Transactional vs. Relational Learning in School

I feel compelled to begin by saying that if you landed on this page hoping to find a definitive explanation of Transactional Education vs. Relational Education, you have not found that. Rather, this is a space in which I am trying to make sense of those myself. So, by all means, have a read and share your thoughts, because it sounds like you are in the same space as me- wanting to better understand these concepts.

I’m not sure where I first heard these terms (I believe it was in a NAIS workshop), but there is something to these approaches to education that seems so foundational, that it’s stuck with me as something to better understand. It seemed that a good place to start would be a simple Google search for the terms. This led mainly to sites relating approaches to business or business school. In the broadest sense, transactional situations center around “what can you do for me?” and relational situation center on “what can I do for you?” or “what can we do for each other?” The former is focused on the bottom line and individuals pushing to get ahead of those around them. The latter is focused on the growth of the whole institution and a social construct that is more vaguely defined at times, but also more mutually supportive. (I gleaned most of that from this nice post on the UVA Darden site.)

So, where does this leave me in terms of school approaches that may be considered transactional vs. relational? Some clear parallels could be made between the dog-eat-dog business world (transactional) and student striving for grades and spots on limited college enrollment lists. I can clearly see a traditional content-centered approach being the center-point of this system. Alternatively, relational educational experiences would, perhaps, de-emphasize grades in favor of work that groups enter into together with the goal of achieving some collective outcome that lifts all involved in some way (and possibly whoever they are working on behalf of?). This seems to match up nicely with what I have heard described as the future of school, which Jamie Casap often embodies with the phrase “What problems do you want to solve?” A team approach to seeking solutions, in which real problems are actually addressed and problems solving skills and conceptual understanding of principles involved (that’s me really trying to stay away form the term ‘content’) are developed.

OK. I can live with that, though I may be finding myself there because I lean towards those outcomes more anyway.

Now, I also asked for some clarity on Twitter and got the following form @boadams1 (Bo Adams from Mount Vernon Institute for Innovation):Screen Shot 2018-04-16 at 8.13.42 PM

First, Bo gives me perhaps me more credit for knowing anything than I may deserve, but I try. Second, that seems to fit what I pulled together above, so that feels good. But then this reply happened:Screen Shot 2018-04-16 at 8.18.33 PM

To be honest, I wasn’t sure if April was referencing something specific or simply making a vague reference somewhat related to my las name. So, back to Google.

It turns out that Paulo Freire had a thing or two to say about education, especially as it relates to social class. This, though not a direct quote of his, stood out to me:

“There is no such thing as a neutral education process. Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate the integration of generations into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity to it, or it becomes the ‘practice of freedom’, the means by which men and women deal critically with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”

— Richard Shaull, drawing on Paulo Freire
You’re either working towards becoming a cog in the ever-turning machine or your working towards reshaping that that needs reshaping. Sounds an awful lot like “what problems do you want to solve?” Another hefty quote from a paper titled The Freirian model–a place in health promotion and education (I apologize for the out of context citations, but please follow the link to get proper context):
“In Freire’s eyes, students were viewed as fully empowered participants in the education process, which significantly shifted the traditional mentality of teacher-control. He believed a reciprocal relationship should exist, with the mentality of “teacher-student with students-teachers” (p.80). Traditional education uses “banking” as the mode of information transfer, with the emphasis placed on the process of teachers depositing knowledge into the students. This in turn has created students who accept the passive role imposed on them, and therefore learn to adapt to the world as it is and not to act upon it and impart change (Rudd & Comings, 1994). Freire recognized the importance of the dynamic interaction between personal growth and participation in community change (Wallerstein & Bernstein, 1988), and felt it could be interwoven with many disciplines to evoke change.”
All of this begins to come together for me. The clear need to move past the “filling of a vessel” approach that served so many so well in the young industrial age and towards a place in which we come together to learn about problems we see around us, issues we feel strongly about, and to learn grow and solve together. If that is indeed what relational learning is, count me in.
This does raise other things I wonder about:
  • How does this change the role of a teacher who can no longer know the answers and direct the learners towards them? Surely, they are more of a coach and co-learner in almost all things (after all, if they know the answers already isn’t that problem solved?)
  • How are we to every change the complex system of education that weaves together grades and content and testing and college admission and success in life in such a way that any step away from it feels like you are risking so much? (This issue is real, but also reminds me of Neo learning to bend a spoon in The Matrix and being told to remember ‘there is no spoon.‘)
  • Where, if anywhere, might a transactional learning approach be better? There must be somewhere strict competition and focusing of your own progress is beneficial. Though I can’t think of one right now.

A big thanks to Bo and April for feedback that led me down very cool and informative rabbit hole.