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Teaching Relationships

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What do schools need to teach high school students? We are on the cusp of a great global educational change and the question we need to keep asking is not what do high school students need to learn, (they need to learn a lot of things) but what do schools need to teach them?

Most everything students need to learn either can or will be able to be learned online. If you doubt this, consider the multi-million dollar advertising campaign launched last month by Kaplan Learning promoting their online collegiate learning program. Jeffrey Conlon, President and CEO of Kaplan Higher Education says that "rather than asking students to conform to the traditional model for post-secondary education, we are conforming to them, providing a customized and convenient education experience that helps them meet their goals." You can bet that if this is the way of the university, that high schools, with their 30% drop-out rates, will be next and Kaplan is only the rudimentary beginning.

The question we must ask our selves as a society is whether or not there is a need for school at the high school level and, if so, what is the purpose? One skill-set we know people will continue to depend on is how to have meaningful relationships. This need will increase as our social lives move online in greater degrees.

We connect to others through an intricate web of relationships, and they need our input to thrive. The energy we apply to our relationships either sustains or drains them. This is true in our most intimate relationships with family and friends, as well as our business ones where we work in person as well as with teams of people online we may never meet.

Relationship Strengths are the things you do for and with other people that allow you to perform well and authentically within your relationships. Relationship Strengths are the application of character virtues. Character virtues are qualities such as trustworthiness, forgiveness, loyalty, consideration, thankfulness, flexibility, and dependability. They also include such skills as being a good listener and showing empathy. These characteristics can be developed and used to enrich our relationships.

Meaningful relationships create meaningful lives, yet it is rare that schools actually teach students skills to promote long-term success in their relationships. We tend to ignore direct instruction in such things and work with the unspoken assumption that experience is the best teacher. Children need to learn how to choose friends, act on teams, listen, give and take, forgive and accept. As they socialize on the playground, in cafeterias, online in social networks and through the hallways, children are left to figure much of it out on their own. Adults are usually called in only when there is a problem. Many books--such as Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson's Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys and Rosalind Wiseman's Queen Bees and Wannabes--address the social jungles in our schools. They are wise and practical books that describe the negative aspects that are already present in the social worlds of children. Schools of the future should focus on showing children that they have the power not only to protect themselves from negative interaction but also to turn these interactions around.

We throw kids in social situations all the time and hope for the best. And we often regret the results as we see kids endure bullying, loneliness, and hurt feelings throughout their school years and then conflict and misunderstanding on the job. Experience has shown us that most workplace failures are the result of relationship breakdowns rather than inability to master the tasks of the job.

We can teach students to identify Relationship Strengths, and then we can engage them in practicing and reflecting on them. Children engaged in discovering Relationship Strengths will better understand how they can form and refine the contributions they make to others. This practice will allow them to be more effective in both their personal and professional relationships and reap greater rewards from them. As we face the changes and challenges ahead for K-12 education, we would be wise to keep a focus on teaching Relationship Strengths because they are the one things that will be needed both on and off line, and in almost every situation imaginable. What do you think schools should teach young people?