“It is through others that we become ourselves”
~ Lev Vygotsky
Individual learning is embedded within a complex network of social relationships. Early 20th century psychologist Lev Vygotsky was among the first to recognize that learning occurs primarily through social interaction. And it is through relationships that learning derives meaning. We learn from models whom we trust and respect. We try out new ideas with peers. Each student is fundamentally inseparable from their relationships. Therefore, if we are to maximize learning, we must attend to and nurture each of these relationships. Three such relationships are particularly important in Salmonberry’s approach to education.
The core foundational relationship that grounds so much student learning is the child’s relationship with their teacher. Particularly in the younger grades, this is a relationship that mirrors that of a child and parent. At Salmonberry, the connection is deep and is rooted in mutuality and love. Part of the reason for multi-year placements is to facilitate this depth of relationship and knowledge of one another. The need for intimacy is also one of the critical motivations to keep our student:teacher ratio low. Through intimacy, teachers and students build trust, a critical prerequisite for the risks students need to take if they are to stretch and grow. When a younger student is having a difficult moment, hugs are often offered, and the teacher’s lap is a common place of comfort and care. For older students, intimate one-on-one meetings or side-by-side walks are similarly common.
Love can reach the same level of talent, and even genius, as the discovery of differential calculus. ~ Lev Vygotsky
The second key learning relationship that is nurtured at Salmonberry is the relationship between student and student. Sharing their journey with trusted peers can enhance students’ learning exponentially. Within our small classes, students often find very close friendships. These friendships are often sibling-like and are the source of so much joy at school. Students also need to learn to navigate less intimate and more collegial peer relationships. And at times students are guided towards tolerance and acceptance of peers with whom there are not natural affinities. All of these relationships have the potential for intensity that, when supported, can significantly amplify students’ learning.
The classroom community culture as a whole provides a third set of relationships that create an important context to students’ work. Teachers work hard to foster a sense of ownership for all social and behavioral agreements within their class. When a class together can define and identify their community as a place of safety, support, collaboration, risk taking, adventure and the celebration of growth and learning, each individual’s trajectory is enhanced.
These three relationships: teacher-student; student-student; and classroom community each require attention and care. Our curriculum, particularly in the first few weeks of each school year, includes a significant amount of time devoted to teaching and reinforcing the skills and behaviors that help to realize the potential that these relationships offer. In developmentally appropriate ways, each class engages students in recognition and articulation of emotions, appropriate expression and self-advocacy, and deep listening skills. These social skills are all part of this relationship-building work. Students are guided in cooperative games and group initiatives. Students and teachers craft classroom agreements. At times, specific lessons are taught including when and how to make an apology; how to listen actively; and how to communicate and resolve conflicts with compassion.
The true direction of the development of thinking is not from the individual to the social, but from the social to the individual. ~Lev Vygotsky
More subtle relationships are also present at Salmonberry. We recognize that young children’s learning does not occur within a sterile lab environment. At each point along the learning journey we make efforts to embed students’ work within relationships to nature, to place, relationship within a larger human community, and with their cognitive learning in relationship to a deeper sense of self. Every aspect of student learning contains the implied questions of, Who am I? Where am I? and With whom do I belong?
A final critical relationship at Salmonberry School is the triadic relationship between student, teachers and parents. Beginning with classroom back-to-school events and early fall conferences, teachers seek to understand family goals and values. Insights into student interest and motivation are shared between teachers and parents. When all three vertices of this triangle are working in ways that are aligned and with common goals and understandings, we are always more effective.
Somehow our society has formed a one-sided view of the human personality, and for some reason everyone understood giftedness and talent only as it applied to the intellect. But it is possible not only to be talented in one’s thoughts but also to be talented in one’s feelings as well. ~ Lev Vygotsky
When Vygotsky articulated his social learning theory and called educators’ collective attention to the importance of relationship, we think he might have been envisioning the possibility of a relationship-based school like Salmonberry.