Protopian Education Four: Humanizing Pedagogical Relationships

“To touch the soul of another human being is to walk on holy ground”.
— Stephen Covey

Grounding Education in Human Interaction

In a very general sense, education is a social undertaking; it is fundamentally about humans that interact in a manner that helps people to grow and to learn, building on the human capacity to play.

Every time we meet and interact with another person, there is at least some aspect of play, and through that, we change. Each change is usually small; but over time, the interactions shape our inner worlds—until we come out as citizens, as members of society, as doctors, programmers, yoga teachers, or philosophers. And some rare meetings transform us profoundly.

The question thus naturally presents itself: How can human beings meet in educational settings in ways where motivation is spurred, curiosity nurtured, participation encouraged, and emotions and needs respected and developed? To be realistic, most meetings, in most settings, don’t truly “touch us”; we are left largely unchanged. Some meetings even feel detrimental to our health and development, and some feel overly draining. Can impoverished educational interactions become fewer, and the productive ones become more commonplace? How can we make education, as it were, touch the souls of learners? To answer this, we must venture into the realm of psychology—and into the realm of inner experience, of emotions, of what development means in terms of real, felt, and embodied human relations.

But can anything new really be said on this topic? Whereas technology has changed considerably over time, inviting us to new analyses for our times, the nature of human relationships is arguably more universal and consistent across time. So if people have studied this issue already for centuries, and if every teacher has their own lifetime of experience, can we truly expect to say anything new about it?

There are indeed precursors for all of the arguments that I will make in this article. But there do indeed appear to be new “social innovations” that deserve attention and to be tried out in new contexts which today are not part and parcel of our conventional educational systems.

And it goes farther than that; our educational systems seem to perpetually have difficulties with including “the whole person” into the process. There appear to be ways in which we think, feel, and act around education that stem from habits that pertain to the “old paradigm” of education (the industrial)—and these habits can be made conscious, be challenged, and, to an extent, be replaced with habits and perspectives that would serve education better in the new emerging life conditions. It makes sense to say, thus, that there are indeed revolutions waiting to happen in the realm of educational relationships.

In the following I present a few themes that have come up in studies and interviews concerning the nature of pedagogical relationships. Each of them offers some ideas and perspectives on how education could travel the path towards becoming more listening, more human, serving the whole person.

Make Mental Health a Learning Goal

It should be an uncontroversial statement that human happiness and flourishing are key goals of all societies in the world. And nothing is more antithetical to this goal than mental health problems. WHO estimates that globally, 16% of people aged 10–19 suffer from mental health issues that significantly affect their lives. Half of all mental health problems start by age 14, most cases remaining undetected and untreated, depression being the leading problem.

Given that education is the main activity of youth, also in low- and middle-income countries where more than 80% of the world’s youth currently live, could educational systems be consciously and deliberately geared to foster mental health? Could mental health become a global learning goal? This question mirrors, in many ways, the recent trend in transnational work with development goals to emphasize IDGs—the Inner Development Goals that are now being pioneered by Costa Rica’s President, with other countries following suit.

Such an endeavor would not only aim to prevent the “damage” and “costs” (human and economic) of mental illness; it would aim to improve the conditions for mental health across the board, also going from okay to good, and from good to great, in the lives of as many people as possible.

Indeed, if education is to be humanized and centered upon the flourishing of each person, what could be a more viable goal of education than mental health? This would require active and deliberate training in skills and traits that are conducive to that end. The long-term payback of such investments could be manifold, since mental illness is associated with numerous costs and squandered potentials, whereas positive emotions and peace of mind give dividends in terms of creativity and a greater capability to cooperate—on a personal, professional, and political (or civic) level. Prevailing mental health can be understood not only to serve the individual, but to stabilize behaviors on a collective level, levelling out public overreactions to political and economic disruptions in changing times.

What could such educational interventions for mental health look like? A couple of empirical examples may be useful to illustrate:

