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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Education is catastrophically deficient in trust. Pro-accountability education reformers presume that, absent carrots and sticks, classrooms would be overrun with lazy and incapable teachers. Traditional instructors presume that, absent carrots and sticks, classrooms would be overrun with lazy and incapable students. Both viewpoints emerge from a noble desire to make classrooms high-performance spaces, but in actuality they suppress excellence.

Exemplifying an exasperating phenomenon that would make Karl Marx tsk, teacher mistrust metastasizes, particularly in the most underserved classrooms. Poor students and minorities, prejudged with the most ungenerous stereotypes, are consigned to the least constructivist and democratic classrooms (Tschannen-Moran & Hoy, 2000; Solomon et al., 1996). Already placed with remedial-oriented drill and skill teachers, students witness their peers ramp up their antisocial behaviors in response to authoritarian punishments (Cothran and Ennis, 1997).

Teachers can break this cycle with trust, even if it means risking that students will betray your faith in them. You have to make yourself vulnerable; otherwise, you aren't doing it right. Trust is an action word.

Benefits of Teachers Trusting Students

When teachers trust their students, the results are astonishing.

  • Academics: Academic performance improves (Goddard, Tschannen-Moran, & Hoy, 2001), and so do test scores (Ennis & McCauley, 2002).
  • Positive Behaviors: Students are more willing to follow classroom norms and work cooperatively with peers.
  • Engagement & Risk: Learners are more likely to engage with the curriculum and ask questions.

When teachers trust their students, their pedagogy changes.

  • Progressive Instruction: Teachers are more willing to engage in constructivist practices, according to the dissertation research of Virginia Louise Durnford, because progressive practices require instructors to trust that "children are capable of creating their own knowledge" (Rainer, Guyton, & Bowen, 2000, p.10).
  • Increased Differentiation: Classroom professionals are more likely to reshape old methods of instruction and try alternative strategies. They empower students who want to follow individual paths to content mastery.
  • Democratization: They share more control of the class with students (Goddard, Tschannen-Moran, & Hoy, 2001).
  • Improved Practice: Teachers seek out professional development (Tschannen-Moran, 2004) and grow their abilities.

In the following sections, I'll define trust and then offer research-supported ways of manifesting Vitamin-T.

What is Trust?

While love exercises the heart, trust exercises the soul.

Durnford writes that "definitions of trust include one or more of the following attributes: vulnerability, benevolence in motivation, reliability, competence, honesty and openness (Tschannen-Moran and Hoy, 2000)." The truster has to believe that both parties share mutual goals and that the trustee has the capacity to meet expectations.

Trust Factoids

  • Students' reputations affect trust.
  • Some people have more propensity to trust than others.
  • Poverty and diversity negatively affect trust.
  • High levels of trust -- the realm of faith and hope -- are hard to shake, even in the face of betrayal.
  • Trust is gradually developed in stages. Don't believe in trust at first sight.

How to Trust Students (and Show It)

  • Give it away: Trust must be given in order for trust to develop. "You know that old stuff we learned about assigning students special duties and responsibilities? It works -- especially with tough-to-teach students," says high school teacher, Sara Davenport (Ennis & McCaulay, 2002). Also, give students second chances.
  • Slowly and deliberately get to know your students: In Catherine Ennis and Terri McCaulay's study of urban high schools, teacher Michelle Connors describes her beliefs about students' potential:
    My students are like oysters. Life has not been good to them. Most of them have failed [. . .] To protect themselves, they build this shell around them. And as a teacher, what I have to do is wear away, literally by perseverance, wear away that shell to the point where I can get inside, or I have to make them open up . . . because once you show a student that they can succeed, you've found that pearl that is hidden deep inside.
    For that process to work, Connors must consciously trust that each student has a pearl.
  • Share power: Seek student input about what is to be learned and how.
  • Explain to students how they can earn your trust: Explicitly tell learners how they can impress you with honesty, academic effort, politeness and consistency. Radiate supernova optimism that students will exhibit trustworthiness.
  • Avoid protective hesitancy: Engage students who don't look, sound and act like you.
  • Try not to punish: Teachers with fixed views about their authoritative role in the classroom activate oppositional youth (Herman & Marlow, 2005).
  • Adjust the learning environment: Desks arranged into clusters demonstrate trust. Rows do not.

Showing students your belief in them is easier when they trust you. It will help if you are honest and open. "I might only understand 80% of what you've just said," I tell students. "If you think I'm not hearing you, give me another chance. Let me know." It's not just a job to you, right? Give students extra cognitive and emotional reasons to trust you by surpassing expectations. Tyler Hester bought his ninth grade English students books with his own money. Watch how the gesture touched them.

Remember that students who do not experience trust from their teachers are less likely to learn (Ennis and McCauley 2002; Tschannen-Moran 2004). Fortunately, you can dial up your trust. Have a little faith.

Comments (5)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Savio Rebelo's picture

Todd, This is a great article. The benefits of teachers trusting and praising their students is immense.

Elana Leoni's picture
Elana Leoni
Director of Social Media Strategy and Marketing @Edutopia, edcamp organizer

LOVE this paragraph you wrote Todd:

"Education is catastrophically deficient in trust. Pro-accountability education reformers presume that, absent carrots and sticks, classrooms would be overrun with lazy and incapable teachers. Traditional instructors presume that, absent carrots and sticks, classrooms would be overrun with lazy and incapable students. Both viewpoints emerge from a noble desire to make classrooms high-performance spaces, but in actuality they suppress excellence."

It'd be nice to share some examples on how you trust students (and even for parents -- how you trust your children) and the results you've seen. From talking to students in other cultures, for example, I've found that Finnish students tend to have a high level of trust from their teachers and it empowers them.

Any examples (even if they're little things) that we can share?

Todd Finley's picture
Todd Finley
Blogger and Assistant Editor (Contractor)

An English teacher I've worked with always does a great job of explaining to her students that she expects hard work on cooperative group projects. When students meet her expectations, she arranges to have the principal come by to catch them being awesome.

zep's picture
Education Specialist

Trust in human nature, we are all born inquisitive learners, takes educators to a space wherein we have no need to require courses & we have no need to affix a grade to a student's work. The results, a vastly superior acceptance to the college of their first choice (for those who choose college, which this choice has been documented to at least equal conventional schools) and a deep ability to pursue life's passions. See Rick Posner, Lives of Passion, School of Hope, anything written by A.S. Neill, or any of the writings on Sudbury Valley Schools for more concrete examples of what happens when students are really educated in a space of trust.

ninjafeet's picture
Fourth grade homeroom teacher in Bangkok, Thailand

This is a great article on trust. I moved grades this year and am able to give my students even more responsibility. I love the student's input and class ideas. The more trusted they feel it seems the more innovative their ideas become. This piece showed me more ways I can work towards trusting my students.

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