Monday, May 19, 2014

Importance of Trust in Building a Better Learning Environment

The following is an essay I penned for my Foundations of Teaching for Learning online class offered by the Commonwealth Education Trust and conducted by Professor John MacBeath of the University of Cambridge.

Learning is a cognitive process that takes multiple elements of our psychology into play including memory and incentive. It is a complicated concept and we are constantly researching the topic as new ideas are being developed every day. One particular area of interest are the factors involved in learning: how do we learn, what influences learning and make us better learners, what inhibits our growth as a learner, and what affects these processes.

On a basic level, we know that there is the factor of the learner’s own potential and desire. Personally, as a teacher and a lifelong student myself, I have noted that it is the latter which is more important than the former partially because potential is such a vague concept but more importantly because potential itself is not fixed. It can be changed, improved and a lot of that relies upon desire.

The student’s main weapon in their arsenal to learn is their desire to be better at the subject they are being presented with, to grasp the concept. They must have an incentive to learn. We can observe this in infants actually. As mentioned above, there is the function of potential playing a role here with the baby’s innate ability to pick up languages and construct words or sentences but there is also the desire to use this ability that comes into play foremost. For example, I currently possess the ability to swim in the Raritan river but I will not do that right now because I have no desire to. There is simply no incentive.

Humans are social animals. We have the innate desire to commune with our surroundings. The baby, in the above example, has the incentive to interact with its surroundings. It notices that adults around it do so by naming objects, actions, etc. and converse with each other. Humans beings also have the innate desire to connect with their surroundings and not be left out. We want to be part of our societies, our communities. The baby understands that it can do this by talking. The desire to talk, in conjunction with the innate ability to pick up languages works well here to allow the baby to speak.

Therefore, I personally believe, that the most important factor in learning is the incentive and the desire. Humans learn by example because the examples they follow are already part of a community and we want to join them. The example could be our parents, our teachers, older siblings, a celebrity on TV, etc. However, the core idea is that we see these role models as part of a desirable community we strive to be a part of. Let’s say we want to raise a family like our parents, be good with the neighbors, have colleagues, etc and thus we endeavor to learn in schools, colleges, get a job and get on that track. Sometimes, this role model could be someone else, for example a celebrity scientist, writer or actor, whose community we see as the more desirable one and we want to be more like them, following their path and thus we strive to learn what they know to develop ourselves as one with them.

On the other hand, if the desire to learn a craft is low, no matter how much the potential a student will not strive to learn it. Once again, personal anecdote: I was always called a gifted artist by my teachers but never really had the desire to learn it because, first, the grade from Arts and Craft did not impact our CGPA, and second, none of my role models, back then, superheroes in anime like Goku, were artists. Simply put, I did not want to be an artist myself. The teachers loved my work and it was good enough for me to pass the class, therefore the incentive, passing the class, was met with ease. I did not desire to improve.

Desire can be improved by the teacher. A teacher can be a positive influence on their students by being a role model. This is where another important factor comes in: Trust. Trust is a crucial environment in creating a learning environment between teacher and student. This is largely because one would not necessarily try to learn much from someone else who they do not trust or agree with. Shared values, commonalities in views and ethics mean that one can trust the other not to direct them towards a path that is not contradictory to their beliefs. To demonstrate this with a hypothetical example, let’s say that I believe homosexuality is wrong and someone believes it is right. I might fear that this person may convince me to abandon my lifelong beliefs, discard them unceremoniously and disrespectfully. Another example to expound on the importance of trust would be, let’s say, a business scheme. If a relative stranger were to come up to me with a business scheme that sounds a little unorthodox I would not trust the person because it might be a scam. However, if the person who comes to me with the scheme is someone I know I would want to learn more about the scheme because I know they know my preferences, ethical values, what I would do and not do, and, of course, they are not going to scam me.

Once a teacher, even if they do not share the same common values with the student and they have no similarities at all, takes the time and effort to understand their student, the students know they can trust the teacher because the teacher will not be making the effort to know someone they do not care about. Having that assurance makes it easy for the student to absorb what the teacher is dishing out. This is because the student now believes the teacher cares for them and thus the subconscious barriers and defenses are let down. So this trust is built upon respect for shared values and mutual care which, from my personal perspective, are fundamentals in creating a learning environment.

Finally, I would also like to include simplicity. The act of making an idea or concept easy to understand by fragmenting it, breaking it down, thus allowing easier absorption of the learning material, is crucial to helping the process of learning. Of course, making an idea simpler does not always mean making it shorter. Sometimes we need to expand upon a concept and use a series of smaller, simpler analogies to explain the more complicated idea. For example, comparing red blood cells to trucks, oxygen to goods carried by the trucks, and the arteries as roads, makes it tremendously simpler and easier to visualize for the students. The aforementioned idea can be connected to the previously mentioned idea of getting to know the student. Because getting to know the student really helps in using vivid examples through metaphors the student can relate to and comprehend.

In conclusion, we can sum up what is most important in creating a learning environment between student and teacher, parent and children, younger and older siblings, whatever the relationship may be, is a profound bond between the characters involved and a thorough understanding of one and another.

— Fahim Ferdous Promi

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