Developing Talent Through Relationships

Talent is often thought of as innate, something you are born with. Either you have it or you don’t. We think “talent” and we think of Yo-Yo Ma, stunningly able to play his cello from an early age, or Serena Williams, her limbs uniquely built for tennis. We know that even innate talent needs training: We think of the talented and earnest young person, diligently practicing and training for long hours. But our vision of talent and the accolades go to solitary performers, whose solo performances take our breath away.

While we will continue to be awed by the performances of remarkable individuals, the new field of social neuroscience is showing us that as a species, we are cognitively interdependent. We learn together, we create together. In The Powers of Two, Joshua Wolf Shenk argues that pairs produce a kind of creative generativity that has shaped the evolution of great ideas: Think of the interplay between Matisse and Picasso, Lennon and McCartney, Pierre and Marie Curie. Harvard Project Zero researcher Edward Clapp makes a compelling case for “participatory creativity,” demonstrating that social process is an essential component of thinking, creating and innovating.

In our work with educational leaders across the Jewish denominational spectrum at the Mandel Teacher Educator Institute (MTEI), our faculty embraces a collaborative and relational model of learning. We are especially concerned with developing the capacity, knowledge and talent of instructional leaders to support them in creating collaborative learning environments for the teachers in their institutions. Among our eight principles of practice, two are especially relevant to this discussion. The first is “learning rooted in collaborative inquiry.”

We highlight both “inquiry” and “collaboration.” Inquiry is at the core of studying texts, investigating teaching practices, learning about learning and learning from each other in community. Adopting an “inquiry stance” includes, among other things, engaging in an open-minded search for evidence upon which to build ideas and to explore multiple interpretations. We believe that collaborative learning has a variety of strengths that individual learning does not; that learning with colleagues deepens understanding, builds community, adds meaning and purpose, and improves practice. We take our place in the lineage of Jewish learning across time, which values a moral and practical commitment to our colleagues’ learning, through practices such as supporting and challenging each other’s ideas with sensitivity and intellectual honesty.

We believe the social construction of knowledge and talent requires forms of learning that are social, interactive and focused on deep inquiry into pressing questions regarding teaching and learning.

MTEI’s second principle is the “intentional creation of community.”

Creating a community of collaborative inquiry is ongoing, intentional work that supports and is supported by the relational environment we create. To “create a community,” we consciously set up structures aimed at helping participants have time to learn together, feel comfortable taking risks, be vulnerable, and develop trusting relationships. This kind of community environment — what we call a “relational learning community”— fosters learning. As a sense of community fosters learning, so, too, learning together fosters the creation of community. Thus, building a professional and relational collaborative learning community is both how we do our work as well as an outcome of our work.

The creation of a professional/relational learning community (RLC) is necessary for the building of knowledge that can transform the way we learn and teach. We have a very specific goal for such transformation: to improve and deepen the teaching and learning in our schools. Such work happens in the context of relationships. As relational psychologists Jean Baker Miller and Irene Stiver (The Healing Connection) argue, “Participating in growth-fostering relationships is both the source and goal of development.”

If we know that children’s growth happens within a web of relationships, can we create contexts in which adults learn in this way as well? At MTEI, we build “relational learning communities” with our participants. Relational learning communities, for both adults and children, have four distinct dimensions. The first is building a holding environment. Informed by the work of D.W. Winnicott and Robert Kegan, we understand a holding environment to be one that both welcomes individuals in all their complexity and fullness, and supports them to change in fundamental ways. It is a place to take risks and try out a new idea or practice. Taking these leaps requires vulnerability, because trying out something new is often messy, and includes failure and practice. As Brené Brown argues in Dare to Lead, vulnerability is “the cornerstone of courage-building, but we often fail to realize that without vulnerability there is no creativity or innovation.” Such vulnerability can be destabilizing, causing people to feel off-balance or uncertain. To invite vulnerability, the holding environment must be a safe space, and this kind of safety requires trust among the members of the RLC.

