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Relational pedagogies – exploring webs of connections in learning and teaching

Karen Gravett's new book seeks to make sense of the various relationships and connections in which academics and students are enmeshed
This article is more than 1 year old

Karen Gravett is senior lecturer at the Surrey Institute of Education at the University of Surrey

Relational pedagogies involve thinking about relationships, connections and care as core aspects of our work in higher education.

Thinking about connections is not a new idea. There is a long history of feminist scholarship exploring ethics of care in learning and teaching, as well as many other areas of insightful scholarship that explores relationships in education. But what is new are the pressures upon forging connections in universities.

For example, there is a plentiful literature on the difficulties of academic life where institutions have been described as environments that are both uncaring and unhealthy. Recent moves towards a marketised higher education system underpinned by individualism, personalisation, competition and speed pose a threat to the time and space needed to foster meaningful relationships. Teachers often ask, how can I possibly connect with my students when I have to teach a class of over three hundred? Or, how much should I care for students who are supposed to be independent learners? Or – as a teacher – who cares for me?

My recently published book Relational Pedagogies explores these knotty issues and asks what does it mean to work, teach and learn in higher education today? And more importantly, what should, and could, it mean? These are questions that speak to the values that underpin our practice, that shape the cultures we foster and work within, and the experiences our students have as they engage with university life.

Understanding relationships, connections and mattering, as fundamental to learning and teaching can offer potential to change the way we experience our work as educators. I focus upon the role of relationships in education, how we engage in meaningful connections with others, and the concept of mattering – how we feel we are valued by others. In doing so, I explore ideas such as student-staff partnerships, vulnerability and authenticity and trust, and how we might think about these thorny concepts and use them in different ways to develop connections. For example, I consider how we might share our own challenges and experiences with students in the classroom in order to make connections, and to disrupt power relations between students and teachers.

Non-human relationships

However, relational pedagogies are about more than human relationships. The concept of relationality enables us to broaden the focus away from just the human interactions that are commonly the mainstay of educational research. By exploring the wider web of connections in which students and teachers are situated, we can think differently about how learning and teaching relations are shaped, and about who and what matters in education.

I am interested in the ways in which a focus on human relationships might exclude the relational connections we have with nonhumans, and I wanted to engage some theoretical approaches, for example posthumanist and sociomaterial concepts, to think about this a bit more. These theories offer different starting points for education that positions the teacher or student as decentred, entangled within a web of relations that includes nonhuman others, environments, and the world.

Relations and connections include the relations we have to and within a much broader, material, world. Matter is both who matters – who should be considered and valued – and matter as a material substance and force. This includes all the spaces, objects, and things of education: laptops, classrooms, desks, campuses, textbooks, teaching resources, assessment briefs, worksheets, buildings, virtual learning environments – and bodies too. Attending to matter, in both definitions of the word, might be helpful to our understanding of learning and teaching in higher education, and disruptive to our ways of thinking too.

For example, thinking differently about the digital: we can understand technologies as more than simply “tools” and instead as agential things that (re)configure relationships between students and teachers. Likewise, space is not neutral, but shapes our experiences of engagement and belonging in different ways. For example, classroom relations materialise power: teacher at the front, perhaps behind a desk; students sitting in tiered lecture theatres.

Notice anew

My hope is that relational pedagogies understood in this way can foster more caring and ethical ways of working with students by encouraging us to notice our institutions and learning spaces anew. For example, if we consider the impact materials have on teaching and learning, this might lead us to make specific changes to the ways in which classrooms are organised, curricula and assessment practices are designed, or how objects or resources are used. It might encourage us to seek new ways to notice the granular micro-moments of teaching and learning, and to understand students’ engagement and experiences of belonging as practices that are more complex than might first appear.

Thinking about relational pedagogies in this way shows how theory can be used to think differently, to offer new insights into how learning is experienced in situated and diverse ways. We might think about how teaching and learning relations are entangled with matters of power, and how inequalities are produced through the relations of bodies, spaces and things.

Ultimately, the book argues for the need to understand the situated and messy nature of learning and teaching – that cannot be reduced to simplistic performance metrics.

Relational pedagogies: connections and mattering in higher education is published by Bloomsbury Publishing, and is available for purchase here.

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