Trust Relations and Philosophical Investigations

To advocate that the conduct of schooling, and other things, should be conceived in terms of trust relations and not truth statements is not to say that teachers and others in schools should conduct ordinary language philosophical investigations. It is to say that they should conduct investigations into the actual and potential trust relations in the evolving practices of schooling and its curriculum. While examining what we say and helping others become more proficient in saying the appropriate things in specific curriculum and social contexts are the stuff of schooling, it is what we do and particularly how to do it best that is the subject of such an investigation. That investigation is not the province of philosophers of any kind, let alone philosophers of education, but of practitioners and researchers. Natural philosophers, for example, are a supposedly extinct species.

A philosophical investigation of trust relations is undertaken to clarify prevailing confusions or gain new insight into existing practices. This latter feature of philosophical investigations involves attending to aspects or relations previously overlooked or misunderstood. It may be undertaken with a view to improving a particular aspect of a practice.

A teacher investigates trust relations current in a practice to identify efficient and effective examples to help students become more proficient in doing those selected things of which the trust relations are a part. Teacher education includes the outcomes of philosophical investigation, such that the teacher understands the concept of what it is that they are doing and why. The bulk of teacher education includes the results of previous teacher investigations into what to do, how, when and with what that constitute the curriculum, method and supporting resources. A part of teacher education includes (but often not explicitly) a politics of schooling in the form of a conception (received view) of ‘this is what we do and why.’ Making this received view contentious and a matter for consideration for teachers is a political, not philosophical, task with a relevant argument based on competing sets of assumptions. The philosopher as social sage should be as extinct as the Delphic Oracle.

Given the general observations above, now is as good a time as any to chance my arm and indicate what might be an investigation in the philosophy of education and what might be a teacher investigation of the same teaching situation. Clearly, there are major differences between the two in terms of timing, urgency and consequences. The philosophical investigation is likely to be long-term and open to revision in the light of matters requiring reconsideration. Whether a philosophical investigation is put on hold for a time in order to deal with other more urgent matters is open to consideration. Consequences of a philosophical investigation may be a series of teacher education lectures sometime in the future, a conference presentation of work in progress, or a publication some years away as a contribution to an ongoing literature on the topic. Other consequences may include personal satisfaction for the investigator, professional recognition and a better understanding of teaching by those concerned with schooling and education. A teacher’s investigation is likely to be short-term with a requirement to be decisive. The teacher’s investigation has an urgency driven by the need to act on the results in the next day or two. The consequences of the teacher’s investigation include the provision of an educational experience for the students and the intended cognitive benefits students gain from the teaching informed by the investigation. Other consequences may include teacher satisfaction and student wellbeing. However, the basic differences are the outcome of the investigation and the considerations leading to that outcome.

A philosophy of education investigation of an exemplar teaching situation is intended to produce a better description of the type of situation in terms of the purpose of the investigation. This outcome may be thought of as a map of the relevant relations of a type of situation. The description may employ new concepts or distinctions, or currently accepted concepts and distinctions employed in a different way to allow the teaching situation to be seen anew. In so doing, it may draw attention to aspects of the situation which hitherto had been ignored or whose significance had not been fully appreciated. This may give rise to a perceived need for further investigation into matters raised. In this, it differs from a sociological investigation that seeks to record the situation as it is using currently accepted concepts and distinctions.

A philosophy of education investigation might seek to contribute to the philosophical consideration of trust relations in society by considering their application in schooling. Over the past thirty years, there has been a substantial increase in interest and in the scope of philosophical enquiry into trust relations. Many more philosophers now are publishing work related to trust, and their attention has moved beyond regarding trust as a moral notion to include areas such as self-trust and general trust. What has yet to happen is a sustained investigation into a moral philosophy based on trust relations that has the potential to overturn the established moral theories. A philosophy of education investigation could explore how schooling might benefit from conceiving of it in terms of trust relations rather than independent truth conditions. A philosophy of education investigation might take some aspect of the philosophical work on trust relations and see how these work out in school settings so that teachers and researchers may understand how better to frame their enquiries.

An example of a philosophical investigation in the context of schooling may be to examine the concept of general trust as applied to schooling in which parents’ trust in their children’s school is higher than theirs and the wider population’s trust in schools in the system more broadly. An investigation may also be undertaken to consider what attendant changes in schooling should be sought as benefits flowing from seeing the educational situation in trust relation terms. One anticipated benefit may be a change in expectation of and by students from passive acceptance to active participation in the educative experience in classrooms. A philosophical investigation could take a philosophical account of knowledge justified on the basis of trust relations rather than a truth condition. This is to provide a trust relation account of what a teacher should consider in making and justifying a judgement that a child or a class knows what has been taught.

A teacher investigation of an actual teaching situation is intended to produce a decision as to what the teacher and students are to do on Monday. The investigation normally employs the teacher’s tried and tested concepts and distinctions to allow the proposed teaching situation to be seen clearly. It may draw the teacher’s attention to aspects of the situation that may need monitoring and consequent action with appropriate resources made available. Matters may arise in the teacher’s investigation that give rise to questions for further investigations about the accepted decision-making framework, the facts of the situation, or the appropriateness of the methods or resources employed. Each type of investigation should inform the other. Part of the process of conducting a teacher investigation in a particular situation may be to assess the fit or appropriateness of the outcome of a philosophical investigation. This may result in a short-term adjustment to the way the teacher thinks about the situation or may result in a long-term adjustment to the way the teacher thinks about the task of teaching. Significant as this is, there is no suggestion that classroom teachers should be philosophers of education (or researchers).

