Seeding High Quality Connections in the Classroom
Co-authored with Arne Carlsen and Sally Maitlis
Many of us are teachers and professors. Our classrooms are rife with possibilities for connecting with students and breathing life into learning communities, in a first gathering and beyond. How many of us think about the role we play (or can play) in seeding the ground or tilling the soil for high quality connections with our students and for the students with each other? What does such nurturing involve? We lean on the recent experiences we have had in teaching in business schools (undergrads, MBAs and executives) to share what we find works in building a connected class community where higher quality relationships seem to prevail. For each practice we share, we also try to draw in ideas from researchers writing about connection and community that help us see why these practices might be working. Our hope is that, in these reflections, you might find inspiration and ideas about how to seed your classroom experience so that more high quality connections can unfold.
1. Invite - Make first moments matter. Classrooms can be charged with power asymmetries that stifle mutuality and energy in connecting. As teachers, we have the opportunity to level the field by positioning students as contributors and ourselves as co-learners. Within the first few moments of class, try engaging students in an activity where they see themselves as contributors to each other, to the class and perhaps to a broader community. One particularly helpful activity involves having students interview each other about potential contributions to the class – and then letting them share that on behalf of each other. It could be the 30 minutes that matters the most. Another is to emphasize your own desire to learn with the class, what you wonder about, which unchartered territories excite you, not just what you wish to convey. The way you invite determines your chance of building two-way curiosity (Anderson, 2012), activating the resources of others.
2. Share - Create space for shared experiences. Shared experiences are the basis for building a lived “we” as a history of mutually rewarding discoveries. It could be discussing a case that is new to everyone, ambiguous and controversial. It could be inviting students to provide mini-lectures or prepared commentaries on thematic topics where they have deep experiences. It could be physically journeying together to a place or an organization where together everyone is jointly exposed to something new. It could be sketching together to expand sensory motoric engagement. Or it could be simply starting with moments of silence. Silence can be the basis for finding presence, and tuning in to others in the room.
3. Attend - Ask questions that affirm and expand. Allow students to share a meaningful experience from their life. Respond to contributions in a way that is non-evaluative, open, connects to the thoughts of others and demonstrates the safety of the classroom for sharing. Of particular importance here is attending to and marking moments of discovery that emerge in class, what we are “struck by”. Shotter (2013) calls these “arresting moments” that come to us in the living and embodied moments of engagement, such as felt anticipations of insights, or sensations of something deeply puzzling, wrong or unexplained. These moments form our basis for being relationally responsive, a form of withness-thinking (Shotter, 2006).
An opportunity for such thinking occurred in one of our classrooms when a visiting Headmaster told a story of being involved in turning around a high-school from the worst to the best in the country. In a period of difficulty, teachers of the school had asked for better students. “We learned a hard lesson then. We needed to turn around the mirror and start with ourselves. We needed to be the best school for the students we have at any time. It starts with us.” Several persons in the classroom immediately expressed being struck by the story: ‘Yes!’, ‘Oh, that really seems key…’” Two singled out the metaphor of “turning the mirror”, another connected the story to a theory of prosocial motivation that the class covered earlier in the day. Together with the Headmaster’s visible emotional engagement, these acts of attending, affirming and expanding made the mini-event a shared resource for the class, an experience that could later be re-activated simply by a phrase.
4. Reveal - Display some form of genuine vulnerability. Expressing vulnerability builds trust. For example, one of us admits to her class that she spent years being nervous about teaching and, as a way of feeling more connected to students and calming the nerves, she stands at the class entrance and greets each student (shaking their hands) as they enter the classroom. By exposing areas of not-knowing (Anderson, 2012) as teachers, we uphold our invitation for others to contribute. Asking others for help (Baker, 2020) signals more competence rather than less and stimulates the giving behavior needed to co-create miracles of learning.
Looking across these practices, we think there are at least four reasons why they are helpful in building high quality connections. First, the teacher or professor shares power with the students very early on. The relationship with the teacher is thus experienced as relationally responsive and the classroom is imprinted with a sense of joint discovery. In the words of Mary Parker Follett (1924/1951), we build coactive “power with” rather than coercive “power over”.
Second, there is an early engagement in class with an experience of agency and generosity, where every participant enacts their potential to offer gifts or contributions to the shared experience. Through this process, students see themselves and others as bringing resources to the class, and as co-creating a community where each person helps others to learn. We know from extensive research on altruism and generosity that tapping into these basic prosocial motivations can boost learning and relationships (Bolino & Grant, 2016), making it likely that this form of mutual resourcing is likely to last beyond the moment.
Third, these practices infuse the class with shared positive emotions. These positive emotions could be interest, joy, appreciation, gratitude or wonder. Wonder is the basis for learning and for turning toward other with receptivity (Carlsen & Sandelands, 2015). These shared positive emotions promote connection and enlarge thought-action repertoires, as so many psychologists have taught us (e.g., Fredrickson, 1998).
Fourth, each of these practices begins to build a shared sense of who is in the classroom community, opening the possibility for empathic insight and relationally responsive communication over time. As Shotter and Katz (1999) have observed, such relational ways of understanding and talking enable people to actively and jointly construct a shared, caring reality.
By having the mindset and aspiration to seed the classroom for high quality connections, we see the possibility of unleashing resources in the classroom that we never imagined. We prompt the important generative force of relational resourcing as everyone in the class taps into their strengths, connections, and energy. The trajectory for upward movement in the learning and growth capacity of the classroom is unknown, which means the possibilities are potentially limitless. The overall lesson, we suggest, is that it changes the primary role of the teacher/professor from knowledge provider to connection cultivator, and by that expanding the possible harvest from the class for everyone who is participating.
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