School & District Management Opinion

The 6 Relationships That Characterize Great Schools

By Robert Kuhl — June 16, 2017 4 min read
Image of an adult and student talking as they walk down a school hallway.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Over the past decade I have interacted with hundreds if not thousands of visitors at High Tech High. So many have asked how they could do Project-based Learning in their schools. After a bit more conversation I would often find that they were looking for something more comprehensive than just projects. They were looking to transform the culture of their schools through comprehensive Deeper Learning.

Underlying Deeper Learning are the relationships that make learning meaningful and sticky. In my many conversations with guests it became evident that in every educational setting some relationships were strong and others needed attention. In some schools, adult-student relationships were strong; students were known well. In others, parent-school relationships were strong; parents were actively involved in their children’s education. Through these conversations I developed a framework for reflection on the Six Relationships. This tool can help a school identify strengths upon which to build and areas in need of attention.

To be clear, many of these ideas are borrowed from others, especially Rob Riordan from High Tech High and Elliot Washor from Big Picture Learning. I do not claim any of them as my own; I have simply compiled them in one place.

The Six Relationships—What They Are

Three Internal

Student and Student - In great schools, students know one another and work together. This is what this looks like:

  • Students do group work and have concrete assigned roles and norms of interaction. The “how” of the group is as important as the “what.”
  • Students engage in constructive kind, helpful, and specific critique.
  • Students grow comfortable working with anyone in the classroom.

Adult and Student - In great schools, students are known well by one or more adults. This is what this looks like:

  • Students report that their teachers care about them.
  • Adults notice when a student is “off” and have empathetic conversations.
  • Adults give concrete, specific feedback that is personalized.
  • Instead of trying to reach the student through the text (the content and ideas in the curriculum) the adults know the students well and reach the text through the relationship with the students. One way to do this is to treat student experience itself as text. Another way is to engage in respectful dialogue about what and how students are thinking.

Adult and Adult - According to Roland Barth, “the nature of relationships among the adults within a school has a greater influence on the character and quality of that school and on student accomplishment than anything else.” This is what this looks like:

  • Adults engage with one another about their practice through dialogue and co-planning. This could be through the use of dilemma or project-tuning protocols in a staff meeting and/or more informal problem solving at lunch.
  • Adults celebrate one another through shout outs and by attending each other’s exhibitions of student work.
  • Adults take a solution-oriented approach when conflict arises, rather than reverting to gossip and triangulation.

Three External

School and Community - How well does the school engage the community as a resource and/or audience for student work? This is what this might look like:

  • A school creates a field guide to a locally important natural area.
  • Students interview veterans and celebrate their stories in a publication and an event at a local museum.
  • Students build model submersible autonomous vehicles for the Navy.

School and Home - How well are the school and families integrated to support students? How well does the school understand the homes its students come from? This is what this might look like:

  • Home visits: A student’s advisor does a home visit when the student is new to the school.
  • Exhibitions: Whether at school or in the community, parents attend exhibitions of student work.
  • Student-led Conferences: Parents and teachers attend conferences that are led by the student and grounded in evidence of the student’s growth.

Work in School and Work in the Adult World - How closely does the work students do in school approximate the work done by adults? This is what this might look like:

This is not the only lens through which to look at one’s school or at project-based learning. However, I have found it is a productive place to start thinking about transforming a school and a helpful framework for efforts to continually improve. Using this framework at the beginning of the year helps a team celebrate and leverage strengths to address areas in need of growth. In the middle or at the end of the year it provides a framework to safely and continually improve culture and the quality of experiences for students, educators and families.

The opinions expressed in Learning Deeply are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.