A teaching situation: Year 9 (2 lessons)

The making of the modern world 1750–1914: Australia’s federal constitution

Although these lessons are located in the Australian History Curriculum, they are intended to do more than teach history, i.e., what happened in 1900 and why. The lessons include Civic Education, what political institutions exist and their function in society, and Political Education, how competing interests are identified and accommodated to enable political and administrative decisions to be made. Moreover, the lessons are intended to provide an opportunity for students to further develop their critical thinking and creative capacity.

The Australian History Curriculum outlines the lessons thus:

Explore why the authors of the Australian Constitution designed our Parliament to have both a House of Representatives – with representation based on population – and a Senate – with equal representation for the states. This activity invites students to think critically and creatively to write a new constitution.

So what might be a teacher investigation of this teaching situation in terms of trust relations, and how might this differ from lesson preparation usually conducted in terms of truth conditions?

At the school/teacher level, concerns may have been raised by some parents about the perceived partisan political attitudes expressed in the previous lesson about the conditions leading to the entry of the Australian Labor Party into Australian parliaments at the end of the nineteenth century. In preparing these lessons, a teacher may investigate whether what they will present as fact is true and rely on that to assuage parental concerns. A teacher investigation in terms of trust relations may investigate the trust relations between teacher and school administration and between each and the parents of students in the class (not only those who expressed concern). An outcome of that investigation may widen the area for consideration beyond bias in what the teacher presents to the class to include parental concern about students thinking critically and creatively about aspects of their society. The focus of the teacher investigation may not be on the truth of the statements made in a presentation to the class but on what is affecting the parental trust relations and what might be done that would produce a more satisfactory relation. This may require consideration of not only the truth of what is to be presented but also the effect of the teacher’s selection of true statements to produce a contentious outcome for students. It may also include consideration of the likelihood of contentious or combative statements being made by students in the conduct of the set activity. The teacher investigation may involve consideration of general trust relations between parent/s and institutions/schools as well as trust relations between concerned parents and the teacher on this and other matters.

At the class level, the teacher investigation may include concerns about their own trust relations between some or most of the class arising from confrontations in the previous lesson. These trust relations may focus on personality, the content of the lesson, the conduct of the lesson, or the compulsion for these students to attend school and comply with its requirements. Identification of relevant trust relations and points of difficulty, consideration of what would count as steps to improving those relations, and assessment of the practicality and desirability of taking some or all of those steps, could all be part of the teacher’s investigation based on trust relations. An investigation based on truth conditions would be much more limited.

In preparing the lesson in the light of trust relations, the teacher would do so aware that true statements are the most trustworthy, and that is why they are important in maintaining good trust relations of all kinds. They would do so also aware that many statements made by the teacher cannot be assessed by students or others for their truth and need not be so assessed. What is important is that the students regard the teacher’s statements as trustworthy and have the capacity and opportunity to reassure themselves of this as and when circumstances require. Students require a teacher to be trustworthy in more that, in the statements made, students need their teacher to be a trustworthy teacher and a trustworthy person. Incidental opportunities arise during lessons and out of formal settings for teachers to establish and maintain their trustworthiness in the eyes of their students. Recognition of those opportunities in the preparation and conduct of the lesson is part of being a good teacher. A further feature of teacher investigation in lesson preparation is a shift of focus from what the teacher presents to the class to a focus on the trust relations between the teacher and class and also toward a focus on the trust relations the teacher intends the students to form as a result of the lesson. Instead of the lesson outcome being stated in terms of ‘Students will know it is true that the Australian Parliament has two chambers,’ it may be stated in terms of ‘Students will have the appropriate level of trust in the statement “the Australian Parliament has two chambers.”’ Other intended outcomes, not capable of being cast in terms of truth, may be identified in terms of trust relations, e.g., ‘Students will have the appropriate level of trust that the Australian Parliament was appropriately constituted to accommodate identified competing interests of people living in different States.’ This latter outcome is significant in contributing to the level of general trust in our social institutions – something that is required of a successful society. Another intended outcome may be ‘As a result of engaging in critical and creative thinking in the set activity, students will have the appropriate level of self-trust that they can and should actively participate in the shaping of their society.’

A teacher preparing these two lessons in light of trust relations may make use of the work of philosophy of education investigations grounded in consideration of particular exemplars. Thus, a useful philosophy of education investigation may take a detailed look at the process leading to the inclusion of this topic and lesson outline in an Australian Curriculum intended for implementation in all schools with a view to identifying the relevant trust relations in system curriculum decisions. Another investigation may indicate the trust relations and conditions required for successful teacher/school/community relations. An investigation could present a particular instance of the conduct of a lesson on the bicameral parliament to exemplify the constituent trust relations in play with a view to constructing an argument relating to seeing schooling in terms of trust relations.

It is possible that a result of such investigations will be an articulation of a concept of education in terms of trust relations that can be used to critique the conduct of schooling in particular situations and enlighten teacher education students as they prepare to help children in their care.

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Full Citation Information:
Haynes, B. (2022). Trust Relations and Philosophical Investigations. PESA Agora.

Bruce Haynes

Bruce Haynes, FPESA, FPE, is retired after 34 years in teacher education and 50 years of PESA membership. He is founding member, a past president and fellow of PESA, and been always been active member. PESA honours him and Felicity by holding a named lecture at conference. His 2009 papers, in the Educational Philosophy and Theory special issue, Celebration of PESA 40 years, include Philosophy of Education Society of Australasia: The official record, and PESA and I: A long engagement, tell us a lot more about his contribution to PESA.