It is a safety that encourages nascent ideas to be articulated, the safety to say hard things. As a colleague of mine once said, it must be “safe enough to be dangerous.” Building a holding environment requires careful thought about all the dimensions of a learning setting. For example, we carefully consider the ways we eat together, sing during the day and socialize during unstructured time. Building a holding environment includes practices such as articulating clear values and norms for how we work together, how we voice disagreements and how we learn to listen to one another. MTEI faculty member Kathy Simon works closely with our participants on practices of both attuned listening and speaking, underscoring another MTEI principle: “How we talk matters.”

The second dimension of an RLC is the development of relational awareness, “the capacity to notice, feel, reflect and respond to the dynamics of connection, disconnection and repair that can happen” in key learning relationships (see my book Professional Development in Relational Learning Communities). Those relationships include connections between teachers and students, teachers and the subject matter/text/content, students and the subject matter/text/content, and student peer relationships.

Originally, this triangular model of relationship was referred to as the “instructional triangle.” We have also called this model the “relational triangle” because attending to dynamics and wellbeing of each dyad in the triangle is central to developing relational awareness. When any of these relationships experience a rupture or disconnection, learning may be compromised. A hard reality of teaching (and learning!) is that disconnections are inevitable. A teacher-educator may make an offhand comment that offends a participant. A text may trigger a participant in ways a facilitator never anticipated. Detecting these ruptures is a vital capacity for the facilitator of RLCs. Careful, nonjudgmental observations of RLC members and checking in with participants at the end of sessions (collectively or individually) are just two of many practices that can help facilitators notice ruptures. Once facilitators discover these ruptures, then they can carry out strategies for repair or reconnection.

The third dimension is enacting relational pedagogies. This kind of teaching pays close attention to key learning relationships described above. Examples of these pedagogies include havruta text study and descriptive processes (and some protocol-based discussion). Each of these pedagogies include practices that focus on rich and evocative texts—texts that can elicit multiple perspectives and interpretations.

This form of teaching requires staying present with each vertex of the relational triangle as well as the relationships between them. Two excellent examples of relational pedagogies were shared by members of MTEI cohort 8 at the recent 2019 Prizmah conference in Atlanta. Suzanne Mishkin, director of the Sager Schechter School in Northbrook, Illinois, vividly described the teacher learning groups she has launched. These groups use protocols that learn from, rather than judge, student work. Yael Krieger, director of educational support at Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco, described “teacher learning walks” in her school, where teachers collaboratively observe one another’s classrooms, share nonjudgmental observations and pose inquiry questions with one another.

The last dimension of an RLC is that of supporting, challenging and voicing practices. These practices are essential parts of relational pedagogies, but are so important that I highlight them as a dimension unto themselves. They help participants in the RLC engage with one another as “learning allies,” as MTEI faculty member Jeff Stanzler has termed this kind of relationship. Participants take responsibility for one another’s learning, helping each other to strengthen emerging ideas, challenge interpretations that need more evidence and articulate new perspectives that may be hard to voice.

With the guidance of MTEI faculty member Elie Holzer, we encourage MTEI participants to enact these practices in havruta text study. It can be difficult for participants to challenge a learning ally with questions such as “What evidence supports your interpretation?” or “How does your interpretation fit with a different part of the text?” But the challenge is lessened by understanding that it is part of their job is to help their partner strengthen their interpretation; it is what we call “role-sanctioned challenge,” and it is meant to be help participants take brave steps in learning.

Along with this kind of challenge, RLC participants also practice supporting and voicing, assisting their learning allies to voice new ideas, interpretations and questions that they may be hesitant or uneasy to articulate. They help one another find supporting evidence for a new interpretation or invent ways to implement a new professional development practice. As noted in our MTEI principles, these are profoundly Jewish ways of being in a learning relationship.

The four dimensions of an RLC set the stage for building new ideas, nurturing creativity and deepening talent that can truly change the way educational leaders and teachers learn together in schools. In contrast to traditional notions of K–12 schooling where “don’t look at your neighbor’s paper” is often the norm, learning in relationship is the “new normal” in many adult workspaces and industries. To help us build these kinds of spaces for children, we must experience them as adults and feel the way that learning morphs and changes when we build knowledge in relationship. Only then can we educate the next generation in ways that can nurture innovation and creativity to repair our world.

Miriam Raider-Roth
Deepening Talent
Knowledge Topics
Teaching and Learning