Relational learning in an all-boys environment

You probably remember the teachers who inspired you to learn – the ones who took a sincere interest in you and motivated you to go further. That positive relationship between you, your teacher and your learning is called “relational learning.” This approach has been shown to have a strong effect on boys’ willingness to learn, and it is at the heart of Crescent School’s mission: Men of Character from Boys of Promise.

The benefits of relational learning for boys are supported by research. Crescent participated in a global study of relational learning among adolescent boys. Led by Dr. Michael Reichert at the Center for the Study of Boys’ and Girls’ Lives at the University of Pennsylvania, the study conducted thousands of interviews with boys and their teachers at schools around the world.

The findings of the Reichert study revealed that the number one factor in boys’ learning is their relationship with their teacher, and that effective teachers employ seven specific “relational gestures” to build positive relationships with their students.

The seven relational gestures are: reaching out to meet student needs, responding to students’ individual interests and talents, sharing common interests and talents, sharing common characteristics, being willing to disclose personal experiences when appropriate, being willing to accommodate a measure of opposition, and being willing to reveal personal vulnerability. Crescent teachers use these gestures intentionally with their students in all grades, fostering stronger relationships in support of learning. These gestures, in addition to teachers’ subject mastery, are the keys to boy’ learning.

Crescent has also taken a leading role in understanding how boys in elementary school benefit from relational learning. Grade 5 teacher Natalie Vera and Dr. Sandra Boyes, Head of Lower and Middle School at Crescent, explored major themes in relationship building with younger boys in Crescent’s Lower School. Their research was done with Dr. Reichert and Dr. Joseph Nelson of Swarthmore College. Their work affirmed that the relational gestures used with older boys helped develop and maintain successful learning relationships between younger boys and teachers too. They also identified an eighth relational gesture, building confidence through leadership, which has a positive impact on younger boys’ learning.

Vera and Boyes presented their research at the 2016 International Boys’ Schools Coalition conference. It was published as a Relational Teaching Strategies Handbook for use at Crescent.

“I’m proud that our work will lead to stronger academic environments and more empathetic relationships between students, parents and teachers, both at Crescent and in the wider educational community,” says Vera.

Crescent School Headmaster Michael Fellin says relational learning is a vital part of the school’s commitment to character development and boys’ education.

“In addition to supporting their academic achievement,” says Fellin, “relational learning equips boys to develop their social and emotional competencies, such as being self-aware, making responsible decisions and managing their relationships with their peers, parents and teachers.”