Thinking About Trusting Students

Early on my teaching career, my middle school team and I attended wildly popular institutes for middle level educators in Vermont. My team and I joined team from dozens of other schools for a week of intense (and fun) learning and program development. We had amazing presentations, reflected on what we had learned, and integrated those ideas into curriculum or operational plans for the next year.

I recall vividly (yes, I know how faulty human memory is, especially when the events were more than 30 years ago and have been recollected many times since) an interaction between a middle school student and a teacher who was a participant in the institute.

The student was describing the independent reading that was done on the team where she was a student. She said, “Every day, I record in my journal which book I am reading and how many pages I have read.”

A teacher asked, “So, who checks you read the pages?”

The student responded, “I record it. In my journal. My teachers can look at it, but I record it.”

The teacher repeated, “But who checks it?”

I recall the interaction going back and forth with the student insisting they were responsible for recording, but the teacher wanting to know how that was accounted for. In the version currently in my head, I hear the teacher exacerbated still wondering why the student did not answer the question.

Fast forward now to 2023. I am teaching an online course and one of the assignments is for students to complete a tutorial (provided by a software publisher) to a tool we will use. I have told my students to send me a message when they have completed it and I will post the points. Some of my colleagues are astounded. One even chuckled at me when I told them this is what I was doing.

For me, the situations are the same. The middle school reader those years ago saw it their responsibility to be a reader. The valued reading and took it seriously. My students are generally valuing learning how to use the software. They have probably figured out they will need to use it soon, so they should invest the time now or later.

Either way, students are being trusted to account for themselves as learners. For too many decades, we have been taking the autonomy from students. We standardize the curriculum, the assessments, and we stress accountability.

I am not sure we have done ourselves or our students any benefit from those approaches to teaching. Students see learning as an external activity… I’m told what to learn, how to learn it, and how well I learned it. Teachers see teaching as an external activity…. I’m told what to teach and how to determine if students have learned it.

The trust is gone, and that is a bad thing. I trust my students want to be better computer users (I teach computer information system courses). It they tell me they completed a tutorial, but they didn’t, then so be it. I expect they will regret it later. I expect they will have a much more difficult path.