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Relational learning… say what?

The title of this essay reflects my nervousness at education’s growing trend toward coining catchy names for new ideas and approaches. This is especially the case when the term involves converting a verb into a noun. Examples such as “experiential learning,” “service learning” and yes, “relational learning,” the subject at hand, come immediately to mind.

The reasons for my concern are twofold. First of all, learning is a dynamic act, full of complexity and nuance, even mystery. I can’t tell you how many times over the years I have been unable to identify just exactly how a certain child actually learned to read. But, when an action, such as a young person’s learning directly from his or her own experience by means of observation, experimentation and discovery, is reduced to a thing, such as what is popularly known today as “experiential learning,” it is rendered into just that, a passive, inert thing. It becomes something—some thing—to manipulate and measure, to bottle and sell, always at great cost to the mystery. My worries are confirmed when I start hearing statements like, “Let’s add an experiential learning component to the curriculum.”

Which leads me to my second concern: When an innovation gets dressed up in a catchy label, it isn’t long before it attains buzzword status, often endangering the meaning and intent of the original idea. An example would be young people’s spontaneous desire to serve others by volunteering in soup kitchens and nursing homes being turned into completing the service learning requirement the student needs in order to graduate from high school.

So what does it mean, this “relational learning?” What I like about the term, even if it is the stuff of which buzzwords are made, is its dual meaning. There is the idea of learning within relationships, and then of learning about relationships.

Perhaps the best description I have ever read of the former can be found in Sylvia Ashton-Warner’s classic book, Teacher (Simon and Schuster 1963):

From long sitting, watching and pondering (all so unprofessional), I have found out the worst enemies to what we call teaching. The first is the children’s interest in each other. It plays the very devil with the orthodox method. If only they’d stop talking with each other, fighting each other and loving each other. This unseemly and unlawful communication! In self-defense I’ve got to use the damn thing. So I harness the communication, since I can’t control it, and base my method on it.

They read in pairs, sentence and sentence about. There’s no time for either to get bored. Each checks the other’s mistakes and hurries him up if he’s too slow, since after all, his own turn depends on it. They teach each other all their work, sitting cross-legged knee to knee on the mat or on their tables, arguing with, correcting, abusing or smiling at each other. And between them all the time is this togetherness, so that learning is so mixed up with relationship that it becomes a part of it. What an unsung creative medium is relationship!

Ashton-Warner spent the first twenty-five years of her career working primarily with the wild children of New Zealand’s aboriginal people, the Maori. She quickly discovered, as did other teacher/writers such as Jonathan Kozol, Herb Kohl and Elliot Wigginton, that conventional school methodology, one that depends on keeping kids separate from each other, was getting her nowhere fast. She began to see the children for who they were, not for who she needed them to be to fit into her daily routine. And who they were was a mad tangle of relationships, in all of its noisy, chaotic, unpredictable glory. As soon as she began to honor their “unseemly and unlawful communication,” the environment transformed itself into a place where “learning is so mixed up with relationship that it becomes a part of it.”

Meanwhile, nearly all teachers live in fear of losing control of the classroom; hence, the desks all in rows, the steady stream of busy work, the perpetual quiet—and the resulting absence of relationships between and among students. Not having experienced Ashton Warner’s successful letting go, or George Dennison’s at the First Street School—which led him to write in Lives of Children (Random House 1969), “The principle of true order lies within the persons themselves”—these anxious educators insist that the sole learning relationship be between teacher and student. The conventional structure that they cling to like a drowning person to a lifeboat demands that they be the nexus of all interactions in the classroom, eliminating any possibility of the kids’ educating each other.

In my school, the Albany Free School, we teachers make every effort to do just the opposite, to stay out of the middle of the action whenever possible. We avoid placing ourselves at the front and center of rectangles, and instead we work in the round, as it were, sitting with students around tables, and in circles of chairs or cushions on the floor. Or we are busy with our own projects while the kids are busy with theirs, knowing they will come to us when they need us. We always leave room for a little anarchy, so that the possibility exists for everyone to meet their own needs in their own way.

Like Ashton Warner, Dennison, and countless others, we observe daily how much children revel in teaching and learning from each other, whether it be math concepts, computer techniques, or new songs and dances. This peer-level educating extends beyond the conceptual and physical to the moral realm as well. For instance, in our dual-purpose school government and conflict resolution forum that we call the council meeting system, kids frequently inform other kids of their current grasp of right and wrong. They share hard-earned personal lessons, and in so doing they help each other to build character. You might call this “relational teaching.” It often carries significantly more weight than even the best sermon from a well-meaning adult.

