Balancing trust and skepticism

Usha Raman

Classrooms operate on trust. From parents, children, administrations and colleagues. Just as the school operates on trust from these same stakeholders as well as the community at large. As Prakash Iyer writes, in his thought-provoking essay in this issue (and I am paraphrasing here), human beings are essentially social beings, and our relationship with people, society and with the world is predicated on some degree of faith in each other and in the materiality of the world as we see it. But if education is to truly do its job, it must disturb our faith in both the material and the intangible world. It must engender a skepticism that makes us question the assumptions that we inherit from our families, our communities, and institutions we are a part of, and the rules we are asked to follow, particularly if their logic is not clearly laid out. Learning is based on asking questions, but even the process of raising these questions requires a degree of trust. In fact, true questioning and rigorous assessment of the veracity of answers cannot happen in an environment where trust is absent. It is important to distinguish between trust in a system or process and faith in a piece of information. When we speak of classrooms as being spaces of “trust”, it is about the belief that these are spaces where we can speak about and explore ideas freely, where trust in the process of questioning and seeking answers will not be confused with disrespect of individuals or unwarranted suspicion of the system (assuming that these have earned our trust!). So, we can “trust” the teacher to respond to our questions sincerely and honestly, and we can “trust” that our search for understanding will be honoured, even encouraged.

But as we know only too well, skepticism is often confused with arrogance and children who ask questions are often labelled troublemakers. As a result, we learn to go through school accepting everything we read, believing everything the textbook and the teacher says is “true”, and that there is little or no place for a healthy probing underneath the surface of things. Even those who are able to hold on to a spirit of questioning keep it in check lest they attract too much attention from the authorities.

These are complex dynamics and they relate only partially to what we are exploring in this issue of the magazine – the question of fake news or fraudulent information, the idea of verification, and the notion of skepticism. How can we as teachers, in the space of trust that is the classroom, help children productively distinguish between truth and falsity? How can we nurture a healthy skepticism that gets children to follow through and find out for themselves, what is real and what is not?

It’s a lot to think about!