  1. One meta-study that reviews research on preventive and treatment-based programs in low- and middle income countries shows that schools can offer effective interventions, even for children in areas with armed conflict, with successful results. This includes peer support groups and training teachers in how to impart qualities of emotional resilience to youth and children; the strongest evidence is for preventive programs that target everyone, and that last longer and are consistent over time. Results include lowered levels of PTSD, depression, bullying, violence, and school dropouts. Similar results are available for socioeconomically deprived neighborhoods in high income countries.
  2. Simple forms of preventive group therapy can make a difference. When ACT (Acceptance Commitment Therapy) and other empirically validated methods were universally applied in the northern Swedish municipality of Haparanda following 2013, depression rates among 16-year-olds went down from 9.5% to 1.5% in two years.
  3. Meditation (and related practices) in schools can improve the lives of students and teachers alike, improving overall learning outcomes. Here is a summary report of results in The Atlantic: “Schools have also begun experimenting with the practice and discovering that its techniques can help its students. When a school in New Haven, Connecticut, required yoga and meditation classes three times a week for its incoming freshman, studies found that after each class, students had significantly reduced levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, in their bodies. In San Francisco, schools that participated in Quiet Time, a Transcendental Meditation program, had twice as many students score proficient in English on the California Achievement Test than in similar schools where the program didn’t exist. Visitacion Valley Middle School specifically reduced suspensions by 45 percent during the program’s first year. Attendance 24 rates climbed to 98 percent, grade point averages improved, and the school recorded the highest happiness levels in San Francisco on the annual California Healthy Kids Survey. Other studies have shown that mindfulness education programs improved students’ self-control, attentiveness and respect for other classmates, enhanced the school climate, and improved teachers’ moods.”
  4. Emotional intelligence can be learned, even with brief programs, and studies in physicians have shown that higher emotional intelligence are associated with lower incidence of burnout, longer careers, more positive patient-physician interactions, increased empathy, and improved communication skills.
  5. Physical exercise. Just 20–30 minutes of medium intensity cardio workout per day (or even every second day) will cure and prevent depressionto an extent that equals pharmaceutical antidepressants, after six weeks. It also prevents anxiety, improves concentration, working memory, and increases the number of new connections made in the brain, hence also serving learning outcomes.

In other words, there are in fact affordable interventions that can be incorporated into educational systems that would, in tandem with each other, likely have dramatically positive effects on global mental health—and they are not only conceivable in rich countries.

Could the educational system be designed, wholesale, with the express purpose of improving mental health, using all of these interventions (or corresponding ones that prove better) and more?

Decentering the Individual and Putting Relations First

Naturally, the quality of human relationships in one’s life is a predictor of mental health (and happiness)—and mental health is, in turn, a predictor of the quality of human relationships. Hence, to truly center upon the wellbeing, thriving, and inner development of each individual, educational systems must be geared to decenter the individual, and view each learner more in terms of their relations—a global turn towards a relational pedagogy, including at least five dimensions:

  • Student/pupil peer-to-peer relations(as these are instrumental to mental health across the developmental phases of childhood, youth, and young adulthood);
  • teacher-student relations(as the quality of these relationships determine much of the quality of teaching and learning);
  • teacher peer-to-peer relations(as the quality of these affect the teacher’s resilience and emotional foundations for empathy and motivation);
  • person to nature relations(as discussed earlier, this can affect mental health), and,
  • overall culture or atmosphere of schools(as the qualities of the local culture of each school can affect the prevalence of aggressive behaviors and transgressions.)

Taken together, education must create the best possible conditions for each person to establish nurturing relationships within and beyond the educational setting. In turn, as is well established in social psychology, these relationships contribute to each person’s evolving relation to the self.

Ultimately, a person’s sense of self determines who they feel themselves to be and how they view their place in the world. Mental illness, in turn, very often revolves around a wounded or confused sense of self, which is both constituted by, and reflected in, their relationships. Good relationships have also been shown to be a major protective factor against drug use and addiction.

It is only by reaching into this deeper psychological layer of what it means to be human that education can be truly transformative; hence it only is at this relational level that mental health can be achieved as a societal goal. And the means to do so is primarily by increasing the chances of enriching relationships in each person’s life.

To serve global mental health through education thus means to put in clear focus the relational nature of each learning and growing human being—developing the whole emotional and relational atmosphere within which each person plays, learns, and grows. This requires a reorientation of the educational systems towards fostering positive relationships; not least by interventions that target the inner development of all children and teachers, so that these, in turn, provide emotionally nurturing environments for one another.

Trauma and Communities of Embodiment

Many of my interviewees have emphasized—in subtle and sensitive ways that don’t easily translate into report writing—the importance of the quality of how each human being is met, heard, and recognized in the learning environment.

My interviewees have drawn on many examples: From how one becomes fully present to another person by means of cultivating one’s own inner qualities, to cultivating emotional authenticity as a teacher, to spiritual aspects of finding a purpose to learning, to using examples of community life from indigenous cultures, to co-creating local “mythologies” in which everyone has a role and all are connected to a greater whole (like nature), to establishing teacherly authority by means of showing skills and qualities that the learners wish to acquire, to cultivating the love of children as a motivating force of teaching—the list goes on.