Allowing children to relate to each other autonomously doesn’t mean that we adults abdicate our natural influence or authority. When it is appropriate for us to guide, we guide. If I see two angry combatants on the verge of doing serious harm to each other, I will step between them and encourage them to substitute verbal for physical blows. What it does mean is that, by avoiding the temptation to micro-manage the interactions between students, we enable them to learn to manage themselves and each other.

All of this, of course, isn’t to devalue solitary learning. Many of us make some of our most profound discoveries when we are alone; in fact solitude and self-reflection are two of the primary ways of attaining Socrates’ imperative of “knowing thyself.” Though this, too, might be viewed as a kind of relational learning, the newly acquired knowledge representing the end-result of a deeper relationship with one’s inner world. Therefore it is essential in the context of school that students be given the time and space to act alone.

I’m referring not to kids performing assigned tasks in isolation at their desks, but rather to them having the freedom to collect their own thoughts, to daydream and to muse, and even to do what might appear to an outside observer as “nothing.”

A debade or so ago, the federal government hired the Carnegie Institute to produce a White Paper on education. The subject: the ongoing crisis in American schools. Every level and facet of our educational system was examined by a bevy of researchers, who concluded that, while there was room for improvement just about everywhere, the real emergency lies at the middle school level.

Emerging adolescents, the paper reported, have a unique set of needs that the nation’s schools are almost entirely ignoring. What young people need above all else during this unique developmental period is support in helping them to grow socially and emotionally. Their primary concern is finding out about themselves and each other—relational learning, in other words, although the phrase wasn’t yet in common use.

Continuing to try to stuff their minds with information is a waste of time, because they simply are not in a receptive state. The fine-tuning of the intellect can wait until high school, when the inner turmoil of puberty has subsided and young people are ready to return their attention outward toward the world.

I was astounded that a government-sponsored study could contain such insight, and even more thrilled to discover that it didn’t propose as a solution some sort of special curriculum on adolescent relationships. What it did recommend was the radical restructuring of middle schools in order to make relationships possible in the first place, so that young people could learn from their own first-hand experience.

Schools should contain no more than 200 students, each of whom should have a readily available mentor so that no one feels anonymous.

Teachers should teach in teams, in order to encourage communication and cooperation among themselves. Even more importantly, teachers should be easygoing, trusted role models, not authoritarian taskmasters. And the atmosphere of the school should be relaxed, not pressure-laden, with allowances in the school day for the kids to have informal downtime with each other.

While I absolutely commend the Carnegie Institute for pointing out the glaring failure of the nation’s middle schools to address the all-important relational needs of adolescents, I was left to wonder to myself: What about our pre-, elementary, and high schools? Surely they are as anti-relational as the middle schools. And it isn’t only thirteen-, fourteen-, and fifteen-year-olds who need ample opportunity to learn about the art of relating to others.

What the Carnegie White Paper stopped short of saying was that schools—all schools—should be communities, the real, not the euphemistic kind. They should be places of cooperative endeavor where teachers and students are on the same side pursuing common goals and where there are frequent exchanges of energy, affection, and inspiration. Schools that empower students to share in the responsibility for educating themselves and each other, and for keeping the school on track, are veritable laboratories for interpersonal relations.

And what could be more important than learning about the politics of people—the earlier the better? As A.S. Neill was fond of pointing out, all of the knowledge in the world is nothing more than fool’s gold if the individual in possession of that knowledge is unhappy with his or her standing in the world. Doesn’t such happiness depend, perhaps more than anything else, on one’s having satisfying and meaningful relationships with others? In first world countries, where food and medical care are plentiful, loneliness and despair are the leading causes of death.

This brings us to another form of relational learning that might more properly be called “relational healing.” I’m referring here to the healing power of friendship. We have seen more than a few emotionally and attitudinally wounded kids at the Free School who have been kicked around and denied by life to such an extent that, by the time they get to us, they are so angry and confused that they are disconnected both from self and others. They no longer have much interest in learning about anyone or anything.

Because our school is a very diverse community that fosters intimacy and connection, before long even the most alienated children discover someone to whom they want to be close. Even when it is only one other person, the transformative effect of the deepening friendship bond is unmistakable. It’s beautiful to watch kids who have become accustomed to guarding themselves with hostility slowly soften and learn to trust and reach out. Over time, the healing will extend to other relationships, and it will also rekindle an interest in new ideas and experiences.

Aaron was a classic example. When he came to us at the age of ten, he was in very rough shape. He had gone to live withis father because his mother was back in a drug rehab program for the umpteenth time. A drug abuse counselor, the dad did not at all like the fact that his son had been taking Ritalin for the past three years; he had heard that the Free School refused to administer such biopsychiatric, so-called “medications.”

