If Teaching is Relational, How Does That Inform Online Teaching?

learningI was in my car the other day, thinking about all the workplace learning projects I’m currently involved in. At times, I feel like I’m moving a giant rock up a hill, with gravity being “lets push content to our learners.” I keep pointing to the importance of practice, context, reflection, informal learning. But I realize I have not sufficiently highlighted the importance  of teaching as a practice about relationships. About being human. About, liberation and yes,  about LOVE.

On our local public radio station, KUOW, ran a story about Nate Gibbs-Bowling reflecting on segregation in Washington state schools and what he is doing about it. At the core of his thesis was that teaching was relationship centric. His success with students of color was not dependent on his subject matter expertise, but his relationship with those students. If you have five minutes, take a listen: Washington Schools Are Segregated And That’s Not OK | KUOW News and Information

Nate’s experience in K-12 education rang a bell with me in my experience with workplace learning. To get the engagement that leads to gains in the application of learning, I use two things. The first is to work as hard as I can to make sure the learning offering has real, applicable relevance to the learner in doing their job. The second is to get to know them and use that relationship to engage with the learners to co-discover ways to liberate the application of the learning.

So if we believe (and hopefully can prove) that teaching is relational, what does that imply for online learning and teaching online, especially the proliferation of self paced, content centric elearning? Or worse, online teaching as enforcement and control.

It means we have to challenge the status quo of content-centricity! This does not mean throwing out content, but it means starting with relationship in the appropriate contexts.

My friend and colleague, educator Brad Beach of Australia and I have been having a years long, very slow conversation on what unlocks learner engagement online and if it varies by domain. I have changed a lot of my thinking about online interaction over time, both as I’ve learned and the environment has evolved, but one thing has always been central. Treat people like real, human beings. Use what the Dali Lama calls being “heard, seen and loved.” We may use the word “respected,” but I think it really is about love. But suit yourself! 🙂

A week ago during one of these conversations (they usually happen very early my Friday morning, Brad’s late Friday night) Brad came back again after working with some folks trying to do more vocational education online, with, as they call them in Australia, the “tradies.” He said “Nancy, you were right.” There had been a lot of push back that tradies don’t hew to this idea of relationship building online. Well heck, they do. It might look and sound different, that’s all.

I asked him, “so what does that say about the facilitation of online learning?” Brad, smart man that he is, answered “it is about good teaching. Period. Online or offline.” And together, our experience tells us that good teaching is, among other things, relationship centric.

handsRelationship Centric Practices in Online Teaching

So let’s name some of these practices. I’ll share a few of mine. Please share some of yours in the comments.

  1. Bring your whole self. A workplace learner is juggling many things. Compartmentalization takes more energy to maintain. Bring a little bit of who you are, and find out a little bit of who they are. This helps identify opportunities to liberate learning, often in unexpected ways. For me, a little goofiness goes a long way. Just a little bit.
  2. Bring your unknowingness and curiosity along with your knowledge. As adults, we are co-learners. We learn with and from each other through our conversations, activities and reflections. If we are “know it alls” we often block this co-learning.
  3. Bring human expression into all forms of communication. Use text based body language. (I’m jumping up and down in my chair as I read your response!) Add pictures and images (even silly little sketches) that not only contextualize the content, but our engagement with it and its application in our lives.
  4. Keep the content tap turned to low. This is really, really hard for me. Look at the length of this blog post. I’ll be working on this until the day I die. But pouring more on rarely is the key to engaged teaching and learning.

What do you suggest?

Edit on 2/11: Some related links:

7 thoughts on “If Teaching is Relational, How Does That Inform Online Teaching?”

  1. “Keep the content tap turned to low. This is really, really hard for me. Look at the length of this blog post.”

    Content doesn’t equal number of words. There is the message here and also relationship-building with bits of your personality and your story. The challenge of online is that relationship-building goes via words as well and we all have a limit of how much words we can handle.

  2. Lilia, you always get to the heart of the matter with clarity. So much I want to rewrite the whole post. THANK YOU!. Let’s see if I can find time and write an update based on the door you opened!!!

