Bringing ideas to life

Learning as relational … in practice

Published in Pedagogy & Curriculum by Mark Murphy on October 7, 2013

(c) Duane Schoon

(c) Duane Schoon

This is an introductory blog post directly related to a class being taught at the University of Sheffield – EDU103 – run by Tim Herrick @minkymonkeymoo (I’m liking the Twitter handle Tim :)). Earlier this year, Tim asked me if I was willing to engage with the students regarding a paper I had previously published (with Tony Brown) – Learning as relational: Intersubjectivity and pedagogy in higher education. Of course I agreed as it gives me a chance to discuss my work while also being part of innovative and exciting forms of HE pedagogy. Many thanks to Tim for the invite.

And hello to the students on EDU103 – for an introduction to myself please go here.  I hope you don’t mind these interactions being open to regular readers of the site, but it might make for some useful discussions down the line. Or at least further thinking about how we can bridge the traditional and digital academic divide. Given the content and focus of the paper it seems like a good place to start. It should also be noted that the setting up of this site is a practical outcome of the thought process that to some extent lies behind the ideas put forward in the paper. This may not be obvious from reading it, as it’s quite theory focused, but theory is never that far from practice (depending on where you look) …

The paper, which you will be discussing with myself and Tim this semester, is an attempt to explore alternatives to what are increasingly becoming marketised and consumerised relationships between students and academics. We locate one potential alternative via ideas generated in the fields of critical theory and psychoanalysis – specifically we argue that the intersubjective world of relations (as entities in themselves) is a good place to start when attempting to move away from the rigid dichotomies of teaching/learning and teacher/learner. As we state in the abstract:

By emphasising the intersubjective nature of learning and teaching and the role of emotions in this regard, the paper argues that a relationally centred approach takes seriously questions of trust, recognition and respect at the heart of the academic–student relationship, while also making space for doubt, confusion and relational anxiety.

I’ll leave it at that for now – looking forward to talking to you all soon, Mark

PS: And if anyone else wants to join in this discussion of HE pedagogy, feel free!


Mark MurphyMark Murphy is a Reader in Education and Public Policy at the University of Glasgow. He previously worked as an academic at King’s College, London, University of Chester, University of Stirling, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, University College Dublin and Northern Illinois University. Mark is an active researcher in the fields of education and public policy. His research interests include educational sociology, critical theory, accountability in higher education, and public sector reform.


  1. Anthea Coghlan

    This looks really interesting and very important in pushing forward practice. It is an approach similar to that which I attempted to apply when teaching Masters Students but I had not developed a concrete model. I do believe that the emotional component of the learning process has been largely disregarded or underestimated. Thank you for this!

  2. Mark Murphy
    Mark Murphy

    Thanks Anthea, you’re right – the emotional component of the learning process has been underestimated, possibly because it tends to be under-theorised, I.e., unacknowledged. There are a whole host of reasons for this, not least the fact that professionalism and emotionality, at least in the educational world, do not always make for comfortable bedfellows. Emotionality or affectivity, what’s a better word? … Anyway, not sure we came up with a concrete model for intersubjectivity in HE, I think it’s probably something that needs to be ‘practiced’ more for the theory to take on a more effective shape. Maybe this will be part of the discussion with the Sheffield students, who knows??

    • Joan Forbes

      An interesting discussion, Mark. Thank you. In a new chapter, Claire Maxwell (UCL) and I view affect as relational; as shaping and characterising relations between people, as well as people and objects and so a different concept to that of emotions, which captures the kinds of feelings experienced and/or observed on or within the body/a person (Maxwell & Aggleton 2013). And Clegg (2013), e.g., argues that emotions are something people have, socially constituted by effective structures that shape how these emotions are experienced. Interesting discussion. Hope your Sheffield discussions were stimulating.

  3. Dr Suanne Gibson

    Undertones of Friere echo in this work, a reminder to those who embrace a ‘liberal, romantic person centred’ approach to education that we need to step up lest we lose it to this neo-liberal avalanche of change. Micheal Barber gave an excellent talk at the HEA conf in June about the avalanche descending on the university project. If you are engaging in Mark’s work I suggest you access Barber’s talk as a further way in to your critical reflections on learning in HE, our evolving times and our role as educators and learners combined.

