How Trust is Essential For Independent Learning

Katrina Schwartz’s recent KQED blog post explores why trust is crucial in shaping independent learners. The article points out that in this age of preparing students to be “college and career ready,” it is puzzling that schools block portions of the internet in the name of protecting students from inappropriate online behavior. Additionally, by blocking digital tools that serve a useful purpose in learning, schools effectively stop educators from teaching and modeling appropriate online behavior. And yet, younger students especially need some kind of protection online. In this article, we explore why building trust today is difficult in a traditional sense, while also remaining crucial for independent learning activities.

It Is Difficult to Establish Trust From a Traditional Teaching Perspective

Image via Flickr by trustypics

Image via Flickr by trustypics

From teachers sporting paddles during the corporal punishment days to students sitting in alphabetical rows, schools throughout their history have often been places of control rather of trust and respect. In discussing this issue, Schwartz cites the work of psychologist David DeSteno, who wrote about the paradox of the risk and reward associated with trust in his book “The Truth About Trust: How It Determines Success in Life, Love, Learning, and More.”

At the most basic level, the need to trust implies one fundamental fact: you’re vulnerable.” He explains that teachers especially struggle with trusting their students because they must accept that they cannot completely control the ability to satisfy their needs or obtain their desired outcomes, yet teachers have been taught to take responsibility for their students’ learning at all costs.

Recently, Michelle Luhtala, head librarian at New Canaan High School in Connecticut, presented an edWeb webinar about the importance of digital citizenship and the balance between trust and guidance in classrooms. While admitting that it can be scary to allow students to take ownership of their learning in online environments, Luhtala believes that schools only prepare students for the 21st century when they teach them tools for safe online learning and then give them independence to explore.

It’s also important for educators to recognize that the millennial generation is growing up in a very different world from the one in which they did. According to Schwartz, today’s students often are “criticized for being impatient, unfocused, entitled, and lazy,” but Luhtala contends “that’s an old-school way of looking at a group of kids who have grown up in a dramatically different world than their teachers.”

In fact, Luhtala says that kids today are more likely to focus when they have something to do other than listen to traditional lectures. Rich, engaging learning opportunities await today’s students as long as their teachers trust them enough to create learning opportunities that deviate from the traditional sage-on-the-stage format. Luhtala says that students often create incredible projects that are possible only when teachers give them “the freedom to think and act independently.”

Trust Is Crucial to the Independent Learning Process

Ben Johnson’s Edutopia post explores why developing students’ trust is key to learning: “Unless they trust us, they are unapproachable.” He’s right. Students attend class, but they do not fully engage unless they trust their teachers. Too much risk is involved when they feel vulnerable, and teachers often create classroom environments in which “students must either adapt to the teacher’s way of teaching or fail.” But, if teachers build relationships with students and earn their trust by “showing them respect in the form of meaningful, challenging, and rewarding learning activities that are worthy of their time and best efforts,” students engage and become independent learners.


Johnson says that trust works both ways. Just as students who have negative experiences with teachers are more likely to distrust future teachers, teachers of disruptive and disrespectful students learn to distrust all students. As a result, teachers “tighten the rules and narrow the focus. We develop an attitude that we can’t trust our students to learn independently. Especially in the early grades, we feel it is our responsibility to control every aspect of their learning activities so things don’t get out of hand, or so they don’t make a mess.” Hence, Johnson claims that teachers teach students “to obey rather than to build confidence to explore.”


Similarly, Luhtala says, “Passive learning is really not an effective way to teach these kids. The reality is that kids will retain less than ten percent of what we say in a lecture setting. So we need to empower them to become independent learners.” Along those same lines, Johnson promotes student-directed learning, which relies on student independence and choice: “Teaching is just as much about taking risks as learning is. A teacher has to take a chance on students and trust them enough to be independent learners.”

Tips for Developing Higher Levels of Trust With Students

As Johnson mentions, the key to earning students’ trust and developing independent learners is to show them respect through meaningful and rewarding learning activities based on student-directed learning. Luhtala echoes Johnson when she promotes active, engaging learning activities for students.

Leah Levy’s Edudemic post describes ten ways that teachers and schools can get student-centered learning right:

  • Turn teachers into facilitators and coaches
  • Push students to apply their knowledge
  • Give teachers the resources and support they need
  • Establish rules
  • Change the feedback process
  • Get the families on board
  • Offer extended learning opportunities
  • Re-define the metrics of success
  • Localize the approach to the most appropriate content
  • Divide the principalship

Other strategies for developing the higher levels of trust through student-directed learning is to put the technology in their hands and show them appropriate levels of trust in using it. For example, New Canaan teachers allow students to choose to report on a mock Model UN conference through Twitter, Facebook, or Flickr while teachers watch the backchannel on devices. With only one inappropriate tweet in six years, the program is a huge success that engages nearly the entire student body. Luhtala also implemented a “text the librarian” program so students at any time can send a text to an email monitored by the librarians. Over the course of one year, students used the program at a rapid rate and asked for help with their complex assignments as they needed it.

Developing trust in your classroom seems daunting, but these tips and resources will help to make the process easier to understand and implement. For more ideas on developing trust with students, check out these posts: