The Relational Nature of Learning
Just as the classroom is the physical context within which learning typically takes place, it turns out that the teacher-student relationship is the psychological context within which students learn. Just as a well-lit, ergonomically appropriate, technologically up to date classroom will increase learning, a strong, healthy teacher-student relationship will similarly boost and deepen learning. And unfortunately, just as a chaotic, run down physical space will interfere with a child's ability to learn, so too will a bereft teacher-student relationship negatively impact learning.
Carl Rogers, the godfather of humanistic psychology, was one of the first to articulate the importance of relationships in supporting personal growth. He wrote:
Rogers' breakthrough was to recognize that facilitating learning and personal growth is not about offering advice. It is about entering into a particular kind of relationship, which he called "helping relationships." This insight led to a revolution in how psychotherapy was conducted. Instead of sitting behind a couch with a clipboard trying to analyze one's patient, psychologists began relating to their clients, person to person.
This insight into the primacy of relationships, as impactful as it was within the therapeutic community, transcends the field of psychotherapy. In fact, Rogers recognized this himself:
Over half a century later, we have yet to fully absorb the significance of Rogers' insight. In my own work with youth the relational approach has proved time and time again to be incredibly effective, which has only served to heighten my awareness of the ineffectiveness that inevitably follows when educators fail to nurture the teacher-student relationship.
There seem to be two primary reasons people struggle to grasp the importance of relationships in an educational context. The first is that relationships are abstract. They are not objects that you can pick up, examine, dissect. Rather, relationships are the interplay between objects. When people try to figure out how to improve teaching they typically either focus on what the teacher is doing wrong or what the student is. Thus, it is not uncommon to hear parents or students complain about teachers while the teachers are simultaneously complaining about the students or parents.
This either/or mindset is common. Take, for example, the following article recently published in the Parenting section of the Washington Post, whose author Laura Hanby Hudgens asks in the title: Do teachers care more about schoolwork than your kids do? After listing off a number of legitimate problems occurring within education today, Hudgens states: “But there is another problem, one that is plaguing many of America’s classrooms and jeopardizing the future of our children, yet it is rarely addressed — at least not as it should be. That problem is apathy. In classrooms all over the country, the teacher cares more about her students’ grades, learning and futures than they do.”
Hudgens is not necessarily wrong. When kids are apathetic, it negatively impacts learning. But this framing doesn't ask why the kids are apathetic. It simply locates that apathy within them. What if that apathy is a reaction to the context they are in?
To be fair, Hudgens is pushing back against a growing number of people who, rather than blaming children, blame teachers. She writes:
It is problematic to expect teachers to continually make learning more fun and exciting. Doing so inevitably leads to teacher burnout.
Because most of us fail to recognize the importance of the relational nature of learning, two camps tend to form, each pointing the finger at the other.
According to developmental psychologist Gordon Neufeld, who has built significantly upon Rogers' humanistic theories, a similar issue commonly arises in how we think about parenting difficulties. Neufeld writes, “Many experts assume … if parenting is not going well, it is because parents are not doing things rights.” What is needed, then, is the right method or technique. He continues:
Neufeld here is pointing to the same insight we say articulated by Rogers above. The relationship creates the context for the behavior of the child, not the methods employed by the parents or the character of the child. As Neufeld is quick to explain:
But Neufeld sums up his view as follows: “Parenthood is above all a relationship, not a skill to be acquired.”
The second reason we often overlook the relational perspective is that we already subscribe to a different, competing model of the world that is more mechanical. This model is states that the way to influence people’s behavior is through offering incentives and disincentives, punishments and rewards. This is the territory of Behaviorism, which intentionally does not try to figure out what is going on inside of people, since according to that view, this is ultimately futile. Instead, Behaviorism invites to to only look at observable behaviors and to figure out what contingencies lead to the desired outcomes.
There is an elegance to this, a simplicity. No more psychoanalyzing. No more messy interpretations. However, while this model may be good for influencing (aka controlling) people, the approach it leads to simply does not support healthy child development. While using punishments and rewards when raising children is at times practical, the Behaviorist approach leads to an objectification of the role of parent. We end up managing teen behavior rather than tending to the quality of our relationships with our children.
It tends to look like this: as the teen starts to push back against the strategy of punishments and rewards, the parent sees no other option but to double down on their behavior management strategy. Rather than improving the situation, this just fuels a growing power struggle between the parent and the teen, one that puts a strain on both parties and gets in the way of what the teen needs most, which is a deeper connection with the parent.
