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Feb 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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