The Relational Learning Tool

Eilean Donan Pano
See implementation in Iceland, other 'relational' approaches and The Metadesign Research Centre


  1. The Relational Learning Tool (RLT) encourages a more self-reflexive approach.
  2. It encourages role play - either in collaboration with others, or alone (e.g. at home).
  3. It represents a radical shift from teacher-imposed focus on 'work' to a focus on learner-managed relations.
  4. It facilitates deeper learning through its experiential and playful nature, as a tool.
  5. It helps learners to map out the key elements of any day-to-day situation in a self-reflexive way.
  6. Once they can do this they become more self-confident and empathetic.
  7. It encourage learners to be more ambitious:
    • (i.e. learners can compensate for their immediate failure to manage very difficult tasks if they show how they are 'managing' the relations in order to prepare for future development and success).
  8. It encourages an entrepreneurial spirit.
  9. It makes ethical implications obvious to learner/s.
  10. Used within an examined curriculum, it makes plagiarism virtually impossible
    • This is because examiners assess relations, not isolated factors.
  11. It relieve examiners from making 'absolute' quality judgements on coursework.

Tetrahedral Logic

  • We are interested in systems that offer more connectedness than one finds in fixed hierarchies.
  • Placing 4 equal-size spheres together so that they all touch illustrates this idea (see below).

Four Spheres Banner

A Sphere Can Touch Three Others of the Same Size

  • There are practical reasons why we use four-fold logic.
  • These include organisational and cognitive benefits.
  • Our system works by inviting the learner to register her situation within an inclusive, four-fold map.
    • i.e. The Learner, The Learner's 'Work', A Recipient of the Work, The Context.

Coloured Tetrad No Text.jpg

square-50cm-spacer.jpg A Tetrahedron


  • A broader notion of 'the work' is what we call the learner's 'proposition'.
  • What we mean by proposition is scaleable
    • A proposition may be a facial expression
    • A proposition may be a sign or gesture
    • A proposition may be an assertion
    • A proposition may be a belief
    • A proposition may be an artefact made by the learner
    • A proposition may be a song, essay or poem by the learner
  • It always calls for the learner to define the context for any proposition or assertion.


N.B. - ultimately, what we call the Context is everything that is not the Proposition, the Learner, or the Recipient.

  • What we refer to as context is scaleable:
    • The context may be a particular issues under discussion
    • The context may be designated underlying aims (e.g. money, targets)
    • The context may be a given plight/situation at hand
    • The context may be a general concern (social/environmental)
    • The context may be the Earth and its well-being
    • The context may be everything that is NOT the proposition discussed
    • The context may be the Universe as a Whole
  • It can be used as a framework for comparing belief systems (e.g. religions).
  • It encourages the learner to reflect upon her own value and role.
  • It therefore helps the learner to cultivate stronger self identity, self-respect and responsibility.


  • From the student (or 'learner's') perspective, this is her/his own 'self'.
  • Here, the self is scaleable:
    • What we refer to as the self may emerge from a vague, internalised moment or feeling
      • - it might start when the learner becomes aware of a moment of excitement or twinge of conscience
    • The self may be oneself as private individual
    • The self may be onseself as family member
    • The self may be oneself as local neighbour
    • The self may be oneself as professional persona
    • The self may be oneself as global citizen
    • The self may be oneself as a tiny part of the Whole Universe


  • In broad, philosophical terms, the 'recipient' can be thought of as the other.
  • This is scaleable:
    • e.g. The other may be a 'mate'
    • e.g. The other may be a 'mentor'
    • e.g. The other may be a 'client'
    • e.g. The other may be a 'customer'
    • e.g. The other may be a 'boss'
    • e.g. The other may be a 'government'
    • e.g. The other may be a 'Whole World/Universe'


  • The four silver ball (at each of the coloured 'nodes') depict 'players'.
  • The 'sticks' that connect them depict the 'relations' between them.

Tetrad 1.png square-50cm-spacer.jpg Relations Only Tetrad.png
square-50cm-spacer.jpg The 4 key 'players' square-50cm-spacer.jpg square-50cm-spacer.jpg Their 6 relations


  • The 4 key 'players' can be imagined as:
square-50cm-spacer.jpg A = My self-knowing & self-ownership
square-50cm-spacer.jpg B =The integrity of my idea
square-50cm-spacer.jpg C = The bigger context (everything that is NOT A, B or D)
square-50cm-spacer.jpg D = My 'mate'/boss/client/customer
square-50cm-spacer.jpg 1 to 6 = square-50cm-spacer.jpg Each of the relations between A to D


