The Learning Cycle with Projects, Part 3: Ethos and Relationality | Edvance Christian Schools Association
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The Learning Cycle with Projects, Part 3: Ethos and Relationality

Written on January 21st, 2014

learning cycle with projectsPart 3 of the learning cycle with projects moves our attention away from narrative and into our communal practices. And the foundation of our communal practices is our ethos.

As leaders in school communities, both administrators and teachers must recognize the important role they play in shaping the atmosphere of relationships in school communities.Paul Marcus’s great article in The Rudder on interdependence explored this well. The ethos of our school culture will have as much an impact on student learning as our daily lessons. In fact, we need to see ethos and pedagogy as two sides of the same coin. The relational dynamic within curricular events is just as important for learning as any content or skills we want to hone and practice.

I didn’t always think this way, though. At the start of my career, I assumed that curriculum was a static set of content that I had mastered and was responsible to transfer to my students’ heads. My hard work in university had made me the expert. I had all of the knowledge of English and literature that my students would need, and it was my job to charismatically deliver that content from the front of the classroom. Parker Palmer, in his book The Courage to Teach, criticizes this assumption of teacher as the master of content as an “objectivist myth of knowing.” In their wisdom, my school leaders at Fraser Valley Christian High (now Surrey Christian Schools) had given me a copy of The Courage to Teach as a guide to direct me as I started my new career. Palmer recognizes the importance of interdependence in the relationships among learners. At the centre of the learning community is the subject that all learners approach collaboratively. Doug Blomberg expresses relationality this way:

Truth is a network of relationships; any one person, thing or event stands at the intersection of a vast number of these. Ultimately, truth is the relationality that is God‘s covenant community, held at the centre by the cosmic Christ. Not reason but love is at the heart of Creation.

Doug is not trying to say that reason is irrelevant; he is trying to de-throne it from its assumed place as the king of the educational enterprise. The same is true about content. Of course there are skills and content that I want students to learn. But, if the classroom environment is a competitive place where students have to compete for their amount of success and grades in a desire to self-actualize their own future success, students’ attitudes toward the world will be shaped by that competitive individualist ethos. Teacher Ron Berger is an expert at creating a collaborative learning culture in his classroom. His book An Ethic of Excellence is a must read in my mind, and the story of “Austin’s Butterfly” reveals the power of collaborative learning.

Leaders of school communities must play a significant role in helping all members of the community develop a relational ethos in classrooms and the school more generally. A school’s ethos is not just about writing a good discipline policy. It’s at the core of learning itself. So how do we pursue a healthy ethos for relational learning?

@Edutopia focuses on relationality under the heading social and emotional learning. Others have become committed to it through their experience in Tribes. My own experience in Christian schools has introduced me to Restorative Practices  and incredible resources in fostering a relational ethos. Dorothy Vaandering’s “Relationship Window” (based on Ted Wachtel’s “Social Discipline Window”) provides an excellent framework for understanding healthy relationality.

[caption id=”attachment_4639” align=”alignright” width=”300”]relationship window best vaandering Vaandering, D. (2013). A window on relationships: Reflecting critically on a current restorative justice theory. Restorative Justice: An International Journal.[/caption]

Too often, school relationships are characterized as either punitive or permissive. In the punitive quadrant, a school ethos has high control and high expectations but not a lot of support. We do things TO others. Student behavior is very controlled; discipline policies have very clear consequences for misbehavior, and the punishment is intended to motivate students to good behavior. Academically, the structure for learning is rigid. Teachers transmit content, and it is the student’s responsibility to work hard to “get it.” On the opposite end in the lower right quadrant is a permissive paradigm. Here, our school relationships might have high support but very little expectations. These relationships are permissive. We’re doing things FOR others. In this ethos, we can’t allow students to fail, so we’re willing to do the work for them to ensure their success.  (A lack of either expectations or support would simply be neglectful—the lower left quadrant.) But these quadrants can be applied to more than just the adult/student relationship. They can also be a window through which to view your leadership style. In your relationships with your colleagues, would you consider yourself either punitive or permissive? Dorothy urges us to get off of this continuum of TO or FOR and pursue relationships that have both high support and high expectations. In this Restorative quadrant, we are learning WITH others. Here we set clear expectations for success, and we look for ways to collaborate in order to meet those goals together. There is neither a power imbalance nor an absence of authority. All voices are honoured and the communal values provide direction. Once again, however, we should not assume that this is an absence of conflict. But there is a relational ethos in which conflict can be addressed healthily. Learning occurs in both success and failure, and both are expected and embraced as opportunities for growth.

Perhaps you’re already deeply familiar with Restorative Practice. Perhaps this brief introduction to it through the Relationship Window is completely new to you. The Christian education scene in Ontario believes in Restorative Practice and offers numerous resources and support if you have the desire to pursue it. You can contact me at any time to get in touch with these resources.

As teachers and school lrelationship triangle vaanderingeaders share in each other’s joys and struggles, the weaving together of all members of the community creates the safe foundation on which exciting learning can occur. This level of collegial openness can only occur if a relational ethos pervades all levels of school culture. As I mention above, ethos and relationality are not just about discipline policies and a program to make sure we all get along. As Dorothy’s Relationship Triangle reveals, it is the foundational understanding of image bearing on which all of our other learning interactions are built (click on the image to enlarge).

Once again, let me leave you with a number of questions to consider your own school’s ethos and your role in helping to create healthy relationships for learning:

  • Is ethos just a discipline policy or an integral part of your school’s identity and curriculum?
  • Do you have structures in place by which various voices in the learning community—teacher, parent, student, administrator—can be heard and honoured? Can you think of moments where each of these voices has had a positive impact on the school’s ethos: perhaps in assemblies, meetings, discipline situations, classroom presentations, etc.?
  • What is the ethos of your relationship with your colleagues? What frustrates you about them? What about you frustrates them? How can we change this? Has your staff explored structured ways of having dynamic conversations and collaboration
  • Do past events (memory!) paralyze your school’s ethos? How do you restore health after conflict?