  3. Thanks, Nancy. Great points to ponder, as always. Keeping content turned to low….well, yes, if you mean having the trainer deliver content while participants are expected to sit passively and take it all in, at rapt attention. As you suggested, content can be delivered as a byproduct of discussions (whether typed in, verbally shared, or both). Content can also be served up in advance or afterwards in the form of a quick reference guide, tips sheet, article, etc., leaving precious learning time for real conversations that help people internalize and apply content that’s relevant to them.

    I am also a big fan of encouraging “cross-table” conversations, asking people around the virtual table to share, ask, build on ideas, etc. of each other, so it doesn’t become a dialogue between me and each participant. To do this, I have questions formulated in advance so I am not trying to come up with scintillating questions in the moment.

    I also love your point about being open to learning, too. It can be a tricky balance when I want to give some tips and advice, AND want to learn from them by asking for their ideas. But over time, I seem to have learned to strike the right balance.

    Thanks for the illuminating blog in the middle of a cold, wintry day.

    1. Hi Nancy. Both you and Lilia reminded me of the subtleties in meaning when I wrote “keeping content turned low.” I wrote that from my fire-hose centric nature without really addressing the delivery mechanisms. I have widely experienced a fundamental problem of course providers and designers simply focusing on content and too much of it. Your comments circled back to the essential construction of place and space for interaction. You also made me realize I don’t think of conversations as content delivery, but if you think of things like jig-saw based conversations, they can be. I was delightfully scratching my head when I read your comment. THANKS.

      And on other fronts, this link is very much kin to this conversation: http://durffsblog.blogspot.com/2016/02/erasing-distance-and-time-educ-8842.html

  4. I completely agree with keeping the content low, but also work in such a way that the person on the other end has to fill up much of the pipe on her own. I like creating analogies and toy frameworks that require some thought to flesh out. There needs to be time for reflection and and thought – way beyond Googling and wikipedia.

    I grew up with a mentoring experience that was done via US post (slow moving physical packets). Ideas would be presented that raised questions (also assignments). Since there was a five to ten day round trip I had to spend a lot of thought being certain about asking the right questions and figuring out how to better communicate. Latency greatly deepened the relationship component.

    Not that I’m very good at this sort of thing. I have a bad tendency to Russian-doll concepts.

  5. One paragraph! That is all I needed to read to realize you get it. I talk about this education and liberation so much that I might even be a little tired of hearing me. We are our own worst enemies and we teach our children the same habits and behaviors. I ask my students all the time if they ever blamed a teacher for a bad grade and the answer is always yes. Then I ask them, other than the teacher, what other resources did you use to learn from? Most say a textbook, notes, or boring vocabulary words. So I open their eyes and remind them that this digital age which is their life, just a part of mine, makes it easy to learn. I tell them the story about that Accounting class I had to take for my Masters. I never took accounting in my undergrad but had to and my professor albeit a nice guy was awful at actually teaching the concepts. I remember wanting to draw T-Accounts, rip them out of the book and set them on fire. Thankfully I was smart enough to realize YouTube was a tremendous resource and I found a video of a young Master student teaching T-Accounts to a High School class. I would not have passed this class without that video because it was the foundation of everything I needed to learn. We live in a world now where everyone plays the blame game. Everyone holds you down. In a blog post recently I called it the Feeling “Sorry for Yourself” Syndrome which can be read on my blog educationmakescents.org (Pardon the Plug LOL) It is only our thoughts that limit us from achieving anything.

    Your bullets hit it too. I don’t allow students to ask to go to the bathroom. I expect them to make adult decisions and go when they need to. I expect them to act appropriately and remind them that they know the difference between right and wrong. Woulnd’t ya know it! THEY DO! In 3 years as a Business educator in a High School I have had a handful of issues with students. Mostly because they had a bad day, or had a fight with mom, or broke up with a girl/boy friend. I didn’t write them up. I got to the bottom of it and helped them overcome it. That trust goes further than any curriculum. I could write about this all day I think. Thanks for allowing comments. Look forward to your response.

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