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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Developing Students' Trust: The Key to a Learning Partnership

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

I am a pragmatist, and I believe in simple, systemic solutions. I firmly believe that the true art/skill/magic/science of teaching is to perfectly match your style with the individual student's needs. Conceptually, many teachers know this is the right way to teach. However, it flies in the face of what most teaching professionals practice. In many classrooms still, students must either adapt to the teacher’s way of teaching or fail.

I often reflect on what we call “teaching” and have come to the brilliant conclusion that it is less about what the teacher does and all about what students learn. How you approach teaching all comes down to what you believe about students and what methods you believe are the best ways to get them to learn. Here is one example of what I believe:

A shaggy but beautiful stray dog came to our house in the country one day. Our hearts went out to it, and we decided to help it. My wife and I put out some food, which it ate, but it refused to let us approach. Every time we tried, it would shy away and stay out of reach. The bottom line is that, for one reason or another, it did not trust us. Who knows what its history was? It trusted us enough to eat our food, but that was as far as it went.

I am sure that, given a few weeks, we could have built a relationship of trust with that dog -- but, unfortunately, it moved on and we haven't seen it since.

Students who come to our classrooms are much like that dog: Unless they trust us, they are unapproachable.

We earn our students' trust by showing them respect in the form of meaningful, challenging, and rewarding learning activities that are worthy of their time and best efforts.

Students in their early years of school are naturally trusting, and -- please don't take this the wrong way -- we abuse that trust in the name of socialization and classroom management. In essence, we teach them to obey rather than to build confidence to explore. As students get older, they often trust less and start behaving much like our shaggy and suspicious visitor. Most students will take what we offer but will not allow a learning partnership because they do not trust us.

Trust works the other way, too. As teachers, we have learned to distrust our students. All it takes is one disruptive young person to ruin it for the rest of the students that follow. We don't want to get burned again, so we tighten the rules and narrow the focus. We develop an attitude that we can't trust our students to learn independently. Especially in the early grades, we feel it is our responsibility to control every aspect of their learning activities so things don't get out of hand, or so they don't make a mess.

We could call this way of thinking the color-between-the-lines syndrome: We like everything neat and orderly. So, by the time the students get to high school, some know how to color between the lines, while others drop out because they don't want to.

There is a solution to this: student-directed learning. As the name suggests, student independence and choice is a central part of it. Teaching is just as much about taking risks as learning is. A teacher has to take a chance on students and trust them enough to be independent learners. That can't happen if the teacher is uncomfortable about tailoring the curriculum to multiple levels of student performance. (Does this sound familiar?) This lofty goal of differentiated instruction is achievable on many levels, but it is much easier to reach when teachers work together to help individual students.

Unfortunately, many teachers have tried cooperative groups, inquiry, project (process/product/performance)-based learning and had a terrible experience. Perhaps the students did not behave appropriately, or they did not learn, or it was a waste of time. Too often teachers with this first experience are hesitant to try again. Instead, they fall back on what they know works — students in straight rows, individual worksheets, slide show lectures, and direct instruction. If this applies to you, I would urge you to try again (trust again). I guarantee that each time you try again, it will get better. Students will learn what to do, they will behave better, and they will appreciate your trust.

As I said earlier, teaching flows from what an educator believes is the best way to teach a student. That belief is not demonstrated in mission statements and platitudes, but it is clearly visible in the way teachers set up and run their classrooms and in how they treat their students. Once a teacher understands the mechanics of the teaching (learning) cycle, discipline and classroom management take a secondary role and the teacher can begin to focus on what he or she can do to help each individual student to learn best -- whatever it takes. We have to get beyond socialization and control, and teach students how to trust themselves to learn in the early grades. Otherwise, we will continue to be frustrated as we end up trying to teach a bunch of skittish stray dogs for students.

How do you feel about this approach? Please share your thoughts.

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