“No significant learning can occur without a significant relationship” (Dr. James Comer, 1995). Case Study – James Kendall, ICS London

29 Jun 2022


“No significant learning can occur without a significant relationship”, (Dr. James Comer, 1995).

A quote used and reused so many times in educational circles that the semantics of it has become unclear. In the post COVID bubble learning world we find ourselves in as educators, this bite-size, instagramable quote is rolled out in the footer of weekly emails and the first slide of presentations to remind school communities of how important real-life, non-metaverse relationships are to children. The only trouble with this is that it was not the “relationships” Dr. Comer is referring to in his now-famous speech; however, it does not detract from the value given to either interpretation particularly in relation to primary age children.

The intended meaning of Dr. Comer’s quote relates to the relationship between the student and what they are learning. However, misinterpreting it is easy when considering the impact of online learning on students and in particular those of primary age. The lost relationships and developmental goals due to the lack of physical interactions between peers and teachers are clear.

As Amanda Speilman, Ofsted’s chief inspector, recently commented here, the underdevelopment of young children due to the pandemic is becoming much clearer. The loss of key communication skills and a deficit in the ability of young children to recognise facial expressions and emotions can be directly linked back to the lack of face-to-face interactions and the relationships they build. The pandemic has compounded and highlighted the importance of the school setting to children’s development and their learning.

In the primary school setting, we see daily the importance of strong relationships between children and their peers and teachers. When a child is happy and feels safe, we see them thrive in the classroom; coming into the classroom ready to learn. We also see the reverse of this such as an issue at home or a dispute in the playground adversely impacting their focus and attention. If a student has a positive relationship with a teacher, it fosters that sense of safety and security. If a student has positive social relationships with their peers we see them bound back from play time eager to engage in the next phase of the day. This is all without highlighting the communication and problem-solving skills children develop when out on the playground engaging in positive relationships with peers.


IB PYP Circle


To jump back to Dr. Comer, the intended meaning of the original quote relates to the importance of students having a connection with what they are learning, giving them a purpose and a focus to be self-driven in their learning journey. At ICS London, this is the bedrock of our approach to learning, as it is with many progressive International Baccalaureate (IB) schools . Having an inquiry-based approach, learning is constructed around six themes that transcend the normal subject boundaries. To give the children a relationship with what they are learning, we plan through an inquiry cycle that starts with the students ‘tuning in’ to what they will be learning about. This can be facilitated in many ways but we often utilise a ‘provocation’ to learning which builds the relationship between the student and their learning. The inquiry guru, Kath Murdoch, discusses the importance of creating a thought provoking, challenging and emotional response to their learning. At ICS London we plan provocations to units of inquiry that ask students to engage, interact, respond and reflect on situations they may not have been in before, such as redesigning their classrooms, role-playing the journey of a migrant or telling a story from their culture.

Furthermore, we utilise open inquiry time, which are dedicated sessions each week for students to inquire into a passion of theirs, giving them agency over what and how they learn. This is facilitated alongside the development of key research, social, thinking, communication and self-management skills and attributes of the IB Learner Profile. This approach allows for students to self-identify the areas of learning they already have relationships with and use this to develop themselves as learners even further.

The true extent of the pandemic on primary schools is only just beginning to show itself. As Amanda Speilman stated, we will only start to see that impact fully in the coming years as those youngest learners transition through primary schools. Schools and early childhood settings need to act now to mitigate this impending crisis.

To return to Dr. James Comer’s quote one final time, “No significant learning can occur without a significant relationship”. If you interpret this as intended or as the pandemic has now made educators do, ICS London is laying the groundwork to ensure the full development of the children of the pandemic in all areas of their learning.