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Jun 3, 2019

Relation-Centered Education, a Call to action

Critiques of test-based accountability abound; alternatives to it are few and far between. The demand for accountability is not an aberration, not a mental affliction of “neoliberalism.” No, it is because education has become huge and very expensive. The US spends about 8% of GDP on education, most OECD countries are not far behind. The quality of education varies greatly across the world and within each country. The public has the right to know how the huge sums of money are spent and if there is any improvement. Many educators secretly hope that the taxpayers will fund them and not ask any questions. Well, this is not how it works. There is no public support without accountability.

With all the obvious shortcomings of the standardized testing, it is cheap, reliable, and fairly objective. It measures only one dimension of education, and too narrowly at that. If we want to change the game, we need to come up with another instrument that would measure another dimension of education equally reliably and cheaply. What would that another dimension be?

Some 15 years ago, a group of us wrote a book called No Education without Relation that opened up with the “Manifesto of relational pedagogy.” We argued that relations are not just an important educational means, but are also an educational end. Frank Margonis actually coined the term “Pedagogy of Relation” that has an intuitive appeal to many educators. We drew on several philosophical traditions (Buber, Bakhtin, Noddings, and others). The book was well received, but it suffered from the usual limitations of theoretical work: it stayed largely within the theoretical discourse.

Over the years, there was some response from empirical researchers and practitioners, much of it outside the US. There is a fairly long tradition of classroom and school climate research. The problem with it, it is all self-report, which makes the data unreliable and expensive to collect. There is a whole group of people trying to measure the 21st century skills, but they are struggling, because there is no good theory behind that movement. Focusing on skills simply broadens the current test-based accountability, but does not offer a whole new dimension of education to consider. However, a quick look across educational scholarship reveals that many people from different disciplines recognize the centrality of relations in the educational enterprise. They may call it something else, and draw on vastly different traditions, but will still demonstrate the “family resemblance.”

Some of the original authors are now trying to form an interdisciplinary network that would include empirical researchers, practitioners (both teachers and teacher educators), psychologists, psychometricians, and policy scholars. The network would start building a knowledge base around these goals, from both existing and new scholarship. It may have very practical objectives:
  1. Understand how educators create positive educational relations with and among students
  2. Learn how to help teachers develop their relational skills
  3. Develop good instruments to measure the quality of relations in educational settings
  4. Offer a policy framework for the relational accountability, to augment or replace the cognitive test-based accountability approaches
What is the next step? We need to meet to have an initial conversation, an organizing meeting. It would be easier to hold it here in Sacramento, but I need to gauge interest? Here is the link to put your name down if you are interested. 


  1. Hi. My name is Lotta Jons and I hold a position as educational developer at Stockholm university, Sweden. My thesis (2008, in Swedish) focused teacher- student relations built on a concept of "calling and responding", which I worked out. Since then, I have strived to move from the theoretical into the practical of relational pedagogy. Currently, I have developed and is leading a course in relational competence for faculty at SU. I think your suggestion is very interesting, and would like to participate, although via web, for ex via Skype. Would that be an option, you think?

    1. Lotta:
      Of course, we can consider distance participation, but you shuold try to come, too. Please send me an email, so I can add you to the list of potential participants.