Reliance and Risk

The importance of trust

Three posts will be done on this topic.

  1. Reliance and Risk. What is trust?
  2. Trust between students, parents and the school
  3. School and society, can we be trusted to do our jobs?

Reliance and Risk

The importance of trust

“The ignorant man is not free, because what confronts him is an alien world, something outside him and in the offing, on which he depends, without his having made this foreign world for himself and therefore without being at home in it by himself as in something his own. The impulse of curiosity, the pressure for knowledge, from the lowest level up to the highest rung of philosophical insight arises only from the struggle to cancel this situation of unfreedom and to make the world one’s own in one’s ideas and thought.”


Why is this important? Because trust is what sets us free. It is a paradox, in that when we allow ourselves to be controlled (in the “right way”, stay with me on this one), it will undoubtedly lead to more trust and more freedom.

In the German idealist philosophy tradition, the concept of the upbringing (Erziehung) and Bildung (formation, cultivation, education) were separate yet conjoined at the same time.

It is my hope that I can, in a series of three posts, get deeper into a very key part in education and human interaction overall. I am of course talking about trust. Trust is our main currency, it is the glue which binds society together. It is what makes us able to invest in ourselves and others. It is faith in ourselves and humanity at large to be bound by our words and actions.

I am reminded of the quote from the film John Q, wherein Denzel Washington’s character tells his son in a very moving speech: “When you say you’re going to do something… When you say you’re going to do something, you do it. Because your word is your bond, son. It’s all you have.” And this is how most of us live life. We trust our beloved ones and our close friends. We all have to trust that a majority of us will abide the law. We all have to trust that a majority of us play a fair game.

Why then did I choose reliance and risk as the title for this post? Sure, trust is more than just a scholar term, it is something which crosses many boundaries well from the subjective and the objective realms of definition. Posting the lexical definitions of trust would perchance be something of worth, however, my focal point will be, mainly, what research defines it as. In The Handbook of Trust Research, trust is defined as having two major components: reliance and risk: “[…]trust involves two principal concepts: reliance […] and risk […]”

You have to risk stating that you are going to do something. You have to risk it that you will be able to do what you have stated. You have to risk trusting others and being betrayed. You have to rely on others and yourself to complete objectives. Words are clumsy attempts at making sense of reality and getting what is not yet, to what is. It is our planning:

  • The politician’s promise that increased tax rates will lead to the overall social good.
  • The teacher’s promise to her/his students and parents that the kid will feel safe in school and will learn.
  • The student’s promise to adhere to the school rules and consequences of bad behavior.

The reliance comes along as we get closer to the intended reality of our words. We notice that we might need help. We notice perhaps, that we might not be able to keep our word. When we miss a deadline or fall behind, or fail to live up to certain standards, we berate ourselves and perhaps others. That risk-reliance operation is a constant mix between the two, going on for the rest of our lives. As long as we live, we will have to live with risking on relying on ourselves and others.

How can we use this knowledge to our advantage? Well, luckily, there has been a lot of progress in the trust research over the years. According to one leading researcher, Paul J. Zak, being humble as a leader is of great value. He summarizes his thoughts as such in the Harvard Business Review:

Former Herman Miller CEO Max De Pree once said, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between the two, the leader must become a servant.”The experiments I have run strongly support this view. Ultimately, you cultivate trust by setting a clear direction, giving people what they need to see it through, and getting out of their way. It’s not about being easy on your employees or expecting less from them. High-trust companies hold people accountable but without micromanaging them. They treat people like responsible adults.

The same article goes more into depth showing just how profound the differences are between low-trust environments compared to high-trust environments.

Compared with people at low-trust companies, people at high-trust companies report: 74% less stress, 106% more energy at work, 50% higher productivity, 13% fewer sick days, 76% more engagement, 29% more satisfaction with their lives, 40% less burnout.

Why then, am I using this from the world of business? Do not worry, I have no intention of going the New Public Management route here! When dealing with any kind of human interaction, you’d have to consider yourself being in the trust business. There has been a lot of progress in the past decade with research into trust. Even so, it is a murky area, as it turns out trust is very complex. All levels of trust are based on adjacent levels. Trust works on multiple levels depending all on one another. It is not yet fully understood just how and why it works: “Despite this progress, however,‘trust remains an undertheorized, under-researched, and, therefore, poorly understood phenomenon’ (Child, 2001: 274).” Yet, from what is understood, trust seems to be very reliant on the key parts of yes, you got it, trust. To simply feel trust, you have to feel trusted, yet not too much. The paradox thickens.

Why should we then consider trust?

Is it really something useful in the context of education? Yes it is, because we no longer seem to operate under the optimal conditions as being trusted and therefore there are a multitude of elements of control in education.

As Tom Bennett puts it:

“Understanding and consciously creating relationships of trust, dignity and support between all students and oneself. This is a wide and diffuse area and involves how to speak to parents and guardians, knowing about a student’s specific learning needs, prior attainment and other data, understanding the effects of stress on decision-making and many other factors. These areas require continuous and intelligent reinforcement through the duration of the teacher’s career. At all times, the teacher’s routines should aim towards supporting the aims and outcomes of the school routines, which in turn demands that these are robust, clear and aimed at a defined and public good.”

Trust is not that easily managed. Yet, it is so vital to everything we do.

I am not in this instant advocating for a simpleton approach which is to say “Oh, I think that if the government just trusts the teachers and schools, then all will be good.” No, I am quite the pessimist when it comes down to control instruments. We teachers, headteachers/headmasters/principals, SLT and so forth need all to be controlled in one way or another. It is just like David Didau wrote about how we perform the best: One such element specifically being that we know we are being held accountable in one way or another. Here comes the crux: we cannot be held accountable for things that we cannot be accountable. That is the problem that I see in the current systems of control in education.

Can you as a teacher be accountable and measure all of the target grades of the students? No, you cannot, not as long as the grades are indeed focused on learning. Should a school keep a certain number of percentage on student surveys as an accountability system in place? Not if the point is to increase possibilities of learning. Perhaps, if the results instead were used to build a positive school culture, then yes! But, if you spend multiple meetings going nowhere but to design meaningless activities connected to moronic measurements, then you are definitely on the wrong track.

Should the School Inspection/OFSTED look at how pleased students and parents are with their education? No, not if you use it as economic incentives to provide more or less for the school. Yes, if you want to increase the overall trust.

Trust is the glue which binds all of society together. Trust is being shaped as the individual as he/she is growing up bonds with society and all of the accumulated knowledge over a long period of time. This is the importance of trust and education.

In the next blogpost, I will go deeper into how the trust between students, parents and school.

Much thanks to Dr. Bray ( for having provided me with such great resources on the research of trust!

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