Why Trust is so Important for Effective Teaching

As children and adults, much of our knowledge comes from learning from other people – parents, teachers, peers, mentors and others – which affects our view of the world, the quality of our knowledge and how well we solve problems. So in order to be effective teachers and parents, it’s important to understand how children extend trust in others. Generally, people assume that young children, like sponges, will believe whatever they’re told, regardless of the source. My research in the Institute of Child Development (ICD) at the University of Minnesota’s College of Education and Human Development explores whether children are less credulous than we assume and, in fact, are selective in whom they learn from based on whether they trust the source, also referred to as selective trust or selective learning.

Funded by the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, our research has focused on children ages 2-5 years old. In one study, children were initially introduced to two people. One person consistently named objects correctly while the other person was consistently inaccurate. The children were able to identify the person who named the objects correctly and the person who did not. Then they were presented with three novel items with made-up names (i.e., ‘a fep’) that the children were not familiar with. The children were asked which person they would like to ask about the new objects. Or, in other words, who would you like to learn something new from? More often than not, they chose the person who consistently identified the objects they knew correctly. The study showed that children prefer to learn new information from people with a history of accuracy and are quite discerning about who they get their information from.

Trust and Teaching Go Hand-in-Hand

In the classroom, children are typically ready to learn and accept what a teacher tells them. However, there are certain cues and characteristics that will lead children to question or doubt the source. For example, if a teacher seems hesitant when providing information or is ambiguous in their responses, a child will be less likely to trust and retain what that teacher tells them in the future. A teacher can establish trust by speaking with confidence and providing accurate information with conviction. Teachers who repeat and build upon what has been said in the past by others (or by themselves) also signal their trustworthiness to children. Through our research, we’ve found that any negative evidence will weigh more against a person than the positives, which profoundly influences who a child chooses to trust. Current projects are examining the role played by early positive relationships to see whether selective learning begins with trusting relationships both at home and in the classroom.

Children as young as preschool age use the same characteristics that a rational adult would use when judging the reliability of an information source. Even at 24 months kids can “keep track” of the reliability of speakers. Another related research topic I’m currently delving into is how maltreatment at home affects a child’s willingness to trust others in learning environments. I’ll share my findings in future blog posts.


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Melissa Koenig

About the Author

Melissa Koenig, Ph.D.

  • Associate Professor
  • Institute of Child Development
  • College of Education and Human Development
  • University of Minnesota

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