Part of the problem with the Behaviorist approach is that even when we are rewarding a child for good behavior, it is still fundamentally a relationship of control. Our main focus is on getting that person to do something. Even when we are clear that we are doing this for their own good, say offering a reward for good grades, it is still about modifying behavior, not about relating.
Which brings us back to Rogers. In his work, Rogers didn’t just state that relationships are important for personal growth. He also began to articulate what effective "helping relationships" look like, ultimately settling upon three core principles that lead to positive learning and growth in others:
All three of these insights are important, but let’s take the first one for a moment. This idea is sometimes summed up being authentic. To show up in a relationship authentically takes some amount of courage, even when (or perhaps especially when) this relationship is with a teenager. In fact, teens are more sensitive to realness than most adults and can smell a "phony" from a mile away (see Catcher in the Rye). So this first principle is particularly important when working with, or raising, teens.
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One time, a student came in to see me who had been struggling in math. As a tutor, my job was, ostensibly, to help her understand the math and thereby get better grades. But when this student arrived at my office it was clear she was completely shut down to the learning process. Her posture was slumped, her homework crumpled in her bag, her affect flat. When I ask her what she had been struggling with she said, matter-of-factly, “Pretty much everything. I really hate math."
In situations like this, it is tempting to try to cheer the person up. We want them to feel better. We want them to look on the bright side. We hope that a more optimistic take on life will lead to action. The problem with this approach is that it is ultimately about trying to get the student to act, which is to say it is still focused on behavior. But in doing so, I would not be signaling to the student my concern for her, as a person, which is the relational thing to do. I would be signaling that my concern is ultimately with getting her to produce certain academic results.
In this case, what I actually did was set the math aside and started getting to know her. I started learning about her and what was important to her. We did not end up doing any math that first session. Nor during the second. Nor during the third! And then, just as I was starting to doubt the relational approach myself, the next time she came in - as if it was the most natural thing in the world for her to do - she pulled out her math and we got to work.
I am convinced that if I had tried to speed things along, if I had tried to get this student to start on the math before she was really ready, it would have backfired. For whatever reason, she simply was not open to it. By letting the process unfold as I did, I signaled to this student that my allegiance was to her, not to achieving a particular result, nor to my role as tutor. In most cases, it does not take three full sessions to prove where my commitment lies. In fact, it had never taken that long before, nor has it since. But the underlying principle is the same. Once this student realized that I was not going to coerce her, or even try to convince her, to do her work her perspective shifted. Allowing her to open up at her own pace helped build enough trust for her feel ready to finally ask for help.
Let’s return, for a moment, at the “apathy problem” mentioned above. Apathy in students is a real phenomenon, one I encounter often enough. But I view it differently than Hudgens. She sees it as a problem with the mentality of students. She writes, “Many students don’t see education as a privilege. They see it as a product. And if they don’t like the salesperson, if they aren’t impressed with how it’s packaged, they aren’t buying.” In other words, apathy is the result of entitled attitudes on the part of students.
Hudgens is not alone in her view. I have heard, myself, teachers complain about how “entitled” students are these days. But I work with many of the same students they do and, oddly, an majority of them have been respectful and kind, and have expressed gratitude for the help they've received. It is possible that I only the "good" kids are coming through my doors, but I think a different explanation is far more likely. Kids respond to their environments, as we all do.
When I see a student displaying apathy, I don’t see an entitled child who doesn’t care. I see a discouraged student who is afraid to care because it would be too vulnerable to do so. This difference in interpretation leads to a very different kind of intervention. Instead of trying to convince the student to care more, I work to help the student see a path to success. I work to empower that student. And then, when they experience a renewed sense of confidence, they can once again risk caring.
Hudgens states that “teachers and parents need practical strategies for encouraging students to take responsibility for their own learning.” But her recommendations for overcoming apathy are circular: “Sit in the front. Take notes. Ask questions. Be organized. Do all the work.” These are the actions of an already motivated student, not what one should do to generate motivation. Generating motivation is not about forcing oneself to act like a motivated student, but to shift one's relationship to school.
The reality is, kids don’t mean to become apathetic so they likewise don’t know how to stop being apathetic, even when they want to. They need us in order to grow and change. In the same way kids need teachers to learn how to multiply and divide, they also need to be taught how to care about school. In the same way young children need us to learn how to walk and talk, older children need us to learn how to apply themselves.
Children of all ages pattern themselves after the people to whom they are most attached. This is why attending to the quality of our relationships matters so much. Whether at home or in the classroom, to help children reach their full potential we can't only focus on correcting their behavior, we have to be willing to enter into authentic, supportive relationships with them. It's not always easy, but in my experience it is both extremely rewarding and effective.