Much of what is “new” in education isn’t. We are seeing the stirrings of what is being called Relationship-based Education Design (RED), but like a lot in education, it isn’t really new. An older idea is being dusted off and repurposed. There isn’t anything wrong with doing this. It is like schools are doing spring cleaning and applying a fresh coat of paint to inspire practitioners to refocus on goals of doing good.

RED is a two faceted theory of learning that on one front is a belief that human relationships foster the best learning. Mentor/mentee programs are showing up in all disciplines of education. Medical training led the way. Looking back, internships and residencies are nothing new. The focus is moved from traditional teacher at the chalkboard-students at their desks, to one that fosters more human contact, respect, and lasting relationships.

Trades like electricians, plumbers, and construction workers have long developed new talent through apprenticeships. Even in Colonial times Ben Franklin was an apprentice/indentured servant to his brother in the printing business. So, there is a lot to like about RED focusing on human relationships as a tool for learning.

The second face of RED is the use of laboratories and studios for students to practice new learning in a practical way. The relationship here isn’t as much a human one, rather the relation of the setting and educational demands for learning being authentic to what is expected in the world. If a chemistry lab makes a student feel like a scientist producing scientific data, it leads to deeper understanding. The same for an art studio that fosters production of art beyond the study of theory and history. If encouraged to create like an artist, the transition to real life will be more fluid.

Labs and studios aren’t new either. One shining example is Berea College in Berea, Kentucky. The college is set in the Appalachian Mountains and many Appalachian students attend. There are students from other areas, but no one pays tuition. The school adds enough funding to any scholarships accepted students can bring with them to make going to Berea “free.” For this the school functions on a work/study format. Students work in shops making Appalachian instruments, antique reproduction furniture, and authentic crafts; in studios creating Appalachian music; or in the Boone Tavern, a fully functioning restaurant that serves Appalachian fare to multitudes of visitors. Shops located in a retail district sell the wares with the restaurant, a cornerstone of the village, open daily for a tasty lunch or dinner. Berea offers a 163-year-old learning format that is a pure definition of what RED advocates for fostering relationship-between learning and life applications.

Next is a chance to add a facet to RED, that could help undo the evil avalanche of extreme over-testing students experience from the moment they enter the education system until they leave.

In 1991 Texas was one of the first states to require all students at benchmark grade levels to be assessed and reported upon in the name of accountability. A tsunami of tests in every state followed. The original assessments were completely inauthentic to educational purposes and added nothing to a student’s learning or evaluation. State assessments were 100% designed for data collection and public reporting on school, teacher, and student proficiency. The problem is that they did none of this accurately. The students were codified in inappropriate groupings, schools compared that were not comparable, and added nothing useful to enhance parent or teacher understanding about their student.

Thanks to Obama era waivers and the Every Child Succeeds Act many state assessments today have risen to a level of being able to track student progress and individual growth. But, any pencil and paper activity is not an exercise that adapts to life-skills. Academia has long relied on entrance exams like the SAT, GRE, and specific exams for entrance into law and medical schools. An honest evaluation of what these tests reveal is that students whose families can afford to buy them preparation courses achieve the highest scores. The upper class of U.S. citizens do not have a lock on raising the smartest children. But, that is exactly what is determined by evaluations of standardized tests, including the likes of Wechsler and Stanford-Binet IQ tests. Tests are skewed and discriminatory.

If we could expand the spirit of relationship-based education beyond instruction to include assessment, assessment would look much different. Student grades would not rely on final exams and pencil-paper assignments. Students would be evaluated on their total day-to-day achievement. Teachers, administrators, admission counselors, and even state Education Department accountability offices would determine a student’s expertise and learning success through a body of work–a portfolio gleaned over a career of study.

That process is not neat and tidy like an irrelevant percentile score. Lay people, including politicians, would need professional education assistance in understanding what they are seeing. However, the result of having a focus on relationship-based education that includes personal, mentor/mentee relationships; authentic academic production and encouragement that fosters novices to feel like professionals; and an authentic assessment system that relies on the relationship between what a student does during the teaching-learning process rather than easy-to-grade, artificial methods, may be just what the doctor ordered for many of education’s current ills.