It’s a matter of trust

When Billy Joel wrote the lyrics to It’s a Matter of Trust, he probably wasn’t thinking about the Finnish education system.  Yet the more I read the literature on high performing systems, I am convinced that trust is at the core of the cultural change needed to reshape schooling.  It’s not new nor is it rocket science.

Michael Fullan says that you build trust through behaviour.  John Hattie tells us that the ability for teachers to develop trust within the classroom is key to making students feel OK about making mistakes and asking questions.  In Visible Learning, the highest “effect sizes within teacher student relationship came from empathy, warmth and encouragement of higher order thinking.”  A report on a teacher education model for the 21st century by Singapore’s National Institute of Education emphasises the need for teachers to create cultures of care and trust.

As noble a calling as teaching is, the profession has been tarnished by a lack of trust, suspicion of teachers’ work and a top down approach to school improvement.  Richard Elmore wrote in 2007 that a “non-professional teaching force is a compliant and easily managed workforce.”  This view of teaching according to Elmore grew out of the late 19th and 20th century.

What differentiates high performing systems from others is trust.  Trust permeates from the highest to the lowest levels: governments trust schools to deliver quality education, parents trust teachers to meet the learning needs of their children and teachers trust students to set and achieve their own learning goals.

I know Finland is the system du jour and some may be tiring of hearing about the Finnish way but I read a superb reflection in February’s Phi Delta Kappan magazine by its editor in chief, Joan Richardson.  When I re-read the passages I highlighted in the article I am still astounded by the culture of trust that has been built not in one school but in every single school.  How is this done?  By driving responsibility down to the classroom and school level.  This is similar to the principle of subsidiarity and it’s a term we don’t often hear in discussions about school improvement or teacher quality.  Teachers have control over what they teach and how they teach and how they assess students.

The rationale behind Finland’s competitive teacher education program is quite simple: there are no mentoring or teacher evaluation programs and that’s the way they want it. Teachers are trusted to do their best not in their first year of teaching but throughout their careers.  This is a quote from an education official from the Finnish National Board of Education:

We trust our teachers. They will find the best solutions, or they will create their own.  They are doing very well without inspections and testing. If students are not happy, they go home and tell their mothers, and the mothers call the principal. That’s a fine inspection system.”

It exemplifies the level of trust between schools and parents and reinforces the critical role parents play in education.  It is not just the responsibility of teachers or parents or governments – it is a collective responsibility in which the accountability lies with the professionals – teachers and leaders.  Imagine knowing that if you sent your child to any school in Finland they would receive the same level of care and personalised learning regardless of academic ability, learning style or background.

For me, the gold standard is the fact that teachers are free to work from home when they are not teaching.  As Richardson observes, the working conditions of Finnish teachers are closely associated with being professionals instead of the highly regulated working environment of American teachers.  Can you imagine this happening in our schools!

Where does trust begin? With our students; believing that each one is capable of learning and will become life-long learners.  It is on this belief that teaching begins.

If we are to build the same culture of trust then we need to face the facts and look at the evidence.  This is a call to be courageous; to recognise that what was once off limits or sacred is now open to critical reflection and change. All this represents the fact that interdependence has to be the new norm. Isolation and mistrust are death to innovation and change.

To paraphrase an old song, “trust changes everything…..”

7 thoughts on “It’s a matter of trust

  1. Greg
    The Finnish model of teaching is indeed inspiring. In my view, that development of trust, on which it is based, could be applied with equally good impact to industrial and commercial management. The IT revolution has driven a management model which permits all key variables to be ‘managed’ from the ‘centre’. But it is not working as efficiently as it ‘theoretically’ should – largely because the front-line manager feels he or she is not as trusted as was the case in the past. “Trust” between people at all levels of organisation is an essential element for efficient operation. Michael Gordon

    1. Michael I’m pleased you find inspiration in the Finnish model of education. It’s a valuable task to look at what is working in other sectors. Trust underpins all good organisations. I suppose this is why Intel and Google have such high employee engagement. When people are trusted and their ideas valued, they end up challenging themselves to do better. The Finnish education system recognised this decades ago.

