In my years as an educator, there is one telltale component that helps me determine if a lesson plan or unit or even an entire class is going to work or not. That component is the level of trust that I have put into my students.
It doesn’t matter if I am teaching philosophy to elementary schoolers or designing composition prompts for remedial writers or creating courses on ethics and robots for gifted middle schoolers. No matter what the educational situation, if I don’t trust in my students’ abilities to not only meet but exceed my expectations, their abilities to run with the assignments and make them their own, their abilities to surprise me and take the conversation off into unexpected directions—if I don’t have that, I am setting myself (and, more importantly, them) up for failure.
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Radical Trust-Based Innovation
If you look at all the “innovative” approaches to redesigning, reinvigorating, and innovating education (from preschool to graduate school) trust is always at the center.
You can see it in its most obvious form in places like the Let Grow movement, which opens its mission with the statement, “we believe in kids. We believe they are smart, strong and at least as capable as their parents were at their age.” The movement works to reject fear-based policies and laws for education and parenting.
Another obvious trust-based endeavor can be seen in the rise of Sudbury-style schools. In these democratic schools, students have an unprecedented amount of power and control over not just their own learning but the school itself: “When it comes to governing the school -- whether it's deciding what lessons will be taught or setting curfew -- the decision-making rule is ‘one person, one vote.’ A teacher's vote counts the same a student's, whether that student is six or 16. And since, at most schools, the body of faculty is smaller than the body of students, the kids ultimately do have it when it comes to making decisions.”
Mainstream Trust-Based Practices
These movements are gaining traction and supporters, but they’re still considered radical and on the periphery of mainstream education and parenting approaches. Still, the basis of trust can be seen in more subtle ways.
From mathematics approaches that start by building on what students already know to a rejection of restrictive reading levels, educators even in very formal, mainstream environments are finding ways to thoughtfully build their lesson plans and teaching approaches around the principle of trust.
Building a Trust-Based Approach—One Assignment at a Time
Trusting in students’ abilities can be scary. For one thing, it requires the teacher to give up control. Trusting in students means giving them the power to take things in new directions, and that means that the lesson plan becomes unpredictable and decidedly non-standardized in ways that often go against a system that insists on standardization at every turn.
As educators, there are many ways that we can start small and grow our own trust in students gradually, using our own positive results as a way to simultaneously become more confident in our teaching and to silence any dissenters.
- Give Students Choices- Perhaps the easiest way to show trust in students is to design lesson plans and activities that provide legitimate choices about how to meet the goals. Teachers maintain the power to determine the objectives, but giving students options on the paths they take to get there demonstrates a level of trust in their abilities to succeed.
- Be Prepared to Go Off Track- Teachers are best equipped to trust in their students when they can allow a lesson or conversation to go outside of the expected path without feeling unprepared. Researching well enough to have extra material on hand is a great way to do this, but teachers should also remember the power of saying, “I’m not sure about that, but we’ll look it up and come back to it later.” Even better is, “I’m not sure about that. Could you look it up and report what you find?”
- Let Students Design Their Own Activities- This can be small. Students can simply work together to vote on the framework of a single assignment. It can also be huge. Students can have complete control over how they demonstrate their knowledge in a final exam or even work together to design the entire class.
The more that trust becomes the starting point for planning, the easier it becomes to trust bigger, trust bolder, and trust deeper the next time around. With enough trust-based practice, teachers will find themselves working alongside learners to discover exciting new things themselves rather than having to lead from the front through an already-established path. This trust-based partnership sets the stage for truly remarkable innovation and learners who have known their whole lives that they’re capable of making it happen.
Michelle Parrinello-Cason is an educator with a Ph.D. in rhetoric and composition who has taught in college, high school, and elementary settings. Her focus is on helping students who have struggled to find a fit in traditional classrooms find positive learning experiences. She has done this through teaching developmental writing classes, creating curriculum for gifted students, and engaging in the homeschool community to create non-traditional learning opportunities.