Learning success factors
The teacher-student relationship - a secret code for successful learning

Despite media digitization, teaching and learning remain analogue processes. Teaching research is currently focusing attention on the underrated aspect of the teacher-student relationship. The quality of this relationship is one of the most powerful influences on student achievement – and it can be improved.

Everyone is talking about school digitization these days. There seems to be nothing that couldn’t be improved with digitization: student performance and motivation, and perhaps even educational equality. A
didactics specialist writing in Magazin Sprache enthused recently that tablet computers and the Internet are not merely new tools, claiming that the true added value offered by digital media is not that they allow old goals to be achieved more quickly, but that they enable "entirely new objective dimensions to be opened up for the first time". He goes on to say that "society as a whole" is being "immersed in a new medium to think and imagine differently through the culture of digitality – a medium in which terms such as 'learning' and 'knowledge' acquire new meanings".

This sounds overwhelmingly convincing – but is it really true? Is digitization really heralding in an educational revolution? Is it seriously the case that school-based learning will no longer be recognizable in ten years’ time? Nobody can predict the future, so we will have to wait and see how things develop. Certainly the current state of research points in a different direction.

Putting digital learning effects to the test

A large-scale meta study into "Visible Learning" conducted by the New Zealander John Hattie (2009/2017) found for example that the learning effects of digitization (with some exceptions) fall slightly short of the average learning progression observed in students (effect size 0.4). It is not the media and resources that are decisive but the degree to which students are activated and are encouraged by the teacher to engage thoroughly with the subject matter. It is relatively unimportant (0.16) whether for instance every student has their own laptop; however, if interactive video methods are used to supplement the lessons, this can be fairly helpful (0.54). There also appear to be more important things than technology in science subjects (0.23), yet digital aids can prove beneficial with special needs students (0.57).

This suggests at least that there is no way to circumvent or ignore the analogue path to learning (as it is dictated by anthropology); anyone wishing to emerge into the world – even an increasingly digital world – reasonably well-educated must follow this path. This is also why the media expert Ralf Lankau entitled his book: "Kein Mensch lernt digital" (i.e. Nobody learns digitally). The potential for schools offered by the new tools is undisputed. They allow students to have a richer and more individual experience when it comes to practising and applying what they have learnt, they provide more varied and deeper insights into a topic, and allow greater scope for feedback and collaboration. That said, there is no sign so far that they will allow for an entirely different – for example an independent – approach to tackling new topics. On the contrary, the educational mantra that students should take responsibility for themselves has been considerably diminished in the light of empirical research.

Teacher-student relationships – old-fashioned or a new hit?

On the other hand, Hattie’s huge database of teaching and learning effects focuses attention on something that tends to be underestimated: “The teacher-student relationship is one of the most powerful influences on student achievement.” Or, as the neuroscientist Joachim Bauer put it: “A person is the number one motivational drug for another person.” This could be summed as for schools as follows: teaching is first and foremost about relationships!

After all, the classroom climate created by the teacher will determine to a very large extent whether students will have the confidence to broach difficult tasks rather than giving up at the first hurdle, whether they will be willing to engage with topics they find annoying, and whether they will be temporarily able to forget their tiredness or their quarrel with the person sitting next to them.

At the same time, the teacher’s view of and willingness to engage with others will also influence the extent to which they derive job satisfaction. Whether a teacher is able to cope well with all kinds of different students, and whether he or she will still enjoy teaching even after several decades in the profession, will depend largely on whether he or she fundamentally likes young people with all of their immaturity and rambunctiousness (especially the “difficult ones”); whether he or she is interested in them on an individual level and can put himself or herself in their shoes; whether one is able to guide groups of learners calmly and confidently, even through difficult topics and turbulent situations.
Potsdam Teachers’ Study 2005

What is in fact the teacher-student relationship?

While the educational relationship is a secret code for successful impact and job satisfaction, it is something of a grey area in teacher training. And yet the quality of this relationship is neither fate nor anything magical – teachers can learn and improve in this somewhat emotional area. Though the teacher-student relationship also has a personal aspect, it should definitely retain a professional character. Students need their teachers so as to have a fellow human being to accompany their learning process – they want to be noticed, supported and guided as individuals.

This is expressed concretely in various ways: in the fact that one is interested in one’s pupils and appreciates each one in their own way; that one picks up on student contributions and asks questions in response that will further expand upon them; that one knows the strengths and weaknesses of the individual students and can acknowledge and encourage them accordingly; that one can be approached about personal manners even outside the classroom; and also that one notices everything that is going on in the classroom, that one can admit one’s own mistakes, and that one shows as little annoyance or deprecatory behaviour as possible. What this does not mean, on the other hand, is that one should attempt to be as it were the “best friend” of one’s students.

The secret to good classroom management

But I have 30 students of such different types – how I am supposed to build a relationship with every single one? And am I supposed to do this for each class, six times a day? Fortunately, learners have something in common, no matter what age they are: they are internally oriented towards their teacher and want to be noticed and acknowledged by that teacher. The teacher only needs to know that and to unashamedly play up to his or her role as the person of authority. If this relationship functions successfully, the teacher will be able to guide the class effortlessly through any obstacles, be it an excessively hot classroom or boring subject matter. Effective classroom management is nothing technical, in other words; it is based on an internal leadership stance – it is achieved in every remark and through every decision.

Can this be learnt?

This interpersonal dimension cannot be acquired by studying a series of formulas, but it can be enormously improved during the course of one’s professional life. That said, it is also sensitive, easily inhibited and quickly prone to error. Teachers who are new to the job are often uncertain about whether their students will take them seriously; experienced teachers frequently suffer from the stress imposed by the curriculum. A teacher’s individual personality traits can also pose a problem, however: perfectionism, for instance, or an overly distanced approach; or a teacher who is desperate to be acknowledged by their students or seeks to avoid any conflict with them – and is thus reluctant to take a leadership role.

As a general rule, teachers tend to take any classroom problems personally: they assume that a girl who is asking strange questions must surely dislike them; or that a student must want to disrupt the lesson with his constant jokes; or that nobody appreciates all the time they have invested in preparing the lesson. And this puts the teacher in a bad mood and may even prompt him or her to take overly drastic action. Yet in reality perhaps the girl only wishes to express the great ideas she has had about the subject; while the boy may simply wish to distract from the difficulties he is having to understand. Alfred Adler, a pioneer of educational depth psychology, has provided some important suggestions about how to view disruptions as subjective solutions and about how to usefully channel unfavourable energy.

Carry on listening: Michael Felten in conversation


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