Cultivating learning relationships

Posted on 11th Oct 2019 in School News, Qatar, Teaching

Colin Powell, Director of Teaching and Learning at International School of London Qatar, explains the importance of cognitive coaching...

Dr James P. Comer, professor of Child Psychiatry at Yale University tells us that “[n]o significant learning occurs without a significant relationship”. Such learning relationships have become a prominent focus of learning and teaching across ISL Qatar, between students, between students and teachers and between colleagues. We know that another key investment that we must make in building our collective capacity is to pay attention to what happens between people in the learning process. We have learned that there are several key attributes worth paying attention to in order to develop better quality learning relationships. Two areas of inquiry have included relational trust and the role of conversations in learning.

As we look to develop the highest possible conditions for learning, we have come back to the role of relational trust in learning relationships. In Guiding Professional Learning Communities by Roussin, Hord and Summers, they talk about the role of (a) benevolence, (b) honesty, (c) openness, (d) reliability and (e) competence in developing better trust. Specifically, the authors describe what each one of these ‘faces of trust’ might look like. For example, a person showing benevolence not only shows interest, but also acknowledges it verbally. Someone showing competence is able to meet or exceed the expectations of others or the perceived expectations of their role. The authors suggest that building trust demands that we see each ‘face of trust’ individually and understand it contextually. “Relational trust is the “glue” that binds people together when deciding on policies that advance the education and welfare of the students” (Bryk and Schneider, 2002).

Starting from a premise that every learner (students and adults alike) deserve high quality learning conversations, we continue to develop powerful interactions as a platform for learning. Such conversations are beginning to take on different forms and have been influenced by the following ideas: our role as teachers in such conversations is to engage thinking that results in self-modification (by the learner) that will sustain longer-lasting change. In addition, in significant learning relationships, it is more important to develop rapport, to listen, and pose questions that support thinking than to tell people what to do.

At ISL Qatar, we have embraced Cognitive Coaching as a way to facilitate the development of individual capacity within a social learning context. Developing individual capacity within a social learning context means that we are looking to craft learning relationships that develop self-directed leaders and learners – students and adults alike. “[T]he capacity for self-directed and continuous learning has become the most important capacity needed for survival in the future” (Costa & Garmston 3). Over the last 24 months, three groups of ISL Qatar teachers have completed both part 1 and part 2 of the training. Punctuated throughout the year, we have begun the process of embedding coaching conversations in our professional learning. We know that enhanced student learning success will come from developing great teachers and in appreciating how we interact.

Understanding that the most fundamental of all pedagogical patterns is the conversation, we have extended the use of learning conversations to students. As part of their self-assessment process, students in the Secondary school now seek the support of a homeroom teacher to reflect on themselves as learners and plan their next personal learning targets. The initial response has been very positive. Students have relished the focused attention and sustained time to understand themselves at a deeper level. Existing only within the development of trust, our learning conversations are a strengths-based practice aiming to impact learning within the context of strong collaboration. Developing our self-directed learning capacity relies on the support of a ‘significant learning other’. Therefore, some of the most important work we engage in here at ISL Qatar looks to cultivate and maintain learning relationships.

Works cited

Bryk, A. S. and Schneider, B. (2002) Trust in Schools: A Core Resource for Improvement. Russell Sage Foundation, JSTOR,

Costa, A. L. (2016) Cognitive Coaching: Developing Self-Directed Leaders and Learners. Rowman & Littlefield.

Comer, J. (1995) Region IV. Houston, TX. Lecture given at Education Service Center.

Hord, S. M., et al. (2010) Guiding Professional Learning Communities: Inspiration, Challenge, Surprise, and Meaning. Corwin.

This article first appeared in the 2019/20 edition of John Catt's Guide to International Schools. You can read the digital version of the guidebook here: