Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Trust And Teaching

Among the may lessons we get to glean from the coronavirus semester is this one: trust matters.

Trust matters a lot. And it matters in little things as well as big things, because little things set the stage for big things. You can start out with silly stuff like "My inauguration crowd was the biggest ever," and folks can just wave it off as harmless, but at the other end of the road is a major event for which the public needs a dependable national-level source of information, and there is not one to be found.

Trumpism is a symptom of a larger disease, fed and watered by the internet (which is neutral on the subject of truth) and actively supported by the fringe media (which is actively opposed to it). Fox is only the most successful of the breed. There are plenty of others out there pushing conspiracy theories and fear-feeding bullshit (go see just how much is out there pushing the idea that the coronavirus is caused by 5G phone networking). Both sides do it, but the right does it more effectively (Fox News).

Trust is a quality that literally erodes-- the more of it that is worn away, the harder it is to build, and the faster even more is lost. In the absence of trust, fear grows. And fear makes people stupid. And people who don't know how to build or gauge trust become increasingly desperate for someone or something that will tell them what to think, what to feel, what to do.

That leads to the most classic of mistakes--mistaking confidence for competence.

This is a mistake that young humans are particularly prone to make (I once read a piece arguing convincingly that the key to being popular in high school is being confident).

So what is a classroom teacher to do?

First, earn the trust of your students. Create a trust-filled environment, and put the maintenance of that trust at the top of the list of your teaching values. That means being honest, including about your own biases and feelings. Conversations periodically erupt in the edusphere about whether or not a teacher can bring their agenda and biases and causes into the classroom; my answer is that you can, and maybe must, but you also must label them as such. In other words, "This is how I feel about that issue and why--" instead of  "I will now tell you the Truth, handed from God to me."

We see the idea of class as a safe space mentioned a lot; part of that is physical safety, but it's also a large part trust. Can the student trust you? Are you fair and consistent? Do you mean what you say and stand by your word? Do you honor and respect their needs, their words, their person?

All of this matters not just because it matters for your classroom to function. It's not just that students need a teacher they can trust. When you do all this, you are also modeling what a trustworthy person is like.

We have talked a lot about the need for civics education to understand how our society is supposed to work and for critical thinking skills so that they can sort the interwebz wheat from the on-line chaff. But let me suggest another way to frame this.

We need to teach them about how to tell if a person is trustworthy or not.

Because the answer should not be "if he seems real sure about what he's saying" or "if he says things that confirm what I already believe regardless of evidence or reasoning." It should be about performing the human equivalent of literary analysis, of seeing if the person's words and actions match each other as well as reality, as it is reliably described by trustworthy people. It should be about devining human motives and asking how those motives might effect their trustworthiness. It should be about consistency, both external and internal-- do they seem to behave in a way consistent with what they say they believe?

I taught a lot of this stuff for years without realizing it; it's part of the point of teaching literature, for me. If I were still in the classroom, I'd be working on a more deliberate unit. Here's hoping one of you gets in there and does the job for me.

1 comment:

  1. I'm wondering if you're looking for reading material.

    Andrew Delbanco, from Columbia U, wrote a book "College, what it was, is, and should be" that is probably just as apt for any kind of education. He lays out three reasons for college, and the second is to provide a "bullshit meter"
    Here's a 9-page essay from him on the same thesis:

    Regarding the history of sources of reliable information, RAND is doing ongoing research on that topic, and offers a free book on the history of honesty in four forms of media in the US since the late-19th century. The book is called "Truth Decay" and it's here: