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Relational Pedagogy: A Different Approach for our New Reality

A fog of forgetfulness is looming over education. Forgotten in the fog is that education is about human beings. And as schools are places where human beings get together, we have also forgotten that education is primarily about human beings who are in relation with one another. (Bingham, C. & Sidorkin, A, ed. 2004)

I am driven to re-address the fundamental need for relations in education as many students and teachers return to classrooms in the coming days and weeks. Our priorities and protocols are shifting on a weekly, daily, heck even an hourly basis and our education system should acknowledge these shifts. Teachers are under tremendous pressure to either 1) Create a safe and healthy classroom environment that limits the potential spread of Covid19 and teach the curriculum in said environment. Or 2) Learn how to effectively present materials, develop trust with students and teach online with limited resources and time. We need to re-think the values we have for schooling. I’m not suggesting every teacher go back to start the new school year with a whole new set of lesson plans, different books and resources etc. because that would be unreasonable and it would add to the stress. Rather, I am suggesting that the way in which WE as a society (as educators, as parents, as administrators, as politicians, etc.) view the role of schooling to reflect the complexities of our society and roles within it. The role of the teacher is incredible and should not be minimized to that of childcare giver in order to allow the economy to rebound. And, our society needs to trust teachers and the profession. Teachers spend hours upon hours with students and are under pressure from both administration and parents to ‘produce good work’ and meet expected learning outcomes. Now they are also under pressure to ensure health and safety guidelines are maintained in their classrooms. If they are saying it is not easy, believe them. If they say it is not meeting the health and safety guidelines trust their expertise.

Students and teachers form valuable relational bonds in the classroom, whether that classroom is in a traditional school, a forest or online. We need to elevate the way we view education, the way we view schooling and the way we view the role of the teacher and student relationship. In my thesis research (2016), I used a pedagogy of relation as a theoretical lens because my aim was to use pedagogy in order to empower children and to give them the opportunity to have a voice; two things that may have been compromised during their experience dealing with childhood cancer. The current global sociocultural climate is leaving children with little control in their lives, and there is a lack of contextual understandings for children to navigate what they are seeing, hearing and feeling. I believe the combination of isolation from peers, interruption of social activities and engagements, and the greater anxiety that is felt collectively is creating a significant sense of lack of control in their own lives. As such, children and youth may be struggling to find their voices, form their identities, and understand who they are in today’s world. With this in mind we need look at the role of schooling and education in a different light. We need to re-imagine it in a way that empowers students and places trust in teachers. One that creates opportunities for them to have some sense of control and identity.

“My hope is that relational philosophies of education can contribute to the creation of a person-oriented ethos in education by offering more nuanced and appreciative portraits of students and teachers and by offering teachers and students conceptual tools for facilitating exciting educational events and powerful collectivities.” (Margonis, 2011)

Relational pedagogy is an educational theory that prioritizes the human relations in education. The teacher to student, student to teacher and student to student relationships are valued and prioritized in a pedagogy of relation. The importance of the educational experience is not the set of outcomes; it is the relations we have in the educational environments and what we learn or gain from those relationships. The concept of relational pedagogy is not new and is informed by many earlier educational philosophies (critical pedagogy, zone of proximal development, ethic of care). A link can also be made between pedagogy of relation and indigenous beliefs and practices rooted in relational ontology. Bingham and Sidorkin assert that a pedagogy of relation is strongly connected to the work of Paulo Freire. He writes “he relationship between educators and learners is complex, fundamental, and difficult; it is a relationship about which we should think constantly.”

Relational pedagogy presents a challenge for teachers in the current system; it is that relations have value in a particular context and are ever changing. Relational pedagogy not only acknowledges this fact of context it views context as proof of experience and learning. This approach offers a truly human education: one that requires an embodied pedagogy. In this sense, learning is not something done to someone by someone, it happens between people.

In a standardization-based system, one that is driven by product and measured results, we negate the nuanced nature of humanity and the identities of students and the teachers. Educators are pressured to produce results for the schools and school boards, while also maintaining a safe and healthy environment for students returning to in-class learning. Relational pedagogy has the power to relieve alienation and isolation experienced in today’s education system. In this time, let’s imagine the classroom as a place of caring relations where the priority is not on meeting set standards that neglect the complexity of the times we are living. Nel Noddings (2012) writes, “

A climate in which caring relations can flourish should be a goal for all teachers and educational policymakers. In such a climate, we can best meet individual needs, impart knowledge, and encourage the development of moral people.