  2. Hi Greg, couldn’t agree more with this post. Trusting and rewarding (not just with money) our staff with flexibility in the work place, rather than conformity, is the way to get our staff working at their best. In a recent post i suggested…. the structures of current day organisations often have people go about their work with little connection… I could also add that people in the work place need freedom to rethink their work and have choice about how they do this. The challenge is how we achieve (rethink) this in schools, with bells, yard duty, timetables, start and finish times etc…….this is the new work of leaders going forward.

  3. Hi Greg,
    Good to read your article. When working with kids in school, I carry my stuff in a bag. On the outside of the bag is printed the word TRUST.

    You mention that Michael Fullan says that you build trust through behaviour. I like the reference to John Hattie who tells us that the ability for teachers to develop trust within the classroom is key to making students feel OK about making mistakes and asking questions.

    I suspect if we unpacked this domain with these two gurus, they might have pleasure in exploring the following question raised by a parent in one of our groups.

    “When my children do something wrong, how do you challenge them so they stop and think about what they have done, take care of things, repair any harm they might have done, and not be left feeling shamed or resentful towards you?”

    I always pose this question when leading teachers to talk about their practice. Sadly, not many educators can satisfactorily respond. While most acknowledge they do have very decent forms of practice, they are thoughtful about the fact they cannot explain what it is they do.

    When asked, ‘Do we teach reparation of mistakes in an explicit or implicit manner?’ The usual response is that behavioural development is done implicitly. This is interesting when teachers are asked to describe their best teaching. Of course the usual response is explicitly. (I often use the example of when I taught students how to measure the area of a circle. I was explicit.)

    Most teachers acknowledge this point, but still it is a struggle to lead many to understand how we can explicitly teach others how to harness their own capacities to repair harm and build and maintain relationships, and so allow exceptional learning to occur.

    Kids know all about this. Next time you are sitting in front of a group of year six students, invite them to consider the following scenario:

    “Imagine that you are all friends, you started at this school in kinder, and now you are all in Year 6. You have been together for 7 or 8 years and during this time, you never had a serious disagreement, conflict or a fight. What would that be like?”
    As you can imagine, the universal response is: “It would be boring.”
    When we ask them to explain their response they say, “You would not learn anything.”

    Kids intuitively know that we learn from our mistakes. They smile when they are given the opportunity to talk about it.

    You wrote – “Imagine knowing that if you sent your child to any school in Finland they would receive the same level of care and personalised learning regardless of academic ability, learning style or background.”

    I have not been to Finland, but I have walked into hundreds of schools in Australia and some in other countries and I have found that if trust is not engendered at a deep level, there remains a tension. It is the absence or presence of trust that our senses detect when we walk into schools.

  4. I agree with everything that was said about the need to build trust. Yet how is trust built? How I wish it was as simple as looking to Finland for wisdom. Our multicultural, multilingual rich and complex society is vastly different from Finland’s with a very different educational past and present. I don’t feel it’s the ‘guru’s who will change societal attitudes to teaching and learning either.

    I feel it must come from our teachers. There are so many wonderful, informed teachers who are also learners. These teachers need to publicly articulate (not how hard they work or their pay) but their varied approaches to learning and teaching (for themselves and their students). We need teachers to stand up and articulate how they determine and help students determine what is worth knowing, show evidence that their students are learning and how they are challenging students’ learning. We need teachers to articulate their artistry as well; how curiosity and wonder and joy are fostered in their classrooms. We need to know how they are responding to the needs of 21st century learners.

    In order to unlearn as a society, we need to have teachers stand up and share their expertise.

  5. Greg-

    Whenever I hear about new changes coming through in education, one of my first thought is always… “I wonder what they are doing or would do in Finland….. ” Great post! I’ve highlighted this post as one of my “Friday 5” today.

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