Relational Learning and the Opportunities That Exist at Boarding School

written by: Eagle Hill School

Do you remember a time when someone told you about a particularly interesting job they had? Perhaps you met a firefighter who explained what it was like to scale buildings and rescue those in need or maybe you met someone who worked with exotic animals, explaining how they cared for large cats and tropical birds. Though you likely did not know it at the time, this experience was an example of relational learning.
Relational learning is just what it sounds like – the ability for groups of people to learn from—and in relation to—one another. This type of social interaction and learning is common among sports teams, working groups, and if done right, students. Some of our students’ deepest and most nuanced learning happens in this way: sitting in a group, sharing stories, constructing meaning and allowing another person’s ideas and experiences to shape new thought. Boarding schools offer a unique opportunity for educators, faculty and students to learn from one another in ways that are atypical to the mainstream classroom.
Students underpin the entire school system – they are why an institution exists. For that reason, they are in many ways the crux of relational or shared learning, even though they aren’t the ones intentionally teaching the lessons. While in the classroom, students contribute to discussions and shape the dialogue. Their experiences, opinions, thoughts and biases mold the discourse that contributes to the richness of learning and, when given the opportunity, enable students to make gradual and subtle shifts in their schema. Since boarding schools often boast smaller class sizes, this type of learning is more prevalent and possible.  
Relational learning is of extra impact at boarding school because of what happens outside the classroom. Ideas that are shared in the classroom often spill into the dining halls and dormitories, creating a web of exchange that is very hard to replicate in any other setting. Because of the increase in informal and self-directed time, students have the opportunity to engage in rich conversation about topics such as current events, religion, race and identity, environmental issues and society—just to name a few. These conversations--and the grappling that comes from them--often form the foundation of students’ knowledge bases as they enter into college.
Educators & Teachers
The best education is not a one-way transaction. Many of today’s top educators will be quick to tell you that they often learn a great deal from their students. Boarding schools are unique in this area since students join boarding school communities from all over the country and world. While traditional schools may draw students from perhaps a thirty mile radius, boarding schools populate their student bodies with students from many corners of the globe. This diversity in thought and culture enriches not just students’ interactions with each other, but with all members of the community.
Imagine a teacher, spending time with a student outside of the classroom, encounters a new point of view or perspective that was previously unknown to them. Perhaps this new idea places its roots and sticks with this teacher. In the future perhaps it becomes part of their lesson plan, or they incorporate it into a class discussion. This is how relational learning works – it is an open exchange of ideas. While common in all learning communities, relational learning is especially nurtured by the environment a boarding school offers. Given the demand for teachers to be more involved in students’ out of school lives, there is simply more of an opportunity for relational learning to take place—such as through sports, clubs, meals, dorm life and off campus trips.
Teachers at boarding schools are offered an entirely new landscape in which to have these types of meaningful conversations in a way that is more natural than the traditional learning space. If a teacher takes a group of students to see an impactful film and then goes to lunch, for instance, the types of enriching conversations and transactional learning is exponentially higher than a teacher who sees a student for only 40 minutes once a day.
Faculty & Community
Boarding school is home to more than just teachers and students. Administrators, dorm parents, and auxiliary staff (custodians, chefs, groundskeepers, etc.) are all a vital part of the community. At a traditional day school, students don’t get the opportunity to befriend people from other walks of life. Generally, they befriend other students. But running into these other folks is inescapable at boarding school. These people may not have a lesson to impart in a traditional sense, but at boarding school they are often some of the wisest, most revered figures. Simply having a conversation with a dorm counselor about a recent trip they took and their takeaways from it can launch new learning that can never be totally captured or replicated. Additionally, the time and space for these conversations remains a crucial part of the success of this process and is completely unique to a residential learning environment.
Learning at boarding school is, by design, relational. This fabric of different perspectives is constantly tested, altered, and added to as student ideas, thought and learning are shaped by their daily interaction with other members of the community. The perspectives—and people they come from—very much create the environment that leads to a rich, natural learning experience that encapsulates relational learning. The synergistic potential of these environments is a treasured part of the boarding school experience and one that is unique to the members of boarding school communities.   
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  • Sharon Katz
    This article articulated the gift that Eagle Hill has been for our daughter and our family. The layered experiences that occur in and out of the classroom academically, residentially , emotionally and socially Are unparalleled. Thank you EHS.

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Learning Diversity is a blog hosted by Eagle Hill School where educators, students, and other members of the LD community regularly contribute posts and critical essays about learning and living in spaces that privilege the inevitability of human diversity.

The contributors of Learning Diversity come together to engage our readers from a variety of disciplines, including the humanities, social sciences, biological sciences and mathematics, athletics, and residential life. Embracing learning diversity means understanding and respecting our students as whole persons.

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