Trust and Equality

“What are we going to do with them if they already know what we are going to teach them?” This is a question that exposes deep-rooted flaws in traditional education. It confirms that schools as we know them really are the assembly lines many people accuse them of being, the lock-step learning environments that turn out widgets all looking the same. It is, most emphatically, not the way to cultivate a robust learning community. It restricts learning and causes student disengagement.

The question also reveals another drawback to traditional schooling that can be seen as even more damaging. It shows that the onus of responsibility for learning is on the teachers, not the students. Self-directed, lifelong learning doesn’t happen unless people assume responsibility for themselves. It is a disservice of huge proportion that students are not permitted, except in some very trivial ways, to take responsibility for their own learning. It handicaps them. If we have to ask a question about children with time on their hands, then it is more appropriate to ask, “What are they going to do with themselves?”

Larry Rosenstock of High Tech High is quoted in Beyond Measure (p. 162), as saying, “We have found that the more we trust young people, the more trustworthy they become.” We can trust that children want to do the right thing for themselves, but we haven’t been exercising this trust. When students are deprived of their right to self-determination, they are also deprived of opportunities to build the attitudes and skills required for independent, lifelong learning.

This deprivation reinforces the illusion that students can’t be trusted to direct their own learning, and for good reason. The behaviours it generates are often negative and self-destructive, fuelled by a lack of self-esteem and rebellion, but there is a more tangible reason for thinking children cannot be trusted to make good decisions. We see older children making bad choices, often with dire consequences. They have been robbed early in life of making the little mistakes that provide the experience needed to make good decisions when the stakes are higher. This is the essence of the saying: “We have to have the courage to let children make mistakes.” The situation parallels that of women’s fight for equality. It was once thought that women could never operate in the boardrooms of big business. That thought was proven wrong as soon as women had the opportunity to develop the required skills. We must not continue to deprive children of the opportunity to learn what they need to know to effectively operate in the world. We can trust that they will strive to do the right thing.

Our treatment of young people has to change. Adults need to support their development, not take charge of it. They need to provide learning environments that help students blossom, not ones that stifle them. On the edge of this kind of discussion is the fear of pandering to children, but this fear stems from a misunderstanding of equality. Children in self-directed learning environments have far greater opportunities to see how their lives impact others and to learn how to effectively resolve differences. They do this in the presence of trained professionals who serve as role models. It’s an environment that supports learning the socialization skills needed for effective living and good relationships. From the work of Thomas Gordon, the author of the Parent Effectiveness Training and Teacher Effectiveness Training programs, we learn how adults and children can live together as equals. A quote from his book for the parents program speaks to the heart of it.

My experience with children of all ages is that they are usually quite willing to modify their behavior when it is clear to them that what they are doing does in fact interfere with someone else’s meeting his needs. When parents limit their attempts to modify children’s behavior to what tangibly and concretely affects them, they generally find children quite open to change, willing to respect the needs of their parents, and agreeable to “problem-solve.” (p. 269)

The word “adult” can be substituted for “parent” without changing the message of the quote. As adults become more understanding of how to be equals with children, equality for all people will become more secure. Education is everything, and we learn what we live. Students need to live with trust and equality.


  1. Thanks for this great article. I will add, and I’m sure other experienced educators will agree, that when we trust kids, they become more trusting of us. Talk about positive feedback loops for generating mutual respect while building genuine ‘belonging’ and community!
    Of course trust always has a scary element, because trust involves unknowns. But there are knowable specifics. As mentioned in your article, kids want to do the right thing, but NOT because they were told to do so. Kids want to do the right thing BECAUSE it’s the right thing, which means it’s the right thing for everyone, including themselves, not just themselves.
    So, basically, we’re identifying the need to evoke, or draw out, their “hard-wired” empathy and sense of what’s fair, their natural born connection to what’s real and what’s true. How? I found that whenever I wanted to discuss challenging issues, from personal, to local to global, the most successful approach was peer group discussions, based upon the right kinds of questions, that made my students feel trusted and respected, while activating their curiosity about most workable solutions.
    Simon Sinek, in his inspiring book, Leaders Eat Last, describes the physiological rewards of pride in doing the right thing, by describing the automatic release of the hormone, seratonin: “Seratonin is the feeling of pride. It is the feeling we get when we perceive that others like or respect us. It makes us feel stong and confident, like we can take on anything.” And the release of that hormone is spontaneously triggered in the physiology.
    Fascinating stuff, especially because it takes all the ‘woo-woo’ out of the so-called ‘soft skills’ it is our responsibility to help our students develop.

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