Resolve to trust your pupils a little bit more

4th January 2008 at 00:00
Trust has always been one of my favourite words. I like both the sound and the sense of it. It's difficult to work with someone you don't trust, and equally with someone who doesn't trust you. But trust is not only important in business, it's also an essential quality in schools and classrooms - especially if we are to help young people become responsible citizens and successful learners.

I remember in my first year's teaching trying to cope with classes that even experienced teachers would not turn their back on. Here disruption was organised. If you wanted to put something on the board, you had to do it before the class came in. Or you could use a new-fangled machine called the overhead projector, prepare your lesson in advance and face the class.

The teachers I most admire are those who can create a climate of trust even with difficult classes. That takes skill and courage. You have to trust young people to gain their trust, and sometimes you have to be prepared to do that before they are trustworthy.

That's a message teachers find hard to accept. They are all too aware that, if you give challenging youngsters too much trust too soon, you can lose control and be seen as naive or even incompetent.

My understanding of how trust works was deepened by a book I read recently. The dust jacket on Ziyad Marar's The Happiness Paradox said that Marar examines how philosophy and psychology can be combined to achieve a better understanding of modern identity. Then, leafing through, I saw he had a chapter on trust. Book sold.

Marar talks about managers and workers recognising the importance of "no blame cultures" and "celebrating mistakes". Trust is cheaper and simpler than distrust, which means micro-management, error-checking, policing and security measures.

A low-trust culture leads to excessive bureaucracy, a heavy reliance on rules and high operating costs because of the overuse of supervisors and line managers. Because workers are not trusted, they need detailed job descriptions. Because of these, workers only do what is asked of them. The risk-averse, low-trust culture perpetuates itself. It kills initiative and innovation.

Marar rightly points out that trust requires you to be optimistic not only about another's motives but also about their competence. Many teachers worry that if they trust their pupils more, not only will they misbehave and avoid learning but they won't be able to take responsibility for their own or each other's learning. If asked to self- or peer-assess, for instance, they will cheat or just not be able to do it effectively.

Delegating in a structured environment is really the art of making someone trust-worthy by giving them the chance to show you what they can do, and give you confidence in their motivation and competence. If they show themselves to be trustworthy, you can trust them more. This is what assessment for learning and collaborative learning helps you to do.

The best teachers are confident enough to take risks that make them vulnerable. For them, trust is a leap of faith, not a rational calculation. Marar calls it a "complex emotional attitude, not simply a belief".

He points out that some people show their willingness to trust by freeing themselves from the "craven desire for certainty that comes from an attempt to control their audiences". They take risks, put the spotlight on themselves and risk the possibility of ridicule. It is a technique.

They do the trusting themselves and hope it will be returned. They believe that sometimes it is better to be disappointed, to be cheated even, than never to have trusted. So this year, trust your pupils a little more.

Ian Smith is founder of Learning Unlimited.

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