The key role trust plays in learning

In this Science to Practice video, psychoanalyst and clinical psychologist Professor Peter Fonagy explains why children who have experienced abuse and neglect struggle in educational environments — they simply do not trust the teacher. The ability of a child to learn from a teacher depends on establishing trust. Without trust, there is no learning.

The ability of a child to learn from a teacher depends on that child trusting the teacher — just the same way that a child trusts their parents or other adults. When we trust someone, we open our minds to them, open our ability to learn.

So, when I think about teachers who influenced me, they were teachers who actually took an interest in me, as a person. That somehow creates a key, opens a door on a part of my mind, where I’m willing to learn new things from the person. We call this — the most complicated word to describe the simplest thing — we call this epistemic trust: a trust in knowledge. If I feel understood by you, I’ll open my mind to you, so that you will be able to teach me and I will learn from you about things: mathematics, English, whatever that subject.

What actually turns out from decades of research in education is that children learn best from teachers who have an accurate and individual understanding of them as a person, as a child. A guy called John Hattie did 800 meta-analyses to actually show that this was the case. You’ve heard it right — it’s 800 meta-analyses.

It turns out that what I’ve discovered for myself is that the teacher who gave all of us a book that she especially chose for each of us, was the teacher that we learned most from – all of us in the class. She did that at the end of each term — a book that she chose especially for each of us. It took me – I kid you not – it took me about 18 months in psychotherapy to figure out why I got the book that I got. Then I figured out why. She gave them out randomly. But, at the same time, we all felt recognised by her. We all felt that she treated us as individuals and we all had our minds wide open to her.

So, a child who cannot trust, who cannot recognise when they are being recognised because they can’t mentalize, because they’re so suspicious. They can’t recognise when they’re being mentalized — they’ll close their minds to learning. That’s why children in an educational environment with a history of maltreatment actually struggle so much because they simply do not trust the teacher being there in their interest, teaching them the things that they should learn. They feel that it is something that the teacher is doing for themselves.

We know from the literature out there that children with maltreatment history struggle educationally. They are often excluded from schools because of their behaviour. They change schools. They are more likely to have special educational need. A whole host of trouble in addition to the mental health problems that they develop. Yet there is no cognitive anomaly that under underpins this. It’s simply that the relationship that they are able to develop is not optimal for the capacity for a human being to learn from another human being. That is, I think, in some ways the tragedy of trauma.

Learn more

You can find the Childhood Trauma and the Brain animation and additional resources to support your learning here. This includes a downloadable guidebook, explainer videos, and articles on the research. The animation is also available with Welsh subtitles.

This video was generously funded by the Economic Social Research Council.

Decor Decor Decor Decor Decor Decor Decor Decor