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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'm assistant superintendent of a small school district located just thirty miles south of San Antonio, Texas, with a total school population of 1,100 students. Even though people consider it a rural district, our existence is anything but bucolic.

Natalia is a bedroom community for San Antonio, and as such, we have to deal with many big-city issues. Our population is 75 percent Hispanic, but only about 15 percent of those students speak Spanish. Our biggest concerns are the achievement gap that exists between white and Hispanic students and the overall mentality of underachievement.

Although I wear many hats in my position, the one that feels most comfortable is the one relating to curriculum and instruction -- particularly, helping teachers maximize their instructional power and overcome barriers to student learning.

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. Today, students must adapt or fail.

In my posts, I will reflect on teaching in the truest sense of the word, from several angles. It all comes down to what you believe about students and what the best way to teach them is. Here is the first example of what I believe:

A shaggy but beautiful stray dog came to our house the other day. Our hearts went out to it, and we decided to help it. We 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 explore. As students get older, they often trust less and start behaving much like our shaggy and suspicious visitor. Most will take what we offer but will not allow a learning partnership.

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-centered learning -- and 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. (You can bet we will be talking later on about this topic and about what student-centered learning really means.)

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 cycle, discipline and classroom management take a secondary role, and the teacher can really focus on what he or she can do to help all of his or her students learn best -- whatever it takes. We have to get beyond the cycle, and do it in the early grades. Otherwise, we will end up trying to teach a bunch of skittish stray dogs for students.

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

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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Comments (19)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree, student trust is a must for quality student learning to take place. Recognizing student individuality is not easy and many want students to fit in a box. As educators we are going to have to address this issue in many ways.

Maria's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I like the part about distrust between teachers and students. Perhaps this was my least favorite part of a classroom setting. I agree that trust is important, as is individualization in the learning process. What is the teaching cycle, referred to towards the end?

Ben Johnson <author>'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you for your comments. I am curious, what have you found to be effective in order to engender trust in your students?

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I like the way you set this up. I completely agree, especially having been a student in that small school district. I saw all the problems from a student's perspective and I believe that your view of education would really help students enjoy their education more, as well as get more out of it in the long run. Well done, keep working with this.-JRJ-

Ben Johnson <author>'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The teaching and learning cycles are very similar to any change cycle. The crucial factor with any cycle, is full completion of the cycle before beginning again. It has to be an on-going, "this is the way we do business" cycle and not an "add-on" to the system.

The cycle begins with data and ends with data. I like the 6 step cycle proposed by the Southwest Educational Development Laboratories called the Professional Teaching and Learning Cycle.

Study: the beginning data indicates what the students need to learn according to the learning expectations.

Select: Look at the overall context and gather appropriate resources.

Plan: lessons are designed that align the student needs and the learning expectations.

Implement: the lessons are then taught. During the lesson, the smaller cycles of modeling, practice, checking for understanding may be repeated several times.

Analyze: formative assessments are applied to allow students to identify gaps in their learning and make adjustments, then the summative assessments show clearly what the students have mastered.

Adjust: Depending on the results, the cycle may continue with other curricular elements or include a spiraling of some of the recent learning.

Southwest Educational Development Laboratories. (2005)The Professional Teaching and Learning Cycle, U.S. Department of Education, Retrieved Feb 11, 2008 from http://www.sedl.org/ws/ptlc.html

Susan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I can relate to your comments; I teach middle school. It seems that middle school kids have every issue in the book. My question is how?????? How do I encourage teachers with lesson plans etched in stone change? How do I keep "differentiation" from becoming a bad word? How can I steer teachers from SOL base to student needs base?

Ben Johnson <author>, Natalia's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


Excellent questions. If I had an absolute answer for you, I'd be able to solve world hunger and violence too! Obviously, if there were more teachers willing to be instructional leaders like yourself, then the problem would be solved. I believe the question that you are really asking is, "How can I serve as a catalyst for change in order to help the students get what they really need out of school?"

Actually, I am trying to answer that very question in my series of blogs, but to answer part of your question, I am a proponent of the "professional learning community concept" which essentially can set up an environment where it makes those kinds of isolationist attitudes and practices very hard to maintain. The only way to look at the problem and the solution is systemically. Apart from that, perhaps some sly cognitive coaching might help those teachers come to realize by themselves that there are better ways to do things.

Anyway, stay tuned for the next segment and that might answer more of your question and perhaps bring on more questions.

Hang in there!

Ben Johnson
Natalia, TX

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have taught for many years. I can remember the time when each child had their personal portfolio based on his/her learning needs. Every night I would go through about 100 + folders, evaluate their daily work and outline what they needed to do next. During class I was a resource answering questions, instructing each child based on his/her learning needs. Some students (independent learners) flourished in this environment reaching much further than expected.
Some students never attained what was expected.
Today I use a Teaching and Learning Cycle much like the one described. I let students know that I am there to help them learn but it is their responsibility to learn. I am always open to suggestions and flexible enough to incorporate ideas that benefit the majority.
Trust must go both ways and works better with some more than others.

Whitney Hoffman's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I attended Educon 2.0, an educational unconference held at the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia. Chris Lehmann and the great faculty at SLA convinced me more than ever that community and trust are the keys to great education- the tech just helps make all of this possible. For example, there's no more fighting over assignments being handed in on time or forgotten at home, when all assignments are submitted by email or wiki online. Everything is time stamped- nothing to argue at all. The tech just makes good and consistent communication easier.

We're hoping to help get these points across at Podcamp NYC 2.0, a free new media community unconference being help at Polytechnic University in Brooklyn on April 25 & 26, 2008. (You can learn more about the conference at our website at www.podcampnyc.org) I'd love to talk to you about coming and presenting, or who else from the Edutopia commuity might be interested in coming and sharing their vision for the way we can really imagine and make School 2.0 a reality.

Many thanks-
Whitney Hoffman
The LD Podcast
Podcamp NYC organizer

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