Absolute Trust in the Teaching Profession – The Real Adult Developmental Barrier.

I wanted to write a brief comment about the concept of Trust in the teaching profession. This is  a personal reflection, but has some links to Adult Development and Critical Realism too 😊

The concept of trust makes the round on edutwitter once every other week – that there should be greater trust in  teachers to make decisions for their classroom, or that headteachers should be trusted to make decisions for their schools.

It’s a very popular thing to say and a lot of commentators, professionals and academics all call for it.

The problem with trust – or what I will call “absolute trust”, that is requires you divorce yourself from arguments of the “what” and focus on the “how”.

Adult Developmental Psychologist Robert Kegan talks about the difference between content over structure:

  • content being the content of thought i.e. what you think – what you do, the decision you make
  • Structure being the reasoning behind it….the cognitive work, logic, reasoning, intent or moral and philosophical position that underpins the decision you have made.

Separating structure from content is an extremely challenging adult skills: one that does not occur until later stages of development. It ultimately requires one to recognise that (for most aspects) the structure of thought and content of thought are not a one to one correspondence. This is fancy adult development way of saying – you can come from the same place (structure) but have totally different ideas on how to get there (content).

Absolute trust is not about content – its about trusting that the underlying  structures behind the content of thought is to mean well.  We can have completely different decisions, yet have the same ‘structure’ behind them i.e. we can all want the best for children (structure) yet have different ideas behind the decision. Whether this is rules based or humanistic behaviour management; LEA or Academy trust; Knowledge or Skills.

I see many demand trust/ argue for trust and teacher/school autonomy. However, we need to recognise that, to achieve this, we need to be willing to trust the structure behind those we disagree with. We need to be extend their trust to where they are coming from (i.e. structure) ….despite having totally different ideas on what the content should be. We need to avoid stating the need to  “trust teachers” but criticise the content of peoples/groups thoughts on the assumption they have some different structure behind their decision. It is incompatible, in my view, to  criticise groups for their methods and imply there are some alternative agenda…dodgy links….inconspicuous means i.e. there is an structure behind the content that is dubious or morally/ethically questionable., and also argue to “trust teachers”. In fact, it undermines any attempt to build trust in the profession in the first place – if we cannot trust ourselves within the profession and those that carry the label of education, or teaching, why should we ask others to do the same?

Am I saying which should not be prepared to critique and question the content of thought? Absolutely not.  Am I saying that we shouldn’t be prepared to have pretty firm views on content? Again, as long as they are grounded, then go ahead. We should be prepared to challenge and debate content. This is a critical realist view on the world – knowledge is a model for an attempt to capture an external reality, and thus we should always be prepared to question our preferred model in light of new evidence or alternative models. But we will have to work exceptionally hard to ensure that this doesn’t bleed into crticising the other persons’ structure of thought – their values, their intent, their modus operandi.

We will need to recognise that just because a different decision is made, it is does not reflect on any differences in the underlying structure behind the decision. What I’m trying to say is…..we need to start with the position that, as a fellow within this profession, that they too have the best interest of the child and family at heart.

What if we have very clear evidence to the contrary – not conspiracy theory, not implied suggestion, but genuine hard fact and proof that structure (intention, moral value etc) is different from the intended aim? Fill your boots. Good luck finding it though. Structure is difficult to pick out. I’d argue most of the time…its likely you are probably operating on some assumption, or some attempt to imply structure from the content of their thought.

Absolute trust is exceptionally hard to grant and hard to maintain. As I said, we are talking about a hard adult skill to recognise, let alone achieve.  So we need to think before we say “Trust Teachers” and “Trust Leaders”: it means trusting that, as a profession, regardless of method, we are trying to operate from the same hymn sheet. And this will require hard work. Hard reflection. Hard thinking. Honesty and Humility to admit when we slip up (PS Yes I have done this too! And to those I have done this to, I am really, exceptionally sorry). Yes, content will differ – methods will differ – if we award trust on content alone, that’s when debates about content will be lost and the field will not advance…when one bleeds into the other, we go down the rabbit hole and forget to have a rationale conversation about content.

It means being prepared to extend the hand of trust, even if you are not sure. It means some really hard looking in the mirror to ask yourself “why am I challenging that group, or that person?”.

In short, trust in teachers in an easy line to trot out. Its a far harder one to see through to completion and to live by consistently.

NG