The Primacy of Relationships

A smart guy that’s scaled a half a dozen companies reminded me this week that the most important thing in life and in business is relationships.

Most of us learn and grow in relationships. As recently noted, there are few autodidacts with the insight and drive to power their own personal learning but for most of us, learning is relational — it’s motivated and supported by relationships. Human connections inspire interest, power persistence, and guide progress.

Remember Big Picture‘s summary of good school design principles “rigor, relevance, and relationships”? You won’t get to the first two without the last.

Culture cultivates relationships. I toured the best journalism program and the most innovative secondary school in the country last week. Both places have cultures that value serious intellectual work and quality work product. Within the context of high expectations, it is sustained adult relationships that propel young people to produce world class work.

Esther Wojcicki’s classroom and her new book, exhibit her core belief that, “Students will achieve at levels far beyond what is expected if you give them the opportunity.”

Summit Public School teachers (featured image) gathered this week to improve and align their project-based curriculum. They have 40 days a year to work together to create powerful learning experiences for their students.

Good tools cultivate relationships. Powerful sustained relationships are usually face to face. But well designed programs and capable tools can facilitate relationships in a virtual environment. “Anyone who says relationships [in online schools] will dwindle doesn’t know this environment at all,” said Dave Knoche, Falcon School District 49, Colorado Springs. Knoche contributed to a paper FuelEd, Getting Smart Advocacy Partner, released this week on How to Successfully Scale Personalized Learning.

GPS Education Partners supports personalized pathways to family wage manufacturing jobs. Twenty students work with a teacher for a year or two. Powerful relationships are informed by tools that help teachers connect students to learning experiences. Students graduate with great work experience, job offers and often college credit.

We launched a #LearningPlatform series to consider what next-gen platforms should do. We think a portable profile and portfolio will help teachers get to know their students. We’ll be publishing product reviews over the next few weeks and attempting to assess the likelihood that platforms will promote active learning and informed relationships.

Better information helps families and teachers make informed decisions about schools. The Foundation for Excellence in Education, Getting Smart Advocacy Partner, published a couple reports this week that help states improve school information.

Leadership cultivates relationships. On Saturday I attended a community working session in El Paso led by deputy superintendent Ivonne Durant. She shares her vision for active and engaged learning with passion. She listens with patience. She understands people and systems. It’s obvious that she values staff and community relationships.

Powerful tools can help us know our students better; they can help teachers connect them with powerful experiences.  But it’s leaders like Ester and Ivonne that create the context–from classroom to city–for life-shaping relationships.

For more on relationships, check out:

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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1 Comment

Margot Hightower

YOU are spot on! Relationships is what it is all about! Always has been always will be! Miss you and your inspiration!


Caroline Vander Ark

Thanks for the kind words Margot! Hope all is well.

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