Why Trust in Teachers Is Central to a Child's Academic Success

02/10/2014 01:56 pm ET | Updated Apr 12, 2014

There are three ways to learn: You can research and systematically analyze information, you can conduct your own experiments, or you can believe what people tell you. For adults, learning new things usually involves a mix of all three strategies. But for young children, the story is decidedly different.

Before the age of 8 or so, kids can't really do much in the way of research on their own. They don't have the vocabulary, let alone the reasoning ability, to acquire and analyze technical information. And while it's true that they can conduct some basic experiments -- mix colors to see how they blend or fill different shaped jars with liquids to understand how volume works -- their options are quite limited. Yet our children still manage to learn amazing amounts of information. Their brains, as most parents realize or will remember, are seemingly insatiable when it comes to gathering facts. The questions can seem nonstop: Why is the sky blue? Why don't people fall off the Earth if it's round? What happened to the dinosaurs?

This explosion of learning begs the question: If kids' ability to learn through analyzing information and experimentation is limited, how do they manage to acquire knowledge so readily? The answer comes down to an innate, and necessary, overreliance on the third method for learning: the testimony of others. Put simply, learning for children usually means trusting what you're told. And as with all situations involving trust, that means they're some risk involved. If your child's source of information isn't trustworthy -- if a teacher isn't competent or responsible -- learning will suffer. That might not seem like a surprise to you. You want your child's teachers to be competent. But what you probably don't realize is that in some ways, it's your child's perceptions of his or her teachers that may matter most for academic success. Does he or she believe a teacher is trustworthy?

Why does trust in a teacher's competence matter so much? Because by the age of four, children are already using it to gauge whom it's worth listening to and learning from. If your primary way of learning about the world depends on getting information from other people -- as it does for kids -- then it becomes very important to figure out whose information you can count on. And that's just what the minds of preschoolers do.

As I describe in The Truth About Trust, a series of landmark experiments conducted by Paul Harris, a professor at Harvard's Graduate School of Education, has shown just how pervasive and important a role trust plays in learning. In one experiment, for example, Harris had preschoolers watch two different teachers -- one a familiar and beloved teacher, the other a teacher whom they had never met before -- provide names for novel and common objects. At the behest of the experimenters, the familiar teacher made a few deliberate mistakes in naming some objects in front of half of the children (she provided the correct names for the other half). After witnessing these events, the kids had to complete a task that required them to learn new facts. Those who had no reason to doubt their familiar teacher's competence (i.e., the ones who didn't see her make any mistakes), almost always approached the teacher they knew and loved with their questions about the new task. But those who now doubted her competence (i.e., the ones who saw her make mistakes), threw comfort and familiarity to the wind and sought information from the new teacher. In even more surprising work, Harris has shown that kids as young as five are even willing to take the word of a new teacher over that of their parents based on differences in the perceived trustworthiness of the two. Children whose relationship with their parents is characterized by a lack of trust (i.e., kids who have what psychologists term an "avoidant relationship") show a marked preference for seeking and accepting information from teachers they perceive as competent even when that information conflicts with information provided by their own parents.

But perhaps the most astonishing finding of all is that trust in teachers not only determines whether you'll ask them for information and believe what they tell you, but also whether you'll remember it later. Research by Mark Sabbagh at Queens University confirms that children's minds actually block information from sources they view as less competent. The implications couldn't be clearer or more profound. How well children remember facts isn't only dependent on how much they study, but also on whether they believe they can trust the teacher who provided the information.

In all these cases, the influence of trust is operating below awareness. It's not that our kids are intentionally assessing the trustworthiness of teachers in attempts to decide whether to accept information from them. Their minds are built to do it automatically and effortlessly. Every day, in every school and every home, our kids' minds are busy figuring out who is a reliable font of knowledge and who isn't. It's a system that can work pretty well if children have freedom to choose from whom they wish to learn. But in most schools, such choice isn't possible. Teachers are determined by the luck of the draw. And if you child doesn't see his teacher as trustworthy, he's going to be at a major disadvantage when it comes to learning and remembering the information that teacher provides. As the journalist and author Amanda Ripley has shown, adolescents recognize that it's not how much they like a teacher that predicts their academic success, but whether they believe the teacher is competent.

What we're now seeing, however, is just how deeply and early these perceptions of trust emerge and exert their influence. Although preschoolers, unlike adolescents, may not recognize how issues of trust affect their learning, the impact is becoming ever more clear.