February 28, 2005

The importance of trust in the classroom

The more I teach, the more I feel that there is an inverse correlation between the quality of learning that occurs and the number of rules that govern the classroom. At its best, teaching involves trust between students and teacher, and among fellow students. The assumption should be that we are all there to learn and that we will help each other learn.

To be sure, the teacher has a responsibility to the students and the institution he or she works for to ensure that learning is occurring and that the unavoidable grades that have gained a stranglehold in our educational world are assigned fairly.

But apart from this minimal expectation, I feel that there should be no other rules, except those that are created collectively by the entire class in order that things run smoothly. It is for this reason that my courses are becoming progressively rule-free over time. This is also why I oppose efforts to treat course syllabi as quasi-legal contracts and to mandate what they should and should not contain

But I know that I am swimming upstream on this one. Many course syllabi are becoming increasingly crammed full of rules and regulations. Why? To my mind, this is a measure of the lack of trust that has developed between student and teachers. Students and faculty don’t really know each other as people. We don’t see ourselves as having come together for an endeavor (learning) which should be enjoyable and from which all of us will benefit and which will form the basis of a lifetime relationship. Instead we seem to see ourselves as temporary acquaintances engaged in a commercial transaction. The faculty member has a product or service (knowledge, grades) that the student ‘purchases’ with money, time, and effort.

A natural consequence of this commerce mentality is the need for rules, just like those in the marketplace. Students seem to feel the need to have rules to protect themselves from arbitrary actions by faculty members who are strangers to them, and faculty feel the need to have rules to protect themselves from complaints by students whom they don’t really know. This dynamic inevitably leads to a spiral of increasing rules since having written rules at all implies a lack of trust, which then results in people testing the limits of the rules, which creates the need for more protective rules, which leads to even greater distrust, and so on.

But the reality is that there are only a tiny handful of faculty and students who might take unfair advantage of one another in the absence of a detailed set of rules. In my work in many universities, it is hard for me to recollect cases of faculty members who did not take seriously their ethical obligation to treat students fairly.

This does not mean that faculty members cannot be arrogant, condescending, and unrealistically demanding. We are, after all, human. But it is rare that a teacher will act out of spite against a specific student. And if it does happen, there are mechanisms in universities to try and redress these wrongs when they occur, because the other faculty members know that we can only succeed if we as a learning community try to uphold the highest standards.

We don’t have written rules of behavior among friends. We don’t have written rules of behavior among family members. The reason is that the common interests that bring us together are strong enough to make us want to resolve the issues in a manner of friendly give-and-take. Why is it that we do not even try to create a similar situation in class? Surely a common interest in learning is strong enough to serve a similar role?

When I think about what is the one change that I would recommend to dramatically improve education at all levels, I come to the conclusion that we must create a greater sense of trust in the classroom so that we can minimize the number of rules and thus allow the natural enjoyment that true learning provides to emerge.


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Amen to this post.

I have the same feeling about overzealous "Service Level Agreements" put in place by certain IT support organizations. The rules destroy the trust, and the relationship. It changes the dynamic from "helping a friend" to "following the rules".

Posted by aaron on February 28, 2005 10:55 AM

The problem that exists between teachers and students, as written above, is that they often cannot see each other as people. This was something that I always tried to avoid, and it definately changed the way in which I evaluated those who taught me. When I was a teaching assistant in graduate school, I tried to be as accessible as possible to my students, and some of them were actually able to appreciate me for it. But some were just in classes to get grades and credits instead of to learn, and this leads to the dehumanization of teachers.

I have said, for a number of years, that everyone in an educational institution - especially one of higher learning - comes to the school to learn, and that teachers have learned enough that they can be paid to continue to learn, and to learn with students. If classes were perceived as a group of people learning together - and which teacher learns nothing when teaching a class - I think that everyone involved would benefit, and learn much more than otherwise...

Posted by on February 28, 2005 09:50 PM

I posted the comment above; I know not why my name was omitted...

Posted by William Sherwin on February 28, 2005 09:51 PM

Right on, right on. This is a fundamental problem and should certainly demand a university's assets before any attempt to create a slammin' social scene. It would be interesting to track the dynamic between students and teachers, and how the relationship has changed as universities have seemingly become increasingly like profit-driven corporations.

Posted by Kurtiss Hare on February 28, 2005 10:33 PM


I am a new teacher and I want to try to teach my students the value of trust. I want to try to do something with the students so that they know what it means to be trusted. I have management issues in my class and I don't want to just set up rules to try to get students to obey. I want them to realize that I trust them to do their work and pay attention. Does anyone have any suggestions of activities I can do?

Posted by BB on January 25, 2008 03:55 PM

I is the elusive and necessary component to allowing students and teachers the ability to really be vulnerable enough to open their hearts and minds to the "real" education. Imagine a classroom where everyone takes those risks necessary to penetrate the walls that we,society,have built around ourselves?? I just asked my students yesterday 2 questions..."How do they see themselves?" and,"How do they WANT to see themselves?"- I hope they trust enough to answer truthfully..

Posted by Mike Dugan on February 9, 2008 07:28 AM

This is actually a lesson that can be taken from the classroom into the workspace. Any manager will tell you that those employees that perform best know that they are trusted and valued as an employee. Taking time to build this trust will always pay off, in the classroom, or in the work a day world.

Posted by Steven Debardelaben on July 24, 2010 10:30 PM