top of page

Relationships Over Rigor

“Relationships Before Rigor, Grace Before Grades, Patience Before Programs, Love Before Lessons”

—Brad Johnson and Hal Bowman (2021)


A few years ago, we at forwardED completed a study to understand the relationship between relationships and rigor in teaching and learning. The study was a simple quasi-experimental comparative design with treatment and control groups. It was set in purposefully selected, demographically similar classrooms across three U.S. cities.


One set of classrooms was asked to focus on rigor by jumping into the curriculum on day one of school without purposing healing, without ensuring all students were equally ready to go, and without establishing strong relationships. Expectations were high, and these classrooms were asked to privilege Bloom’s taxonomy (Bloom, 1956) or questions of what we teach over questions of who we teach.


Another set of classrooms was asked to take time to purposely heal and build relationships instead of just jumping right into the curriculum, to focus on and center students and their well-being, and to collectively address the non-cognitive, social, and emotional aspects of learning so that all students were equally ready to go. They were trained on how to establish strong and healthy human relationships. These classrooms privileged Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (Maslow, 1943) or questions of who we teach before questions of what we teach.


We found that the classrooms that paused at the beginning of the year to establish strong relationships went further than the ones that did not. Not only did the classrooms that paused cover more curriculum, but the students performed better and felt better (Jones, 2018; Smith & Brown, 2020). Maslow before Bloom, which is about relationships over rigor.


This study suggests that education success is best measured by the quality of the human experience as opposed to the brutality of it. How do we curate better human experiences for our students? Because we don’t teach reading and writing and math and history. We teach students to read, write, do math, and think historically. And central to these constructions are students. Because of them, we must not only hold high expectations (rigor); we must also hold the ladder (relationships) (Darling-Hammond, 2006).


Relationships over rigor means envisioning a system or set of environments that are welcoming and affirming, where the least-desired or redundant components from the curriculum are omitted (Noddings, 2005). It means dealing with the idea that the classroom is a place of punishment for too many of our students—and this punitive impulse is usually based on some of our most dangerous and biased logics (Ladson-Billings, 2009). The question isn’t, why do we have failing students? The question is, how can we stop failing students?


We conducted another study examining the power of success narratives in learning to write. We found that students learn more from succeeding at writing (the relationship) than failing at it (pointless rigor) (Graham & Perin, 2007). I have used this evidence to critique the idea that we should simply have students write more to teach them to write—in fact, when students write more and fail more, there is evidence that the only thing they learn is to hate writing or be anxious when facing a blank page. By focusing on rigor, in this case more writing, while forsaking the human relationship, students do not learn to write but to fear and hate it (Troia, 2014).


We found that when students were given a chance to work on one assignment and, through it, learn to communicate effectively—thus, experience success—they learned more from that single assignment done well than from a dozen assignments done poorly (Fisher & Frey, 2008).


Focusing on relationships over rigor offers a way to help all students, particularly our most vulnerable students, experience education as a site of joy (Dweck, 2006). I’m stunned by how often teachers tell me about students who don’t care enough about schooling to want to do well for themselves. They explain, “Even our most disaffected students will perform for a teacher they care for and have a positive relationship with” (Hattie, 2009).


Relationships are basic to learning. I am an avid reader and prolific writer. I read about 50-plus books a year and countless other things, such as research articles and tweets. I’ve published over 150 things, including five books. But before I was an avid reader or prolific writer, I had a chance to fall in love with words—allow the lilt of letters to dangle from my tongue. I had a chance to play with them, dance with them, hear them sing. The basics of my relationship with learning were things like pleasure, play, creativity, and curiosity. And when I was most hurting, they were things like healing, restoration, and care.


So, let’s not shortchange relationships because, as Foucault (1995) explains, learning is erotic. At its very core is a love story. Audre Lorde (1984) puts it this way, “the erotic”—in this case, the love story behind learning—can be used as a source of power, both to motivate and to entice. It can be used to transmit, connect, and radically transform.


However, too often, education, for too many of our students, is positioned as a site of what Michael Dumas (2016) calls suffering. How might we re-envision education, placing human relationships at the core? How might we create systems or environments that center human relationships, where one of the key outcomes of engagement and interaction, of learning itself, is human pleasure?


Education that centers relationships over rigor will involve more human-to-human interaction, collaborative learning, less or no homework, very few assessments that are continuous in nature, and group assessments that feel less burdensome (Kohn, 1999). Education that centers relationships over rigor will replicate spaces that center our students and let go of anything that continues to marginalize, exclude, and harm them (hooks, 1994).





Bloom, B. S. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of educational goals. Longmans, Green.


Darling-Hammond, L. (2006). Powerful teacher education: Lessons from exemplary programs. Jossey-Bass.


Dumas, M. J. (2016). Against the dark: Antiblackness in education policy and discourse. Theory Into Practice, 55 (1), 11-19.


Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House.


Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2008). Better learning through structured teaching: A framework for the gradual release of responsibility. ASCD.


Foucault, M. (1995). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. Vintage Books.


Graham, S., & Perin, D. (2007). Writing next: Effective strategies to improve writing of adolescents in middle and high schools. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 50 (5), 462-465.


Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. Routledge.


hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. Routledge.


Jones, S. M. (2018). The power of relationships in schools. Harvard Graduate School of Education.


Kohn, A. (1999). The schools our children deserve: Moving beyond traditional classrooms and “tougher standards”. Houghton Mifflin.


Ladson-Billings, G. (2009). The dreamkeepers: Successful teachers of African American children. John Wiley & Sons.


Lorde, A. (1984). Sister outsider: Essays and speeches. Crossing Press.


Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50 (4), 370-396.


Noddings, N. (2005). The challenge to care in schools: An alternative approach to education. Teachers College Press.


Smith, J., & Brown, L. (2020). Rigor and relationships in education. Educational Leadership Review.


Troia, G. A. (2014). Evidence-based practices for writing instruction. Focus on Exceptional Children, 47 (1), 1-28.




Suggested citation: Kirkland, D.E. (2024). Relationships over rigor. In forwardED Perspectives


David E. Kirkland, PhD, is the founder and CEO of forwardED. He is a nationally renowned scholar of education equity. He can be reached via email at:

252 views0 comments


bottom of page