From the First Nations Principles of Learning: Learning is Relational

From the First Nations Principles of Learning: Learning is Relational

Learning is Relational, by Rob Wahl

More and more we are learning how a key humans need is connectedness. Some have demonstrated, for example, that addictions are well predicted by connection. Gordon Neufeld has been one of the best advocates for those who school their children at home. He describes how learning has a context and perhaps the most important part of that context is the relationship between learner and teacher. Neufeld describes in terms of an “attachment”; and he asserts how attachments are fundamental to how Such a relationship sets up the emotional state (neurotransmitters, hormones and even epigenetic controls) that prepares the young brain for new thoughts and ideas. Their young brains are making sense of that complex world they now apprehend but do not understand. And so, it is that what we believe the world to depend more on the social and emotional environment in which we view the world than what exactly we view in the world.

A decade earlier psychiatrist M. Scott Peck, a later convert to the Christian Faith, wrote about how the social and emotional environment of a child becomes the foundation for how children make sense of the world. The way he put it this: the child assumes the whole world is the way the family is. If the family is loving and caring, then so is the world. If the family is unpredictable and at times hostile and dangerous, then so is the world. If love and affection in short supply, then assume that you must do everything to find it.

I spent more than a decade working with many challenged youths. Many of them came from homes where addiction, abuse, and family dysfunction led to children who saw the world as truly hostile. I remembered as a teen how life-changing it was to have a connection with a teacher. Amid turmoil and neglect at home, I became emotionally attached to these teachers, which at the time I kept hidden, for to me it was a little embarrassing. But I discovered as a teacher that I needed to be emotionally available to my students so that I could build a professional relationship with them. Students experience this relationship as a form of emotional attachment, and it is secure because it does not depend on their performance. I would offer each student a professional relationship by deliberately taking time to learn about their lives and signaling that I care as one human to another. One cannot compel another human being into a relationship, but must students to accept the offer. The relationship becomes reciprocal and profoundly powerful. With such a relationship, I was also able to talk to them about functional and dysfunctional conduct that was affecting them as learners. I have a love/hate relationship with teacher movies. (Who can live up to them?) But I must say, To Sir with Love, Mr. Hollands Opus, and School of Rock certainly do well in portraying the power of reciprocal relationships in education.

There are many examples of how learning is relational in our own experiences. We know of Jesus that he fostered master/disciple relationships as a foundation for learning. We think of the close relationship between journeyman and apprentice. There is an academic relationship between students and their academic advisors. All these are emotional attachments that we remember throughout our lives. None of these relationships is anything like the parent/child relationship. We know that this relationship will help children navigate the complexities of life; but we should also consider how our relationship affects what our children are learning academically as well.