making decisions that will fulfill their needs and help them navigate obstacles that might be hindering the learning process. As the Search Institute says, it's also about connecting them with people who can help them grow. Do they want to be a nurse? Connect them. Do they want to be a fire fighter? Go down to the station. Do they want to be a zoo keeper? You get the drift. it's important to have more than one person guiding them. An important component to this is also exploring new ideas, experiences, and places. Studies on ADHD find that just walking outside can reduce the effects on attention. The more that kids experience the better. The brain is constantly making new connections. Check out this quick video. Kids who are exposed to more conversations, more cultural experiences, more art, more hands-on work, more of everything, are given a gift they'll carry with them for their whole lives. 

Relationships are not only important, they're fundamental in building engaged learners. Relationships are why we have most of what we have in society today. In this ever-changing age of exponential growth in technology that may make learning less relationship-based, it's important to keep in mind what exactly helps us grow and learn as humans. More and more we're finding that it's not a computer screen or the latest trend or technique, but a caring person with which we can have a meaningful relationship. 

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