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Learning and Trust – thoughts from research

Education is an exchange, but not a monetary one in most circumstances. Instead of exchanging money, a symbolic representation of labour or work completed for goods, a student receives knowledge and skills in exchange for trust. It seems to me there is a direct relationship between the quantity of trust which an individual decides to invest in their education and the amount of knowledge and skills which they are able to take away with them as a result of the ensuing process.

In the light of this, it seems all too obvious that some groups of students will gain more from education than others do. The children of middle-class parents, who themselves have clearly benefited from the educational process, will be likely to invest more of their stock of trust in whatever school they find themselves. As a result, they will make solid, perhaps even spectacular progress, gain good exam results, places at prestigious universities and earn positive P8 scores for their schools in the process. By the same token, the children of parents who have not noticeably prospered as a result of schooling may approach their own education with a more cynical, jaundiced or negative view. They will have little trust that the process will provide the positive outcomes that others accrue. They will be aware, whether consciously or unconsciously, of the gulf in social capital between themselves, their families and those of their teachers. Despite the best intentions of individual teachers and the leadership initiatives of the institution, it seems logical that a basic deficit of trust between the school and those students from non-academic backgrounds may remain. Against this we can hardly be surprised if it is white working-class boys who do least well in schools, as they are very unlikely to see examples of people recognisably like themselves teaching lessons or leading schools. As their trust in the education system working to their advantage is minimal, so are the levels of learning that they are likely to achieve. Clearly these are crude generalisations. However, there is a basis for it in research. David Yeager, one of Carol Dweck’s co-researchers, talks persuasively about the findings of his research into the impact of consciously working to increase students’ trust in the educational process on their sense of belonging and consequent engagement with learning in this talk (from around 16 mins). It is only if we can persuade students that we are giving them advice and guidance because we have high standards and that we believe they can achieve these standards that they begin to listen and act accordingly.

In a recent Guardian Long Read article that you can access here, Ian Leslie reports on similar findings in the very different field of secret service interrogations. Researchers have examined the most effective ways of finding out key information from terrorist suspects, and the results are surprising.

Watching and coding all the interviews took eight months. When the process was complete, Laurence passed on the data to Paul Christiansen, a colleague at Liverpool University, who performed a statistical analysis of the results. The most important relationship he measured was between “yield” – information elicited from the suspect – and “rapport” – the quality of the relationship between interviewer and interviewee. For the first time, a secure, empirical basis was established for what had, until then, been something between a hypothesis and an insider secret: rapport is the closest thing interrogators have to a truth serum.

So, if terrorist suspects, who are putting all their effort into non-co-operation with their interrogators, can be persuaded to engage through the development of rapport, or trust, surely there are lessons here for classrooms? Perhaps we need to be spending more of our time thinking about ways in which we can break down the barriers of institutional distrust between some students and their teachers which hamper learning rather than arguing about the relative importance of knowledge and skills. In the end, if the students have little faith that the teacher genuinely believes in them then they are going to make little progress whatever approach is used.

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