Relationships and Learning: Clarification on a Popular Quote

Ok.  There’s a quote following this paragraph.  I want you to read it and pause…think about what this quote means to you.  Take thirty seconds and think through how it might apply to your research and/or your classroom.  Then please consider how others may interpret this quote. So, here’s the quote:


“No significant learning can occur without a significant relationship.” – Dr. James Comer



Pause more.

Every time I’ve encountered this quote on twitter, ‘relationship’ is equated to the connection between the teacher and students.  To say it a bit differently, students cannot learn anything significant until they have a significant relationship with the teacher.  I have a problem with this. You mean to tell me that students who sit in college auditoriums with hundreds of others cannot learn anything significant?  Nothing that can shape their future? Nothing that can inspire and impact the world? I don’t buy it. I don’t believe it. OR you’ve never learned anything significant from an author/blogger you’ve never met?  Nothing that has changed your beliefs or improved your craft? I have no relationship with Brown, Roediger, or McDaniel, but I can guarantee I learned a significant amount of information when reading Make it Stick.  

Am I saying relationships don’t matter at all or cannot perhaps improve a learning environment?  No. Not at all. But you don’t need a relationship with another person to learn.

Back to Dr. Comer’s quote…this led me to wonder what exactly he meant by the word ‘relationship’.  Was it a person to person relationship, or could it be a relationship between a student’s experiences and new material?

So, I decided to do a little research.  He made the statement on significant learning and relationships in a 1995 lecture given at the Education Service Center in Houston, Texas.  I searched for a transcript of the lecture, but reached a dead end. After a quick internet search, I then discovered Dr. Comer works at Yale University.  I found his email address and dropped him a line. Now, like most professors, he is very busy and I didn’t expect a response…but I got one a few days later.  

It appears his quote is widely misunderstood.  In his email to me, Dr. Comer states that he’s surprised by how “widely” his statement has been used and that it has grown out of neuroscience findings showing that meaningful relationships with material and experiences are remembered and applied more than others.  For more on this topic, please check out Dr. Efrat Furst on twitter and her website.   

I can get behind that explanation and Dr. Comer’s use of ‘relationship’.

Why does this matter?

I think this is important for two reasons:

  1. Be careful what you read and believe on twitter and during edchats.  Often, I find edchats are weak in their depth of discussion and are better for providing quick looks at a topic.  There’s nothing wrong with that at all, but that sometimes means we take what is written in a tweet as fact.  A fun quote may be taken out of context or have little actual substance. Look for evidence to support claims made by all and don’t believe it just because someone tweeted it.
  2. Point #2 piggybacks off of point #1 — The internet is an amazing thing.  I had a question for a professor. I found his email address. I wrote an email.  He responded and answered my question. How easy. ‘Doing research’ to check facts or to clarify ideas/concepts/theories has never been easier.  Go straight to the source and ask. I do this often when writing my blog posts. I have NEVER been denied access to a researcher’s work or left without a reply to a tweet or email.  Not surprisingly, researchers/professors love to talk about their work and share their findings. Ask them. They will not disappoint.

11 thoughts on “Relationships and Learning: Clarification on a Popular Quote

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  1. It’s as if so many of the things we believe about education came about through a game of telephone.

    Great post.

    1. It’s as if all learning historically came either through making mistakes on our own, or through mistaken-telephone-style communication. Heavens bless the mistakes

  2. Your research idea made me think about the classroom. When students respond in class, that is like a “tweet” and it is imperative that as a teacher we research exactly what that student’s tweet really means. Why did they respond that way? What was their thought process that led them to their response? What did I say or do that triggered that response? As you mentioned, chats often lack depth. Well in our classrooms student responses also often lack depth and with a little digging, much like you so often do as presented in your blog, we can expose misconceptions and create thoughtful and reflective experiences. I am richer for having worked beside you! Go Jets!

  3. It seems you reaching out, in some form of online ‘relationship building’ to the original sources, proved a great deal of clarification. What a great way to learn. Thank you for this.

  4. Things written/read/posted/heard second-hand–all of this can be a slippery slope when making meaning. While I think there is good cause to clarify Comer’s meaning/intent and to not misrepresent him, I also think it is human nature to make connections and interpret things according to one’s experiences, values, schema etc. In this case, when thinking of young children in a classroom, I think it has benefited both students and teachers to think of this quote as meaning a relationship between people. That being said, it doesn’t have to be either/or. How wonderful the benefits for a young child when they have a significant relationship with the people involved in their education and a significant relationship to the materials and experiences of the learning task.

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