    Linked to Mark’s work, I’m currently thinking about our digital blogosphere and twitter worlds. In particular their impact on academic language and knowledge, questions of learner access, inclusive pedagogy and where exactly ‘students as partners’ -the policy, the practice and/or the rhetoric- sits in the mix. Might there be a connection to explore with ‘relationally centred’ learning or is the truth more linked to Peter Scott’s assertions in the Guardian 2 weeks ago?
    I hope it is the former.

  4. Amy Walpole

    I found this very interesting to read and would like to ask a few questions:

    1. What was your main influence in writing this article and why?
    2. Did your time at university match up to the relation pedagogy that you discuss in your article?
    3. Did you experience a ‘crisis of rapprochement’ whilst in higher education, and if so, how do you think this influences your learning?

  5. Ella Stanway

    • Have either of you conducted any research into the psychological mind set of HE students /the effect of the current HE structure on them? Speaking as a current HE student, I personally have never experienced any of the feelings of “isolation” you mention, nor have I felt that “relatively impersonal contexts” are part of university life. I agree that curriculum and education policy have become increasingly marketised in recent years, but I would argue that it was a much more prominent aspect in further education. Why did you choose to study the effects on HE, and what research was that based on?
    • Why was there such a focus on research from the 20th century, when there has been such a change in education since then, especially since the Conservatives gained power in 2010? Why was there so little citation of 21st century research?
    • Drawing on the above question, why did you choose to emphasise philosophy as such a large part of the theory? In a society in which science is so predominant in the majority of theories- especially those in psychology- why would you choose to go against this, instead citing the influence of Rousseau, who was alive so long ago that it could be argued that his influence is largely irrelevant? Did you think that this would help to “sell” the theory and its proposed changes to pedagogy? If so, why?
    • Again drawing on the article’s apparent fixation on the past, why was Freud cited as being so influential to this theory? If you are trying to propose a pedagogy for the future, why would you allow the work of a man who, in the present day, is overwhelmingly associated with shaky theory, shambolic methodology, high levels of sexism and lack of cross-cultural relevance, to have such a high level of influence?
    • Have you looked at the pamphlet produced by Diana Reay, exploring whether we, in the UK, can ever have a socially just education system, but drawing on much more empirical evidence than the above article? If so, what were your opinions of it?
    • Why does the article focus so much on theories of pedagogy, rather than empirical research? I am aware that it is a feature of the psychoanalytic approach, but how do you expect the proposed pedagogy to work in practice if it is based purely on theory?
    • You state that the “opposing fantasies” of current HE “endangers the status of teaching as a caring profession”. Is this a bad thing? If it was seen as less of a caring-based profession, would it change the current issue of the imbalance of male and female teachers in the schooling system? Would it not break down the idea of teaching being “feminine”, which currently forms a barrier for aspiring male teachers?

  6. Mark Murphy
    Mark Murphy

    Hi to Amy and Ella, let me answer some of the questions above:

    Re what was my main influence in writing the article, it was probably my experience of working in HE and finding that the teaching and learning paradigm really didn’t do justice to the nature of academic life as I perceived and experienced it. The learning environment has always appeared to me to be a lot more complex than that represented by solitary ‘learners’ and ‘teachers’ engaging in pedagogical activity in an isolated manner. Our understandings of learning seem to be stuck in an out-dated subject-object way of looking at the world – hence the focus on intersubjectivist strands in social theory and psychoanalysis. This focus incorporates a strong affective dimension – which by the way should not be confused with therapeutic or confessional approaches to education.

    If you mean by ‘my time’ at university my student years, did I experience relational forms of pedagogy? I would say it was a mixed bag – oftentimes programmes were developed as if our emotional lives didn’t exist – which is not surprising given the prevalent separation of reason from emotion (as if they somehow existed in distinct worlds of their own). So the kinds of issues we touch on in the article – the significance of trust, recognition, respect – which we argue act as powerful variables in everyday relational life – were minimised in my university teaching. Other relational aspects such as pride, shame and honour may have made their presence felt as various times but never as guiding criteria or motivating factors for curriculum design, modes of delivery etc.

    More to come…

  7. Rebekah Hunt

    Hi Mark, I am also part of the EDU103 group from the University of Sheffield, I really enjoyed summarising your work and came up with the following three questions…

    1- How do you think student to teacher relationships have changed over the recent years?

    2- What would you highlight as the main flaw in today’s educational system and how would your theory of an alternative pedagogy help improve it?

    3 -Did you have any positive experiences concerning student – teacher relationships?

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