Relationships before Numeracy and Literacy

It is very important that as I write this blog post I stress the importance of being able to write and read. Every day I mathematically estimate how many minutes I have before an appointment or how long something might take, no exact answers but a handful of estimates are made daily. But there is a piece of current school curriculum that impacts me more often than my knowledge and skills in reading or the ability to judge when my toast will pop. The thing that impacts me for hours each day is how I am with other people. Before I write or read or mathematically calculate anything, I meet people, great people, smile at people,  judge people, successfully not judge people, empathise with people, make assumptions about people, fail to listen etc. 

Imagine Relationships as No.1 Subject

The success of my day, my classroom, my family, the meeting, the interview, my school are all dictated by not only our competency with these skills but our knowledge and study in what works best. We learn, practice and can be taught to improve these hundreds of moments each day. It is clearly the first priority in life, as babies, we relate before we speak, and it is a curriculum, a science, and a competency not valued by schools. If relationships were valued it would be what schools were most inclined to measure and test. I don’t know of a parent who rushes to see their child’s relationship grade on the report card. On the whole, having a friend at school is the extent we concern ourselves with this area of knowledge and ability.

I’m no fan of testing but schools test numeracy and literacy more than anything else because tests are the indication to everyone that those knowledge and skills have importance. The more tests something has the more important it is. Despite our knowledge and skills in relating to others dictating the very literacy we utilise in any situation, schools don’t test relating to others, and so children are inadvertently taught by the system that relationships don’t matter. There is enough content, research, science, advice, and skills to develop for maintaining relationships to fill an academic year, in the same way we fill a year with math and test it … if we must! This is a problem from another era.

A simple 1 min history lesson.

About 100 years ago, groups of white men decided what was important in schools. They were in the position of deciding mostly through their status as successful industrialists. This led to the reading of company instructions and measuring of material and parts as being the key driver for why we educate a population. A reason they didn’t mention relationships might be because at the time they were not important. Strong organisational and societal hierarchies of command and control, coupled with poor health and safety standards meant you only had to order people to carry out tasks, workers were replaceable to the extent that even the odd death or two were just part of industry at the time. 

But even if we made the mistake of leaving education design to just business people today, they would still place relationships before literacy and numeracy. You can see recent business priorities in this graph and note that digital literacy is mostly about how we communicate and relate to others. 

What society and business want most


Most schools teach relationships for less lessons than we teach both photosynthesis and trigonometry. In New Zealand, there is no testing of this curriculum either, it’s generally treated as a fluffy “nice to chat about.” But if I produced a pie chart of these three things as a proportion of everyday impact on both business and society success, trigonometry and photosynthesis would not be visible on the chart. 


Relationship ramifications

Schools struggle with kids’ use of social media, student engagement, classroom management, school leadership, co-teaching, pointless meetings, classroom group work, student self-esteem, progressing new initiatives, student agency, you name it, it all comes down to a lack of knowledge and competency in relationships. This is minute by minute and far more important than numeracy and literacy. 

This really is a particular western, industrial problem. Many indigenous perspectives such as Māori education put relationships and community before anything. Every level of organisation from the whole community to the classroom starts with customs and habits that both develop but also teach relationships between people before anything else is considered. 

A foundational need for everything

Through our failure at school to even explore the issue beyond two or three lessons of surface level content, most graduates leave clueless and therefore lack confidence to set themselves amongst new groups of people. We then send adults on relationship and leadership courses and open-to-learning conversation courses because of such a lack of awareness and skills in the workplace. 

Building and maintaining relationships are not just the first of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, they are the first 50% of the whole model. It is time to reprioritise curriculum to align with human, society, and even business requirements. 

P.S. I’m aware of the work on Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) but thought I’d leave out mentioning it as many educators are discouraged by things that appear as fads or buzz words and the straight-forward discussion about relating to others can get more traction than making people think they have to learn something new.


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