What many of these discussions come back to is the impulse to somehow include a larger part of the person, the human being, into the process of learning, to somehow “touch the soul” of the learner. It appears, briefly put, that education is incomplete if it does not touch upon the difficult, contradicting, and vulnerable parts inside each of us. Education can teach us new skills and knowledge without delving into the deeply vulnerable (and how it manifests as tensions in our bodies), but it appears to be limited in its capacity to guide us through positive personal transformations, so that we can experience healthy and profound shifts of perspective and sense of self.

A challenge thus presents itself: To create spaces within educational life that are safe enough for at least some shared therapeutic work to occur in the learning community.

Roughly speaking, because life is difficult and wrought with contradictions, we all experience at least some level of trauma, some level of psychological wounds that fester within us. Such trauma affect our own development and negatively impact our relationships, often working from outside of our own conscious awareness.

The issue is to bring as much of this into each person’s own awareness as possible—and from there on, working with body, mind, and emotions, to integrate that trauma, healing the wounds, and turning inner insecurities and weaknesses into transformational growth; i.e. growth not of a specific kind of knowledge, but of our personality and sense of self.

However sensitive and difficult the task may be, the rewards of successfully creating practices in which trauma is recognized and integrated into the conscious personality may be great for individuals, communities, and societies around the world. Given that much expertise has already been developed in this field, could it somehow be applied within education, as a part of the goal of improving global mental health?

Educational systems may have the possibility of creating communities of embodiment, meaning that they create settings in which students practice getting in touch with the direct experience of their bodies, and work through issues and tensions that are brought about by social and emotional difficulties. This is the process of “embodiment”. This would require especially brave researchers, practitioners, and educational innovators to collaborate—because it is about including the most vulnerable, and thus the most difficult, parts of what it means to be a human: the raw, the hidden-away, the disowned, and the disembodied.

There are risks and difficulties, no doubt, in dealing with such inner work. And yet, if education is truly to serve the flowering of each person—how can these issues be avoided? If carefully coordinated with the other pathways suggested in this series of articles, I believe, however, that it may be workable—and invaluable. For one thing, it could produce more emotionally and socially balanced leaders throughout society.

Cultivating Trust: the Hard Currency of Education

What is the hardest currency of an educational relationship? Innovation anthropologist Erika Tanos suggests that it is trust, or the level of trust between teachers and students—as well as the level of trust between students, trust in the schooling environment and curriculum, the trust between personnel, and so on.

It is not difficult to see that high levels of trust are necessary for a “community of embodiment” (as suggested above) to successfully emerge. But beyond that, every learning situation builds on trust: Does the student trust that the teacher will know what is relevant for them to know? Do they trust that the home assignments they are given make sense? Do they trust they can try and fail but still be well-regarded? Do they trust the friendship and support of their peers—or must they expend much energy to avoid being scorned or excluded?

A richer environment of trust can be said to affect almost every aspect of the pedagogical relationships through which learning outcomes can be achieved. And the greater the mutual trust, the lower the costs that go into surveillance and control (which always come with psychologically detrimental side-effects, thus undermining the learning goal of good mental health). It is perhaps not an exaggeration to claim that trust is thus “the hard currency” of education; the more you have of it, the greater the leeway is to produce more deep and complex learning outcomes. Without it, learning outcomes can only be relatively superficial—and, again, often at the expense of mental health.

But trust, incidentally, cannot be artificially created: It can only be earned in and through relationships. In turn, the prevalence of trust in educational settings feeds into the overall trust between members of society, thus affecting how well society functions at large, as has been shown by political scientists.

Trust has at least four dimension: trusting in the competence of one another, the reliability of one another, the goodwill of one another, and that one’s interests are aligned. Cultivating trust in educational settings must engage in explicit practices to foster each of these four dimensions.

A possibility could be to shape teacher educations so that they include knowledge of the science of trust—and how it is cultivated and maintained. Trust has many direct and practical uses. For instance, a good teacher can invoke confidence by putting greater faith (and trust) in a student than the student had in themselves, spurring them to achieve beyond their previously self-assessed capacity—thus stimulating growth in their sense of self.

Trust, in turn, may be seen as a prerequisite for creating a greater sense of safety in learning environments. As levels of anxiety and social stress go down, when “fight or flight” modes in the brain are tuned down, the willingness to play—and thus to learn—increases.

An investment in trust is an investment in safety, is an investment in play, is an investment in growth. Trust requires efforts and thus resources. Could we imagine a global alliance for increasing the levels of trust in education?

Through my studies, I have come to believe that it is indeed meaningful and useful to consider how human-to-human relations can be transformed in the world of education, in turn transforming the emotional and deeply personal qualities of all members of our global, interconnected society.

Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian, and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on Facebook, Twitter, and Medium, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.