Four styles of student-teacher learning partnerships


The pedagogy of learning partnerships between teachers and students must be flexible depending on the intended goals. Phil Parker introduces four differing approaches.

I have recently worked with a group of schools to develop pedagogy around “learning partnerships”. It has led me to look closely at “team learning”. It is a complex concept because it triggers different definitions and assumptions from teachers – and their students – about how learning can take place collaboratively.

Let me emphasise one key point first of all. In that last sentence I included students in defining the partnership. A partnership is where learning needs to be something done with students – not to them. For this reason students need to understand and be an active part in defining the learning process so that they can contribute to it. 

I devised four styles of partnership. This approach accepts that some teachers need the hierarchy of high status and control over their students. I find certain subjects often prefer this style. Other teachers are happy to lower their status, share the control in ways that give students greater ownership and engagement.

Look at these approaches and decide which suits your style – do you use all four depending on the learning objective? Do you want to experiment?

Style 1: The Corporation

Rather like the BBC, this style has a management structure based on hierarchy, roles remain the same because the structure is the prime concern. What happens within the structure, the learning activity, is secondary. It does not address flexibility well. Partnership is leadership-orientated, tasks are allocated by the leader, to be implemented by teams.

It can be an efficient partnership, highly goal-orientated, because the leader defines how the goal is to be reached. It is likely the leader will have defined implementation roles and methods too. 

The key factor within this partnership style is control. It remains with the leader – the teacher. This style dominates where the focus is on assimilating knowledge efficiently. Research suggests that while the methodology is efficient it is not long-lasting because speed and limited time can lead to superficial knowledge assimilation.

Style 2: The Association

Rather like a club or society, there is a formal management structure but it is flatter than the Corporation. Leadership is shared within a committee-style model so strategic decisions are made collectively. This might involve preparation beforehand that includes some students in leadership roles. Hierarchy does exist, so does the control, but it is subtle. 

Planning and organisation includes students and their feedback, but the final decision lies with the leader (a chairperson) who may be the teacher, or eventually a student.

The key factor is formality with consultation. It is an efficient model that requires careful prior planning. Learning objectives can be shared with students who consider the best way to implement them, but this involves the teacher defining what options will work best beforehand.

Style 3: The Affiliation

Clubs, societies and unions affiliate in order to gain strength and expand influence. In a learning partnership, this style means teams come together to achieve the learning objective, but the methods being employed may differ between teams. It is ideal for differentiation because teams address topics suitable to their ability/interest/capacity. Coverage of knowledge can be diversified so teams “teach” each other.

Hierarchy exists, but it is “behind the scenes”, in the planning stages. The teacher selects teams and what their activities are. Teams can have specific responsibilities to hold each person accountable. It is good for addressing behaviour issues because you separate trouble-makers. It also offers the potential for competition. The key factors are flexibility and fellowship.

Style 4: The Community

This is an extension of the Affiliation –?called Community because the emphasis is on shared aims, values and outcomes. Hierarchy and leadership is consensual, discussion-orientated rather than following instructions from the leader/teacher. It can be time-consuming for this reason.

Student decision-making is increased, as is learner engagement because it is the young people who “own” the outcomes. The teacher is a facilitator, so low status. Careful planning is essential to ensure learning is focused, flows and demonstrates progress – time limits and accountabilities are crucial. 

Informality from the teacher is important, so is a willingness to let people make mistakes and learn from them. It requires trust too. 

It is a fantastic platform for true project-based learning. Greater ownership by students leads to long-term assimilation of knowledge.

  • Phil Parker, an ex-senior leader of a successful school, is a director of Student Coaching, which works with schools eager to develop rounded young people by transforming the way people learn. Visit


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