Distrusting Students Makes Learning Harder on Everybody

The belief that students are unmotivated is disappointing, and it leads to extra work on everybody’s part—the teacher must bend around like a contortionist to make students want to learn, and students must hand over their autonomy. But the belief that students cannot be trusted is tragic. Distrust toxifies any environment, and it places everybody on the defensive. In the classroom, it creates tension. When distrust looms, soon everybody is tied up with suspicion and second-guessing. Nothing worthwhile gets done.

In short, when teachers distrust their students, they must control all aspects of student activity to ensure that the right kinds of learning behaviors occur. This practice, which has become ubiquitous in education, is called “behavior management.”

Though I am convinced that distrusting my students is harmful, it is an area of facilitation and course design with which I routinely struggle. Just last week in a face-to-face research course, my students proposed that I create a virtual discussion board where we could continue our in-class conversations. I explained that I believed it wouldn’t work and shared my experiences with such discussion boards in the past. They explained that they believed it would work, and they insisted that I do it. I sighed, made a discussion board, and patrolled it like a shark waiting for a student to write something perfunctory. That way I could boast, “I told you so!” 

You can see already the sort of relationship that distrust sets up between professor and student: the professor is no longer working with their students, but, instead, is actively looking for mistakes. Therefore students not only have to avoid making obvious mistakes, but they have to avoid anything that might be misconstrued as a mistake. In this environment, it is impossible for students to take risks, try new things, or explore areas of knowledge or practice with which they’re not already experts. It leads to habitual responses and the use of cliches.

It is important to remember that the problem of distrusting students doesn’t only affect students. Professors must constantly scan the perimeters of the yard so as to avoid a student wandering too far afield. I found myself going to bed one night wondering how to solve the “lame discussion board problem,” which I had invented in my mind. I began brainstorming activities that would produce the kind of learning behaviors I believed to be most valuable—behaviors, incidentally, that had a lot to do with writing. You see, I was incapable of trusting that my students could have the discernment to choose for themselves how to achieve their goals for the course (such as through a discussion board). So I stayed away between midnight and 2am trying to solve the make-believe problem for them.

Instead of taking back the freedom I had given them, however, I reminded myself how this semester I was going to try to be more trusting of my students. And so, rather than get up at 2am and working on the course for three hours like I normally would, I went back to sleep. When I revisited the discussion board at the start of the next week, I found that a handful of deeply personal and meaningful conversations had taken place in my absence. Students shared personal stories; they related knowledge of current events to the subject; they remembered stories they had been told as children and how those stories shaped their understanding of the topic. In other words, what occurred was a college professor’s fantasy for any classroom or virtual discussion. I, of course, could take no credit. The students had done it all, right down to twisting my arm to create the discussion board. 

Note, too, what happens when students are trusted: they have a chance to surprise, impress, and inspire their instructors.

Imagine, now, that I had logged onto the computer and criticized the first perfunctory post I came across. Imagine I had written, for example, “This sounds like you’ve written this comment out of compliance, and not because you have anything valuable or insightful to say. Next time, try to think more critically.” Other students would read that and think, “Uh oh, Dr. Whitehead has a satchel full of insults, and he’s just waiting to start flinging them at us.” Rather than taking a risk in that situation, a student will spend their energy preparing for how they will defend themselves from my criticism.


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