Relationships As a Foundation for Learning Power


Learning to learn is a theme currently high on school agendas.  Since we cannot know what sort of knowledge we might need in the future, it is senseless to try and teach it ahead of time.  Rather, we should focus on the development of people who love learning and who are able to go on learning throughout life.  The Campaign for Learning talks about the five ‘R’s of learning: readiness, resilience, resourcefulness, remembering and reflection and these themes are common in many analyses of what it means to be an effective learner (Greany & Parsons 2003).


However, another R that is often overlooked, yet is emerging as a key element in the development of learning power, is the theme of relationships.  It seems that the quality of relationships between learners and their teachers is central to the development of a climate where learners can change and grow and develop their capacity to learn.


Positive interpersonal relationships are those where both parties are able to offer the other respect, to listen care-fully and to respond appropriately; where both are able to understand and talk about their feelings.  The quality of dialogue between two people is an important indicator of the health of a relationship and its capacity to weather the changes and challenges of life and growth.


There is a developing body of research that underpins the importance of healthy relationships as the key vehicle through which people learn to learn.  The Effective Lifelong Learning Inventory (ELLI) project suggests that a capacity for interdependent relationships – as opposed to isolation or dependence – is a key dimension of learning power.  People who can learn with and from other people and who are also comfortable learning on their own seem to be effective learners.  They are more likely to display other characteristics of effective learners, such as curiosity, meaning making, strategic awareness, creativity and resilience.

In the same study, it was evident that the most important foundation for building learning power in the classroom was positive relationships.  These were relationships characterised by trust, affirmation and challenge. Bond (2004) suggests that trust requires a relationship of sufficient quality that ‘both parties are confident that it can withstand the challenges arising from inequality, risk and uncertainty’.  In order to learn something, the learner has to move beyond their ‘comfort zone’ and face uncertainty and risk.  Furthermore, the teacher often does know, where the learner does not, which is unequal.  The characteristic of trust, or the confidence that these things can be faced and negotiated, that the relationship will not break down through abuse, or fragility, is a critical thread in the ecology of a learner-centred environment.  It could also be argued that where there is no risk or uncertainty there is unlikely to be learning! The teacher is also a learner and may also be faced with the uncertainties and risks of the learning process even though she sets out more experienced and knowledgeable - on a good day!


When one person trusts another, then challenges can be embraced.  If a learner hates a teacher, or feels invisible, or that they don’t matter, then it is more likely that they will ‘close down’ in the relationship and resist or comply, without actively engaging in the learning process.


Another key quality of the ecology of the learner-centred environment is dialogue.  Dialogue is different from simply talking, because it requires a capacity to listen to the other’s unique perspective and critically engage in conversations that are more like a dance than a war.  How teachers use questions and provoke them, how they present, elicit and sequence information and how they engage learners in internal and external dialogue, are part of the learning process – ‘inside the black box’ of learning. Dialogue is most effective in the context of healthy relationships.


In 1990 the American Psychological Association appointed a Task Force for Psychology in Education.  One of its primary goals was to review over a century of educational research. This scrutiny of research on learning, motivation, development and individual differences led to the development and dissemination of the Learner-Centered Psychological Principles (LCPs). Originally, the task force identified twelve principles, which were revised as fourteen statements in 1997.


This research characterises learning as a whole-person phenomenon.  This involves cognitive and meta-cognitive factors, as well as motivational and affective, social and developmental and other individual difference factors important to optimal learning, motivation and development.  Building on this research, McCombs developed the Assessment of Learner-Centred Practices tools (McCombs, 2003).  The research underpinning these tools showed that the best indicators of how learner-centred a teacher is are the students’ perceptions of their teachers’ ability to:



In another study, looking at the relationships between students’ learning power, teachers’ learner-centred practices, the perceived emotional literacy of the school and student achievement, there was found to be a correlation of students’ effectiveness as learners, their teachers’ learner-centred practices as defined above and the school as an emotionally literate organisation, with higher levels of achievement by standard measures.  Although this research is still to be published and requires further validation, there are strong indications that the quality of interpersonal relationships, especially between learners and teachers, is a critical foundation for the promotion and nurture of effective learning.




APA Learner Centred Principles

Bond, T (Forthcoming) Ethical Guidelines for Researching Counselling and Psychotherapy, Rugby, British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. Greany T. & Parsons S. (2003) Learning to Learn in Schools, Campaign for Learning, Southgate Publishers Ltd.

McCombs, B. & Whisler, (1997) The Learner Centred Classroom and School, San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.

The ELLI Project


REDC February 2004