One of life’s priorities must be to cultivate and nurture relationships because without them, the rich tapestry of the human experience runs the risk of becoming like the candle that gets lit then placed beneath a table. If no one can see it, then what is the point of lighting it? Or, if we don’t connect to one another, then how do we relate? How can we thrive? In a learning community, positive relationships must be prioritised both before learning occurs and for exceptional learning to occur.
The first step is to reframe the widely assumed belief that relationships are accidental and acknowledge that they can be deliberately forged.
My own schooling made me feel that relationships, whether positive or negative, were unpredictable. Looking back, we were like molecules reacting and bouncing off of one another, sometimes attracting, sometimes repelling, but ultimately without any sense of direction or control over what we were doing. I truly believe that for the most part, every individual has the capacity to attract rather than repel. So, how can we grow positive relationships in our learning community?
We might begin first by offering a forum for open communication. Dialogue should be woven into the very fabric of the community. This doesn’t mean everyone must talk, rather everyone has the opportunity to do so if they wish. Naturally, the sole focus in a learning community is on the learning itself, but without focusing on relationships first, learning might be like those molecules - unpredictable.
In a Learnlife workshop recently, we convened small groups in virtual breakout rooms and asked; how do you prepare a learning community for change? The group I sat in with - and observed without intervention - spent the minutes introducing themselves and largely ignoring the question. It suddenly dawned on me - before working with anyone, you must first connect. It seems so obvious, so why do we often ignore this? Or, why do we sometimes deny learners the opportunity for dialogue if our own instincts tell us otherwise?
Safety is another feature. When we feel socially, emotionally and physically safe, we become relaxed. A safe community can highlight our similar thoughts, weaknesses and fears. And a support network that embraces this type of vulnerability helps develop those important feelings of acceptance, empathy and non-judgement. Creating safety provides us with knowledge that vulnerability is both accepted and acceptable. From this position a culture of trust can emerge.
Collaboration is another critical factor. Consider the solo athlete, the explorer, the artist or the author who understands that their success is the result of the support, advice, wisdom or experiences of their peers or wider team. The same sentiment rings true for the learner. A truly collaborative network encourages personal growth and possibilities for exceptional learning. First we must redefine what collaboration is. It is not simply doing something together. True collaboration is about making authentic connections. It is by connecting that the greatest impact can occur. So, building that collaborative network for the learner is critical.
A support network is vital for adults too. The pressure on the solo practitioner to be responsible for the behavior or actions of their group of learners must be reframed. I had the great fortune of visiting Stonefields School in Aukland, New Zealand last year. One of the rooms I entered was a large open space housing 80+ learners with 3 or 4 practioners present. This was not team-teaching, but a learning space with experts and peers available for support. The most observable feature was that every single learner was fully engaged! Sarah Martin and the team at Stonefields have really nailed the ability to embed whole community relationships that work for everyone.
We have a wonderful opportunity to learn more about ourselves in a community focused on positive relationships and self-reflection provides this. How do I react to conflict? And do I know how to manage it healthily when it arises? Am I supportive of others? How do I, if at all, reach out for help? How do I offer help? Am I approachable? When I am talking with someone, am I really listening to them? Am I providing a safe space for my peers? Do I have any negative thoughts about others that I am aware of and should try to reframe? The questions are endless and every context is different, but a universal self-evaluation framework for relational self-reflection should be available to everyone.
Our vocation as professionals in the education space must be to find that sweet spot for learners. The most effective among us are always questioning, iterating and reflecting. So, what is that sweet spot? Happiness and continued growth might be a relatable answer for most. To grow, learners must firstly feel happy, and to feel happy they must feel safe - physically, emotionally and socially. So, deliberately building positive relationships is the key to providing that continued growth.
One thing I have learnt in 2020 can be summed up by the immortal words of the poet John Donne, ‘No (wo)man is an island, entire of itself.’ I would love to keep reminding myself of this in 2021 and remain grateful for the connections, the community, the support given and that which was received. The artist and singer Joni Mitchell once quipped, ‘don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you got till it’s gone’ and when things go back to normal (hopefully soon), will we forget that which we lost in 2020? Will we forget the wellbeing and loneliness epidemic that has exponentially grown from an increased disconnection to one another?
And finally, can learning communities reflect on the extended experiences of isolation and recognise the importance of cultivating positive relationships before the learning even begins?
Authored by: Bryan Gibson, Research & Paradigm Design at Learnlife