  • In the 21st century, a high proportion of (degree-based) learners seem to find grades very important.
  • This means that the mode and quality of assessment has a strong influence over the learner's behaviour.
  • Our approach incorporates several unusual strategies:
    • It requires students to formulate outcome-seeking (rather than answer-seeking) questions
    • 2. It assesses a larger proportion of the learning process
  • Assessment is normally based on how well the learner 'players' (i.e. A, B, C and D) and how well s/he has managed the relations between them (i.e. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 & 6). The student's presentation of his, or her, creation of, and understanding of, the 10 elements (A, B, C and D and 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 & 6) becomes the main basis upon which grades are awarded. (N.B. Programme teams may choose to give more weighting to some criteria than others, according to the specific educational needs and aims of the institution).
square-50cm-spacer.jpg square-50cm-spacer.jpg square-50cm-spacer.jpg
A = THE LEARNER as private citizen / masters student / future professional designer square-50cm-spacer.jpg Number 1.png = THE LEARNER'S ENGAGEMENT WITH HIS/HER WORK (A relating to B) - including finding his/her purpose / element / studentship / style / approach etc.
B = THE SUBMITTED WORK as portfolio / texts / reports that clearly include reference to A / C / D square-50cm-spacer.jpg Number 2.png = THE LEARNER'S ENGAGEMENT WITH THE WORLD (A relating to C) - including curiosity management / ethics / self-identity / resourcefulness
C = THE WORLD including what we owe to it & what it can offer us as a resource square-50cm-spacer.jpg Number 3.png = THE WORK'S DEPTH & RELEVANCE (B relating to C) - including its possible environmental, social, cultural effects and impact, within/beyond the brief
D = INTENDED RECIPIENT e.g. mentor / collaborator / nominated 'reader' / 'client' / 'end user' square-50cm-spacer.jpg Number 4.png = THE LEARNER'S DEALINGS WITH THE RECIPIENT (A relating to D) - including level of empathy, or capacity for 'mentalization' (c.f. Fonagy, 2018) applicable to communication skills / diplomacy / co-creativity
square-50cm-spacer.jpg square-50cm-spacer.jpg Number 5.png = EMPATHY WITH THE RECIPIENT (C relating to D) - including creative opportunism / ability to show new perspectives or opportunities to another
square-50cm-spacer.jpg square-50cm-spacer.jpg Number 6.png = ENTREPRENEURIAL SKILLS (B relating to D) - including creative opportunism / ability to interest another in a new worldview, perspective or opportunity

Another way to represent the system

How the system is mapped may change the way it is used. By using an X-Y grid that repeats the 4 criteria along vertical and horizontal axes it is possible to show how each criterion has its own integrity (e.g. 'me-to-me'). In the example shown below, only the ten criteria are mapped. This leaves 6 empty boxes. If required, the X and Y-axes might be differentiated as 'active' and 'passive' versions of the criteria. The whole system works slightly differently. For example, it adds an additional 6 criteria for assessment.

Iceland Assessment Matrix.png
A 2D map of the assessment criteria

The Tool's History

  • The idea of a relational system for design thinkers was mooted in a conference paper (c.f. Wood, 1992).
  • This inspired John to develop the Relational Learning Tool for Goldsmiths, University of London.
  • Since 2004, it is central to learning/assessment on their MA Design Futures & Metadesign programme.
  • In 2013, a bespoke version was introduced in Icelandic Academy of Arts for their MA Design programme.
  • In 2015 The Unity of Faiths Foundation commissioned John to develop a learning tool for schools.
    • (details of this project are confidential at present)
  • Initially, the system will be aimed at Key Stage 3 students in the UK.
  • It is intended to help them to 'learn how to learn' independently.
  • We suspect that it could be adapted for most learners above pre-school age.


  • Fonagy, P. (2018). "Affect regulation, mentalization and the development of the self". Routledge.
  • Wood, J., (2013), Relational Innovation, Paper presented at the Sustainable Innovation Conference Centre for Sustainable design - 4th-5th November 2013.
  • Wood, J., (2013), Heraclitus and the Tetrahedron, notes from a paper commissioned by Pernilla Glasser. It was performed at Stockholm's NobelMuseum in June 2013.
  • Wood, J., (2012), In the cultivation of research excellence - is rigour a no-brainer?, article in the Journal of Writing in Creative Practice; Mar 2012, Vol. 5 Issue 1, 11-26
  • Wood, J., (2005) “The Tetrahedron Can Encourage Designers To Formalise More Responsible Strategies”, for the "Journal of Art, Design & Communication", Volume 3 Issue 3, Editor, Linda Drew, UK, ISSN: 1474-273X, pp. 175-192 - download paper
  • Taylor, P., & Wood, J., (1997), Mapping the Mapper, a chapter in "Computers, Communications, and Mental Models", eds. Donald Day & Diane Kovacs, Taylor & Francis, London, ISBN 0-7484-0543-7, pp. 37-44, January 1997.
  • Wood, J., (1992), "The Notion of Relational Design"; a paper given at the 17th ICSID Conference - Ljubljana, Slovenia, 1992 May.

See At home (draft in progress)