Bruce Schneier, Trust, Teaching, and My Daughter’s School

I used to teach. I taught at an extraordinary, Hogwarts-esque New England boarding school, quite unlike the West Virginia public schools I attended. I’m privileged to have had the opportunity; I learned a tremendous amount from it.

My daughter is in preschool now at a Montessori school. This could scarcely be more different, in culture or structure, from the school where I taught, and I’ve been struggling for years to find ways to articulate the differences. Part of this is that I’ve felt, increasingly, that the Montessori approach to culture is the correct one, but in ways I, frustratingly, cannot name.

Now I’m reading Bruce Schneier’s latest book, Liars and Outliers. If you’re at all familiar with Schneier this is self-recommending. If you’re not, let me recommend it; it is, thus far, a lucid, accessible, but astonishingly deeply and widely researched book on the nature of trust. What are the different ways that we, in society, trust each other? Why do we do this? What are the mechanisms that individuals and societies manufacture to elicit and enforce trust?

As you might imagine, this framework is applicable to a wide range of situations we all constantly encounter — social life and digital surveillance & privacy have come to mind most for me over the first few chapters. And, just now, school.

Schneier posits four basic categories of pressure that encourage trust — that tip the scales, in a game-theoretic frame, from favoring a strategy of defection from group norms to favoring one of cooperation with them. These categories are moral, reputational, and institutional pressures, and security systems. He notes that reputational and institutional pressures primarily apply after the fact; for instance, they do not prevent you from committing a crime, but they subsequently increase the cost of having done so through jail time (or the expense of evading such).

In traditional schools, of course, as teachers, a great deal of our time is spent on incentivizing cooperation with, and discouraging defection from, particular social norms. We call these things like “detention” and “anti-bullying programs” and so forth.

There are, however, two problems that Schneier has prompted me to notice with this approach:

  • One: The levers available to schools are primarily institutional levers. (They can also be security levers, but I found very few people engaged in schools thought in those terms, so in practice those levers didn’t much apply.) In other words, they’re levers whose action applies chiefly after the fact. And the population you’re dealing with — twelve-year-old boys with ADHD, say — isn’t well-known for its ability to consider future consequences in making moment-to-moment decisions. (Humans, of course, almost universally set their discount rate too high, but children generally more so than other humans, and children with executive functioning problems even more so.)
  • These levers exist only within the context of some society. Schools love describing themselves with the word “community”, which is wishful thinking carried to the point of outright offensiveness — adults attempting to impose, by the force of numbers implied in that collective noun, a set of social norms on a group of people who likely had no choice in being there. (It is hard for me to hear the word “community” without looking for the bullies whispering it.) The fact, of course, is that in most schools adults and children do not recognizably belong to the same society, do not participate in the same set of group norms, and do not want to. Adults have a set of norms they would like students to follow, but are not socially integrated enough with them to apply reputational levers or inculcate moral levers (the holy grail for teachers when it comes to discipline, but we so rarely have the tools to do that — and if we did, I fear how we might use them…). The moral and reputational audiences students play to are other students. And, indeed, there is social stigma against being too close to students, too equal to them — against having the sorts of relationships that people who are actually engaged in a common society have, and thus against developing group norms in a way that allows for moral and reputational pressure to be applied.

This is where I come back around to my daughter’s school. The first few years — she spent a year in the toddler room and is now in her second year of the 3-to-6-year-old classroom — spend an enormous amount of time on developing culture. Yes, they also develop fine motor control and phonemic awareness and so on and so forth, but a tremendous amount of time and energy is spent on classroom routines, on the parameters for how we interact as human beings. On culture.

The effect of this is that they can wind the kids up and let them go. And this is crucial for a largely self-paced, self-guided, self-taught curriculum, which Montessori is. If students are to be, to a sometimes very great extent, making their own decisions about what to be working on, and working on it independently, with minimal adult supervision, and this is to result both in actual disciplined learning and in an environment conducive to such, the kids have to have internalized the moral pressures. They have to be exercising prior restraint on themselves.

I do not think it is coincidental that, at her school, adults and kids call each other by their first names. I do not think it is coincidental, either, that many adults entering this environment find that very jarring. We are not used to adults and children, in a school context, participating jointly in social norms.

At the open house, the fourth graders lead the tours, and indeed do most of the job of representing the school to the visiting adults. It is the only school I’ve been to where kids that young are trusted as the public face of so much, with such high stakes. When they, articulately and comprehensively, explained their school to us, they were — without pausing their sentences, without, apparently, noticing — also tidying up the things out of place in the environment. Because joint participation in a society means, also, joint ownership of its physical space. And ownership motivates custodianship. And ownership is something we would never, in most schools, let students have.

Read this book.

Categories: Book Reviews, Liars and Outliers, Text

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.