Welcome to the Curriculum & Leadership Journal website.
To receive our fortnightly Email Alert,
please click on the blue menu item below.
Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
Follow us on twitter

Relational pedagogy: putting balance back into students' learning

Ray Boyd
Neil MacNeill
Greg Sullivan

Ray Boyd is principal and Greg Sullivan is acting principal at Clayton View Primary School, Western Australia. Neil MacNeill is principal at Ellenbrook Primary School, Western Australia.


The purpose of schooling is typically seen in terms of preparing future citizens to participate in society, ensuring that students can take their place in the world of work, and encouraging personal development and a sense of wellbeing in each student. However, in spite of this espoused balance of the social, cognitive and affective domains of learning, cognitive learning is usually over-emphasised to the detriment of the other domains. Schools should not lose sight of their purpose to develop all aspects of the child. We propose that there are models and strategies that will enhance students’ learning while also preparing them more effectively for living and working in society.

Relational pedagogy: changing the school and classroom culture

The relational pedagogy approach treats relationships as the foundation of good pedagogy, building on the strong emphasis on relationships already embedded in pedagogy itself (MacNeill and Silcox, 2006). Relational pedagogy equips learners to become partners in their own education for life. At the same time, it recognises that building relationships without improved student learning across all of the dimensions of education does not constitute good pedagogy. Relational pedagogy suggests three practices that can be used to change the classroom culture. While each one can stand alone, they complement each other in creating a safe, interesting and dynamic classroom environment.

Reflective behaviours

Studies across the globe indicate that children have a growing deficit of emotional skills. As a result, behaviour management has become an issue in most classrooms. The reflective behaviours approach to teaching and learning aims to reverse this trend by empowering students to control their learning environment and take responsibility for their learning, through a culture that is highly conducive to student-centred learning. The classroom environment should allow students to develop conflict resolution skills to deal with inappropriate behaviours. It should encourage students to take risks in dealing with off-task behaviour from other students. At the same time, students must be made aware that all class members require different learning conditions. Students therefore need to learn tolerance of others and to understand the importance of establishing a collaborative set of guidelines for all to abide by. The teacher needs to be patient and supportive while students learn to differentiate between unacceptable off-task behaviour and the personal idiosyncrasies of others. In this regard, reflective behaviours support a responsible social learning model that encourages students to develop an internal locus of control.

The real measure of success of reflective behaviours is whether students are able to manage their own behaviour once the teacher is removed from the picture: when they behave because it is the right thing to do rather than because they are being watched. They learn to respond to inappropriate behaviour by modelling more appropriate actions rather than ignoring or condoning what others are doing.

At the end of the day students take part in a reflection of their collective and individual behaviours, which provides them with an opportunity to focus on making positive changes. It is important that the teacher ensures that it is only the behaviours, not the students themselves, that are being discussed.

Stronge (2002) makes the point that teachers and students spend the majority of their day interacting academically. Nevertheless, it is social interactions that give the teacher opportunities to demonstrate caring, fairness and respect, which are earmarked as important elements of teacher effectiveness. A teacher’s ability to relate to students and to make positive, caring connections with them play a significant role in cultivating a positive learning environment and promoting student achievement.

Class meetings

A complementary strategy to reflective behaviours is to hold class meetings with students. Typically, participants sit in a circle, allowing face-to-face contact. Meeting are held regularly, usually once a week, with the option of extra sessions. An agenda is developed. Speakers need to list their names, topics and time required on the agenda. It is a prerequisite that the rules of interaction are published and understood. The teacher sits with the students and does not necessarily chair the meeting; it is far better to rotate the responsibilities of the chair. Roles need to be established and understood. The time for the meeting needs to be established beforehand, so the recorder can keep the meeting to the agenda. Once again, only behaviours are discussed, not individuals. The purpose of class meetings is to give students a voice in the classroom and provide them with a platform to raise their concerns. Class meetings teach the principles of democracy and co-existence, and help students learn interpersonal skills. Class meetings also develop problem-solvers and students of action.

Specific objectives for classroom meetings include:

  • improving the communication skills of listening and speaking
  • providing opportunities for insightful, creative and critical thinking
  • learning the process of respectful interaction and promoting teamwork
  • increasing social intelligence, such as empathy
  • fostering social skills, such as reducing shyness
  • enhancing aspects of character education, such as being trustworthy and fair
  • reducing anonymity and promoting feelings of acceptance and being worthwhile
  • building a trusting and caring relationship between teacher and student and among students themselves
  • creating and maintaining an open, trusting atmosphere for risk-taking in learning
  • creating a sense of community by increasing class cohesiveness
  • providing a channel for relevancy where students talk about subjects that interest, affect or concern them. 

(Adapted from Marshall, 2000)

Student-centred learning

The final piece of the package comes through the student-centred approach to learning. Student-centred learning (SCL) is not just about group work, but rather encompasses a whole number of teaching strategies, as explained, for example, in Bennett’s (Bennett & Rolheiser, 2001) and Kagan’s (n.d.) accounts of classroom structures. SCL requires a relational pedagogy that encourages a dynamic relationship between the student and the teacher where both can take on teaching and learning roles at different times. It represents a shift away from the more industrial model of learning and teaching that has underpinned education for the past two centuries.

One reason for the slow take-up of SCL is the belief that it means a complete focus on group work, yet this is far from the case. What SCL does require is a focus on teaching cooperative skills, skills that are developed and promoted in both reflective behaviours and class meetings. The authors of this article promote a WIPS model (whole class instruction, individual instruction, paired work and small group work) through student-centred learning that involves both direct explicit instructions and indirect inquiry approaches. Learning is based around a student’s interests so that meaningful connections are made with the student’s world, thus ensuring a high degree of retention. By combining SCL with the WIPS model and encouraging student interaction, teachers are providing opportunities for students to discuss new materials and formulate clearer understandings through peer-to-peer interaction. In this model the teacher becomes a true facilitator of learning and in doing so develops the whole child, helping students take their place in a rapidly developing society.


Relational pedagogy underwrites the development of a society’s future citizens. It is not something that society and education systems can ignore. Teachers using relational pedagogic strategies become great teachers because they learn as much from their students as their students learn from them. This paper draws on the experiences of the many committed teachers who have made the three strategies work in a variety of educational contexts.


Bennett, B & Rolheiser, C 2001, Beyond Monet, Bookation Inc., Toronto.

Kagan, S (n.d.), Cooperative learning, Kagan Publishing, San Clemente, CA.

Marshall, M 2000, 'Classroom meetings', retrieved 25 March 2006 from Promoting Learning Articles on Dr Marvin Marshall's Discipline without Stress, Punishments or Rewards http://www.marvinmarshall.com/articles/promotinglearning/article_meetings.htm 

Marzano, RJ, Waters, T & McNulty, BA 2005, School leadership that works: From research to results, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Alexandria, VA.

MacNeill, N & Silcox, S Feb 2006, 'Pedagogic leadership: An alternative view of school leadership', Perspectives, 1

Stronge, JH 2002, Qualities of Effective Teachers, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Alexandria, VA. 


Subject Headings

Teaching and learning
Teacher-student relationships