Thirty minutes searching for “student relationships” on Google Scholar will show you there is an abundance of research on teacher-student relationships, and a dearth on student-student relationships. Johnson refers to student interaction as “the neglected variable in education” (1981). We intend to make up for that shortfall with this issue, but first, let’s take a quick look at what educational psychology has to tell us about student-to-student relationships.
Individuals or a Group?
Student-to-student relationships might be neglected, but they are not insignificant. Fassinger (1995) believes they have an even greater impact on learning than teacher-student relationships. As language teachers, we know that a class can become a fused social group in itself, and motivation, either positive or negative, can become a group phenomenon (which is why we often describe a particular class as being a delight to teach, or an agony). And yet, most of the things we do in class seem to be based on the notion that learning is an individual thing. Our default is that answering teacher questions, completing exercises, and doing homework are supposed to be done on one’s own, even though the students often resist that paradigm. Maybe we need to change our perspective that learning is an individual endeavor. Long and Coldren think learning is highly influenced by teacher-student and student-student relationships. They inform us that ‘‘learning is a dynamic social and interpersonal enterprise” facilitated by having a supportive environment (2006, p. 241). Relationships that build such an environment are referred to as “connectedness.”
But what does connectedness mean for the learners themselves, and how does a connected classroom come about?
The Connected Classroom
 When students develop supportive and cooperative relationships with peers, they create the connected classroom (Dwyer et al., 2004). It comes with a feeling of being respected; it reduces anxiety; it empowers students to share their ideas, and it makes the classroom experience more positive. This is no small matter. Frisby and Martin’s summary of extensive research (2010) confirms that a positive classroom experience is associated with positive academic outcomes.
And more. Connectedness leads to a myriad of positive behaviors in the students themselves. Galanes and Carmack (2013) list numerous benefits, including: Connectedness increases student modelling of good behavior in class. After all, students generally want to be perceived as making positive contributions. Connected students also empower others to participate, especially quieter classmates. They have a greater willingness to help other students, and, when they see one occurrence of a student helping a peer, they are more likely to do so themselves. The role of this kind of helping should not be underestimated. As one student, Sara, tells us, it is easier for everyone to do well if ‘‘you get to know the people around you, have some phone numbers so … you can ask for help, and people love to help in return’’ (Galanes & Carmack, p. 57).
Sometimes that help goes beyond just unraveling complicated assignments or difficult language problems. Galanes and Carmack (2013) also found several cases where students coached a fellow student through a delicate academic situation, such as helping a student go talk to a teacher about a personal problem. Even sharing one’s own learning with others has a positive effect. As a student named Donna said, “Explaining stuff to other students actually helps me learn more. Just saying it helps me remember it better” (p. 58).
It is obvious that connectedness shapes the learner experience to a greater degree than we are usually aware of. Think of the above examples of connecting from a student’s perspective. When students come to a first lesson they are coming into an unknown and thus threatening social world. They are nervous about whether their peers will accept them, and they are unsure of whether they will succeed in class. The related anxiety can be crippling. But the positive relationships they build with their peers serve them the same way iron reinforcement serves a crumbling wall. It helps them get past their worries. That kind of connectedness is integral to their psychological well-being, but more: It enables learning. And if you haven’t guessed it yet, we, as teachers, play an important role in creating the environment for relationships to blossom.
What we can do
The climate we create and activities we choose can foster connectedness. Johnson (1981) portrays learning as being structured as cooperative, competitive, or individualistic, and found the cooperative structure far more effective in promoting positive relationships across ethnic, social class, sexual, and ability lines. By contrast, competitive or individualistic structures, which he sadly found dominant in U.S. schools, result in student isolation. In a language class, cooperative activities are almost any kind of pair or group work, since students are collaborating in their learning. The same effect can be achieved at the full-class level as well, if the teacher elicits learner contributions.
Our students might long to work in pairs and groups, but we teachers are often afraid that group work will lead to non-productive chatting and fooling around. For me, it has always been one of my greatest worries. And yet, as Dwyer et al. found, that kind of socializing is exactly the kind of behavior that leads to a cooperative climate: “engaging in small talk, being friendly, showing respect, being courteous with one another, and laughing with one another” (2004, p. 269). So now that I know the importance of a connected classroom, I think I will turn a blind eye to that kind of group chatting, at least during the first few weeks of class, and I might even encourage it.
After all, our job is to foster the learning of language, not just teach it. That means we also have to make sure our students are in the best state of brain for them to engage and learn. To do so, we must help them connect.
Curtis Kelly (EdD.) is a professor at Kansai University, a founder of the JALT Mind, Brain, and Education SIG, and producer of the MindBrainEd Think Tanks. He has written over 30 books and given over 500 presentations. His life mission is “to relieve the suffering of the classroom.”