10 Jun Slice of Life: Maybe Trust Makes the Difference Between Engagement and Compliance
She tries to stand her book bag upright, but it falls. She turns to look at her friend’s bag standing tall and stable. She adjusts the contents of her bag and tries again. It falls again. She walks over to closely examine the standing bag careful not to disturb it. She then returns to her bag adjusts it again and tries to stand it up on the table. Once again, it falls. Determinedly she continues several times until finally her bag stands. She waits a moment to assure her victory and then heads off to the lesson she is missing.
Some may read this snippet and think the student is off-task or the teacher should have demanded her presence before the lesson began. I may have been one of those people if I did not observe it in person. On this day, however, when I observed this moment only one word came to mind: trust.
Trust is defined as reliance on the integrity, strength, ability, surety, etc., of a person or thing; confidence or a confident expectation of something; hope. Trust is a critical component of a classroom culture. I have been thinking quite a bit about the difference between engagement and compliance lately and I wonder if the difference is trust. When I think about all the things I observed in this classroom it is clear these students are independent, engaged and problem solvers. These first graders read and wrote for extended periods of time while the teacher worked with small groups. These students transitioned quickly and easily between lessons and knew where to find the materials they needed. These students self selected texts and met with partners to work collaboratively. How do you get six year olds to be independent, productive learners?
Upon reflection I think it was the trust this teacher established in her classroom. She trusted the students would solve problems, make good choices and work productively. She did not interrupt her groups to comment or redirect behaviors that were happening. She trusted the students would redirect themselves or each other and they did. Were there problems? Yes. Did students get off task at moments? Yes. Did students make mistakes? Yes. The important thing is that students found a way to fix these problems. They were in charge of their learning and they knew the adult in the room trusted them to make appropriate learning choices. They were engaged not compliant.
I worry that we may too focused on compliance in classrooms and we are losing engagement as a result. Young learners do not do things perfectly. They become distracted and move at their own pace. While we certainly do need systems and structures in place to provide consistency and predictability we also need to give our students the space to learn how to do things for themselves. We cannot wish them to be independent. We need to let them learn how to be independent and to fail many times in the process of learning.
When I think about this snippet, I realize this student demonstrated a growth mindset. She did not give up and had the grit to solve her problems despite failures. She also demonstrated problem solving skills and strategic thinking. These are the dispositions we are trying to instill in our students. When this teacher set her agenda aside to allow this student to engage in her own learning she modeled the importance of a growth mindset in her classroom culture. She knew this student’s agenda in that moment was more important than hers.
Daniel Pink’s research shows that “the secret to high performance and satisfaction – at work, at school and at home – is the deeply human need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and our world.” When we know our students and understand our pedagogy we can trust the learning process and our students. When this happens it creates a learning environment for teachers and students that provides opportunities to listen, reflect and learn. When this happens, it is truly magical!