Aaron had a long history of school failure and accompanying behavioral problems. He spent his first couple of months with us zooming around, generally wreaking havoc everywhere he went. Every day he would find a new limit to test. Fortunately, at the same time he was gradually falling in love with two other boys in his age group. Of course, his rampant homophobia would never allow him to admit to such a thing, but a love affair it was. The three became inseparable—and at times insufferable.

One of Aaron’s new friends, thankfully, was an artist. He began teaching Aaron and the other boy to draw, and by mid-year the three could be found spending hours at a stretch co-creating magnificent battle scenes with pencil and large pieces of paper. In the process, Aaron slowed to the pace of the rest of the children. His attention span lengthened dramatically. He seldom got angry any more.

By the end of the year, Aaron was even beginning to do some math and reading. And then, during the summer, he decided that he wanted to return to his old neighborhood school. Without drugs, he re-entered at grade level in a normal classroom and had no difficulty keeping up academically. I know this continued to be the case for the next several years because Aaron would visit us from time to time to tell us how he was doing.

Ethan was the first student to teach me about the healing power of the mentor relationship. When Ethan was a yung child, his father was a drug dealer; his mother, an alcoholic. He had never been successful in school, and by the time he found us at the age of eleven, he was virtually allergic to structured learning. What he wanted was an adult friend and mentor, not a classroom teacher. In fact, I don’t think he ever did do any formal schoolwork during the two-and-a-half years he was with us.

I became a young mentor figure for Ethan. As his trust in me grew, he began telling me about his deeply traumatic past. I also learned that Ethan loved nature and the outdoors. Whenever possible I would take him out to the country so that he could roam the fields and streams in search of wildlife. He spent months refining his designs for animal traps, never really caring whether or not he caught anything.

Oddly enough, it was at home in the city that Ethan had his closest encounter with one of nature’s creatures. One morning, while he was on his way to school, he happened upon a tiny starling hatchling. It was still alive, though entirely featherless. When he showed it to me and said that he wanted to take care of it, I thought to myself that there was no way this tiny little bird was going to survive.

The first question was what and how to feed the baby. I suggested to Ethan that he call the wildlife division at the Department of Environmental Conservation and ask for instructions. The expert he spoke with, who turned out to be the New York State Wildlife Pathologist, told him to make a paste out of dry cat food and water and then to use a small stick to get the food all the way to the back of the bird’s throat. To have any chance of surviving, the baby bird must be fed every two or three hours around the clock.

Ethan fashioned a nest box while I went home for some cat food. Amazingly, the hatchling readily accepted Ethan’s offering and ate hungrily several times that first day. Ethan took the bird home with him at three o’clock, saying that he would use his alarm clock to awaken himself for the night feedings.

Although I didn’t expect to see the bird the next morning, I kept my astonishment to myself when Ethan arrived, looking a bit bedraggled, live bird in hand. Days then stretched into weeks, with Ethan proving to be an excellent mother. The starling’s feathers grew in handsomely, and when the time came, Ethan even helped it learn to fly.

Before Ethan released the bird back into its urban environment, I encouraged him to bring the bird to the conservation department offices to show it to the wildlife pathologist, as a way of thanking him for his help. Ethan and the man got along beautifully, and by the end of the visit, the two had made arrangements for Ethan to begin an apprenticeship in the lab there.

The apprenticeship was successful beyond words. Ethan proved to be a capable and trusted assistant. He would even get his mother to drive him out to the lab on Saturdays. He and the pathologist became good friends.

Ethan moved away at the end of his seventh grade year at the Free School, but he has kept in touch with me, and with the wildlife pathologist, his second mentor, ever since. He went on to have a very successful high school career, followed by a four-year stint in the Marines. Currently, he is attending college, having been told by his friend the wildlife pathologist that there is a job waiting for him upon his graduation.

The postscript to Ethan’s story has everything to do with relational healing. Sometime between high school and the Marines, Ethan wrote an essay about his experience at the Free School. He was trying to understand the amazing transformation he had undergone, and he summed up the primary reason for it in a single word: love. The love that he had received from the school community, which he gradually learned to return, was what had enabled him to believe in himself and to reach out for the connections and the challenges that would help him blossom into adulthood.

What is “relational learning,” if not an exchange between people that is grounded in love?

Call it what you will, the learning that goes on within relationships and the learning that goes on about relationships are a fundamental part of the educational process. Anyone who has observed children in a setting that is based on cooperation and mutuality knows this to be so. If there are to be schools at all—and the arguments against them grow more compelling every day—then certainly their justification has to begin with their serving as safe, caring environments where kids can learn from and about each other, where they can establish enduring relationships with teachers and mentor figures, and where can they experience the interconnectedness of all life on a daily basis.

Photo by Jack Delano. At the Vermont state fair, Rutland, VT. Sept 1941.

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