We know that students, teachers and their families have anxiety about returning to the classrooms, or how they can develop social relationships from behind a screen. We can’t neglect or deny these fears, but we can re-imagine school in a way that prioritizes the care we all need.

The merging of theory and practice can look and feel different for each educator, and it should. This is a personal thing. My practice is informed by who I am and my learning is also informed by who I am. They are also informed by who am I in relation to others. Putting this theory into action is up to you and your students. I will share some ways that I have embodied a pedagogy of relation in my own practice. I use this when working with learners of all ages, kindergarten to adult. The language I use changes but the intention and goal is the same.

1. Being open and guided by my students

Yes I have a plan, but that plan may not be engaging and it may need to change. I am open to the possibility that I anticipated engagement in a way that experienced in action. I offer students the opportunity to suggest improvements to the plan while still meeting the over arching goals for the lesson. What does that look like? Using language that is non-hierarchical or authoritative. I will say things like “This is what I had in mind for us to meet these objectives/goals, but I see that my plan is not doing that in the best way. Let’s modify this plan together.” “What is something we can change to improve this?” “How can we make this more meaningful to your life?” This allows the potentialities that exist to come forward and multiple possibilities can be explored.

2. Keep it real

The transparency of an educator saying “oh this isn’t working” or “well I didn’t anticipate this happening” makes “failure” not a bad word. It levels the playing field, I am not the all knowing authority on everything. We ALL make mistakes, or ‘fail’ but it’s in how we deal with it that we learn. For me to say “Oops, I didn’t know that would happen.” or “Oops this isn’t working, does anyone have any ideas for how to work through this?” demonstrates that I’m not scared to fail and I’m open to learning from others. Modelling this helps students develop the same mindset around failure, mistakes, learning and collaboration. Which brings me to my next point…

3. Collaboration

Collaboration can be group work or it can also be what I just outlined. Inviting others into my process and making it our process. I find that the more I do this, the more students get comfortable accepting that invitation, and inviting others into their process. Allow a space for collaboration to develop organically; we don’t all like being invited all the time and we don’t all want to invite others all the time.

4. Trust

Trust plays a big role in my practice. Trust and ‘buy-in’ go hand in hand. As do trust and collaboration, trust and honesty, trust and vulnerability. The point is most of my relational pedagogy hinges on trust; both the trust others have in me, and the trust I have in others. I can put myself out there and trust my students, but I cannot control if others with do the same in return. I have found that consistently coming into relation with students with honesty and transparency, allowing my ‘teaching’ to be guided by students, and offering invitations are ways that help build that trust over time.

While these are some ways that I can articulate how I bring relational pedagogy into my practice, I know that these approaches may not feel authentic to you. Consider and reflect upon what feels natural for you in order to value in the relational nature of learning, respect your own boundaries and the boundaries of others. Start by thinking of one thing you do to bring this philosophy into your life and practice. I would encourage you to start small and build. Some small ways that we can prioritize the relation is by including daily reflections and having conversations around these reflections. Show your students that you heard them and value their voices and ideas by re-iterating their points both verbally and in action in upcoming lessons. For example, “I heard what you said when we were talking about ________, so for this next lesson I thought we could incorporate________. Should we try it out?”

I can hear you through the computer “Adrienne, what if they say no?” or “Adrienne, my students are going to suggest the wildest things.” My response: yes, they probably will suggest the wildest things. And they probably will say “Nooooo” and then laugh, I say this from experience. But, if you make this part of your practice you all will build trust in the process, and trust in the relationships and you will be blown away by the possibilities that present themselves, I also say this from experience.

These little things can help people feel valued and heard and help students feel as though they have some power in a time when many people feel powerless. So, I leave you with this: How do you imagine a relational space for learning?


Bingham, C. & Sidorkin, A (Eds.) (2004). No education without relation. New York: Peter Lang.

Buck, G., Mast, C., Macintrye Latta, M., & Kaftan, J. (2009). Fostering a theoretical and practical understanding of teaching as a relational process. Educational Action Research,17(4),pp. 505-521.

Freire, P. (2005). On the Relationship Between the Educator and the Learners (Original work published 1998)

Margonis, F. (2011). In Pursuit of Respectful Teaching and Intellectually-Dynamic Social Fields. Studies in Philosophy & Education, 30(5),pp.433-439.

Noddings, N. (2012). The caring relation in teaching. Oxford Review of Education, 38(6),pp. 771-781.

Noddings, N. (2015). A Richer, Broader View of Education. Society,52(3), 232-236.

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