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Why Trust Is A Crucial Ingredient in Shaping Independent Learners

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By Jane Mount/MindShift
By Jane Mount/MindShift

Preparing students to be “college and career ready” is a catch phrase in many schools, but those same institutions often block large swaths of the internet in an attempt to protect students from acting inappropriately online. While well-intentioned, blocking useful digital tools prevents educators from guiding students through appropriate online behavior while still in the relative safety of school. College and job recruiters are seeking students who are creative problem solvers, collaborative workers and independent thinkers, but in many cases, rules prevent students from practicing those skills online.

“When you try to use a computer in a school, it’s shocking what is blocked,” said Michelle Luhtala, head librarian at New Caanan High School in Connecticut during an edWeb webinar. “That is not 21st century learning.” Luhtala doesn’t believe schools can make good on their promise to prepare kids for the world that awaits them outside school walls if they don’t first prepare them to use the tools to operate online in safe ways. She acknowledges that letting students direct their own learning in virtual spaces can be scary and that it takes a lot of trust.

In many ways, trust underlies much of what happens in school each day. The job of helping young people grow into well-educated and independent adults rests upon the relationship between teachers and students, teachers and their administrators, the community and its school staff. And yet many of the rules governing schools are about control. Psychologist David DeSteno explores the tension between risk and reward inherent in trust in his book "The Truth About Trust: How It Determines Success in Life, Love, Learning and More." Maria Popova summarizes some of the key points in Brain Pickings.

"At the most basic level, the need to trust implies one fundamental fact: you're vulnerable," DeSteno writes. "The ability to satisfy your needs or obtain the outcomes you desire is not entirely under your control." That loss of control is part of what intimidates educators, who have been conditioned to take responsibility for the learning of their students, no matter what.

"Trust, then, is simply a bet, and like all bets, it contains an element of risk," DeSteno writes. Removing filters, changing device policies and empowering teachers to try new things in the classroom require the kind of risk that DeSteno says makes humans uncomfortable.


While Luhtala understands the risk educators take when it comes to trusting kids with digital tools, she has also seen the rich rewards of taking that leap. Ultimately, DeSteno writes, trust is crucial to human evolution:

The potential benefits from trusting others considerably outweigh the potential losses on average. The ever-increasing complexity and resources of human society — its technological advancement, interconnected social capital, and burgeoning economic resources — all depend on trust and cooperation. . . . More can be achieved by working together than by working alone. That’s why we trust — plain and simple.


The millennial generation of students is often criticized for being impatient, unfocused, entitled and lazy, but Luhtala said 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. “I don’t think kids are unfocused,” she said. “I think they can be super focused if you give them something to do. And I really mean DO, not listening or watching, but really physically doing something.”

Creating learning opportunities that don’t rely on lectures, textbooks or sitting quietly goes against established educational patterns and can feel foreign to many adults who learned that way themselves. It requires trust, but once given, can often produce incredible projects from students that might never have materialized without giving them the freedom to think and act independently, Luhtala said.

“Passive learning is really not an effective way to teach these kids,” Luhtala said. “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.”

At New Caanan High School, students are allowed to use their phones and other devices anytime during school. Each year, the current seniors make a “We Trust You” video that freshmen watch in their first week of school. It highlights the school culture of trust and the responsibility that comes along with it.

“The subtext is, ‘don’t break it; we like it this way,’” Luhtala said. She and her colleagues actively give students opportunities to use digital tools for learning that otherwise might only be used for texting or social networking, helping them to become responsible digital citizens along the way.


One way New Canaan teachers showed trust for their students was during a Model United Nations day. The 120 students actively involved in Model UN club organized a mock conference at the school to give everyone a chance to experience their passion. The entire event is student run and it engages most of the student body. When there were more participants than roles, unassigned kids became the press corp for the conference.

Students choose to report on Twitter, Facebook or Flickr, documenting the conference as it progresses through the day. “We watch the backchannel on devices,” Luhtala said. “And in six years of doing this we’ve only had one instance of an inappropriate tweet.” Trusting students to behave correctly on informal networks like this has the added benefit of bringing the broader community into the activities happening at school.

Luhtala highlighted another example of how trusting students opens learning doors when she described the “text a librarian” program she runs. Students have a Google Voice number for the library that they can text anytime, day or night. The texts show up in an email account that all the librarians can access. Luhtala is proud that in just one year, student use of the system has exploded. The library dealt with 172 queries in the 2013-2014 school year. In just the first three weeks of the 2014 school year, it had already received 54 queries through text, most of which came in during the evening.

“This is saying that given the opportunity to have real time learning experiences, kids want to learn,” Luhtala said. Teachers at the school are assigning complicated tasks that can be difficult to complete, but students are rising to the challenge, navigating their way through complex work and asking for help when they need it.


“If we trust them to engage with the content, then we have the power to teach them the digital citizenship,” Luhtala said. As with most learning, students understand the necessity of responsible behavior online when they are confronted with real choices as part of their school work. “We have to let them go to places that may feel scary at a lot of levels, but digital citizenship is an important part of 21st century learning,” Luhtala said.

At this point in any discussion about technology in education, there will be many parents and educators who raise questions of equity and the digital divide. While it is true that the digital divide exists, some studies suggest the gap in access to devices themselves may be narrowing rapidly, especially when it comes to mobile access. In 2011, 27 percent of low income families surveyed by Common Sense Media had access to a smartphone, but by 2013 that number had grown to 51 percent. Similarly tablet ownership among low income families grew to 20 percent in 2013. That still doesn’t match access for higher income children, but it shows rapid growth in access to some kind of device.

The more troubling divide lies in how devices are being used and the amount of guidance and direction children get from the adults in their lives. The same Common Sense Media Zero to Eight Study found that in 2013, 31 percent of low-income parents had downloaded an app for their children, whereas 75 percent of higher income parents had done the same. Educators can play a big role in helping to close that gap in powerful use that could end up being a crucial part of educational equity.

“Kids really need to have safe passage and access to content in order to use and experiment with it with guided instruction,” Luhtala said. She’s adamant that educators have a responsibility to recognize their potential for great influence in this area and make the tools available to students.

While New Canaan High School is progressive in its approach to devices and internet access, Luhtala recognizes that many educators work in environments with much less freedom.

“The frustrated people have gone silent to a large extent,” Luhtala said. She encourages them to voice their opinions to their districts and advocate for the right to teach these important skills so their students don’t miss out on an opportunity. ”There are some kids who are getting a very different learning experience than the kids in those blocked schools and environments,” Luhtala said. “And that’s a digital divide we really could fix. All it takes is trust.”


If a school wants to encourage students to follow their natural inclination towards learning, school materials need to be digital, and available on mobile devices 24/7, Luhtala said. When educators make the materials accessible in these ways, students can find answers to their questions as they arise, and have no excuse for not taking responsibility for their work.

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