Subject-Centered vs. Relationship-Centered Approaches

dwalkerLooking back over past blog posts, I have written about implementing the Common Core State Standards as well as supporting  teacher efforts to make classroom instruction more challenging and engaging.  But an article I read today in Education Week, entitled Taking a Relationship-Centered Approach to Education and written by Tyler S. Thigpen prompted me to go back to the drawing board and emphasize relationships, those that exist and could be strengthened between teachers and students, and between students and the world they are learning about.  While the author doesn’t use the term interdisciplinary, that is what he is talking about.  He makes two important recommendations in the article that provide focus for instructional leadership efforts:

  1. Encourage teachers to “mix the disciplines” which results in more interesting and engaging work for students, less compartmentalization of content, and  meaningful collaboration for teachers.
  2. Enable students to use skills and knowledge from traditional disciples to examine topics that transcend the disciplines and are both relevant and important, and to solve complex social and economic problems.

The author believes and I agree that this approach would do more to prepare students for college and to motivate them to excel than the disciplinary approaches common in most secondary schools and a fair number of elementary schools.


An educational purpose that includes, but ultimately rises above, the disciplines and highlights the relationships between them is the unequivocal way forward. We are all complexly related, to Earth and to each other, and these relationships are inescapable, inherently valuable, and increasingly interconnected. We would benefit from framing educational purpose around how we might improve the social (our relationships with each other) and natural (our relationship with Earth) worlds. (Thigpen 2013)


The author also makes the point that such an approach when tied to real world issues and problem solving would equip students with necessary job skills and close the gap for college graduates who lack entry-level skills.

What does this mean for school leaders?  I believe it means rethinking a number of routines and practices, including a) how master schedules are developed, b) how teacher planning time is allocated and organized, and c) how student time and assignments are structured.  These routines and practices are the foundation of traditional learning, but with some flexibility and creative thought can be modified to foster the kinds of cross-disciplinary, complex and interesting learning that the article promotes.

At CTL, the article resonates especially because of our emphasis on learning that is socially constructed and project focused, so that students create and apply knowledge in active and authentic ways.  See our website for more information:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Designed by VIA Studio