This past year in Philadelphia, we experienced a few exciting and memorable sports victories that brought people together and redefined our underdog status as joyous and hopeful. But they weren’t without challenges. As we saw with our Philadelphia 76ers (Sixers) basketball team, trusting the process is hard, especially when boxed out by convention and the standard of winning. It is so difficult, in fact, that the Sixers management fired Samuel Hinkie, the former General Manger and President of the Sixers, before the process was borne out. He spent many years putting together a thoughtful puzzle of talent, only to have his strategy questioned often. This slow and steady journey, where he often asked for our patience and trust, resulted in a strong and successful team. Now, our city proudly proclaims and echoes their refrain, "Trust the Process." The Sixers are now set up to succeed as they go forward —clearly a greater outcome than any short-term gains.
“Trust the Process” makes us recognize that a societal norm or “what we always do” is not always the most productive method, and that disruption to routine can be powerful. It also reminds us about the value in trust, the firm belief in the reliability, truth, or strength of someone or something, and in process, a series of actions or steps taken in order to achieve a particular end, allowing a greater outcome to take shape.
This motto makes me think about my work as an educator and a parent. In my 30 years in schools and 20 years as a mother, I have grown firm in my belief that we should not only trust each young person’s unique process of learning and growing, but also place our trust in them. Their voices and thoughts matter, and they need to know this. The Sixers’ “Trust the Process” was about building long-term success by investing now in the hopes of payoffs later. Trusting teenagers today may seem like you’re missing an opportunity to stave off problems or breaches in the short term, but the self-worth and confidence gained will pay off for the rest of their lives.
Why should we trust teenagers?
Often, there is a disconnect in how adults perceive teenagers’ lives and what their lives are actually like. There is a gap between what we believe our young people are capable of doing on their own and their actual capabilities. There are many studies about how trust in the classroom positively impacts students, but the reality is that as a society, we aren’t used to treating teenagers as individuals with mature, complex, and significant ideas and perspectives.
Today, though, our young people are being confronted with adult challenges. They are charged with managing academic, family, and social expectations, and they know more and have deeper feelings than some might imagine. They follow current events, consume a wide variety of media and are accruing valuable life experience that is often accompanied by strong emotions. If we stay out of the way and offer trust when they are curious, want to try something new or take a stand, we can enable bold and important learning and promote independent inquiry and action. We want young people to know that their thoughts matter, and that they matter.
Trust in our teenagers also means allowing them to have the opportunity to solve problems on their own and work through issues using dialogue and input from peers and teachers alike. They can learn a great deal about themselves and the world around them when allowed to navigate adversity without, or with minimal, adult intervention.
I believe we should all be focused on making trust in our young people ever-present within our curriculum and communities. Here’s how we can promote habits of heart and mind that put authentic and consistent trust into our next generation of leaders, innovators, caretakers, and curators.
1. Let young people lead and stay out of their way!
Across the country, we have seen teenagers respond to conflict with thoughtful and peaceful protest and debate. They read, research, form opinions, and have discussions – with or without the guidance of adults. They recognize that the future is theirs to shape and approach doing so with imagination and vision.
Earlier this year, I watched with interest as our high school students planned gun reform protests and discussions, collaborating with other schools and communities, organizing speakers and online campaigns, and inviting the media to spread the word. Not only did they plan walkouts, but they also did their homework. They researched facts and laws, developed solutions and compromises, interviewed victims, families, and neighbors, and boldly asked questions that tested prevailing practices, laws, and beliefs. I spoke with students who were concerned about making space for divergent views, opinions, approaches, and expressions. They cared about being inclusive of all voices and ideas without being told to do so.
Great learning can happen if we, as educators and parents, guide instead of demand, provide advice instead of tasks, and help strategize rather than dictating actions. Let teenagers bet on themselves, and stay out of the way!
2. Let teens choose their own adventure.
Educators and parents often speak about young people finding their passion. This is hard to accomplish with consistent direction, prescribed curriculum, and busy schedules. One way we can help is to trust teenagers in making decisions about what they want to learn about. Giving them the power to pursue their interests will yield genuine discovery of what that passion might actually be. Plus, having the freedom to explore one’s interests can translate to greater ownership over one’s learning and, ideally, result in deeper learning.
At my school, we have a found a few successful ways to show trust in student exploration, and encourage self-discovery and independent study. One example is our Directed Independent Study (DIS) program in which high school students can choose to learn about a topic that sparks their curiosity beyond the regular curriculum. This deep dive allows students to explore potential college majors or future careers, understand specific conflicts or political issues, or discover local or global cultures.
For younger students, we can provide supervised but unscripted opportunities to tinker and create using simple materials or explore technologies and their possibilities. Adults provide the scaffolding to recognize a problem so children can devise a solution. While still providing structure, this means trusting them to determine their steps and build their own process, rather than dictating their path. Students can also lead a fundraising, sustainability, or justice project, devising their own solutions for a larger community problem.
The experience of planning an independent project and seeing it through to completion is invaluable in helping young people take responsibility for what and how they learn. These independent exercises can be modified and implemented to fit different school schedules and cultures, and their philosophies can be used at home to promote individuality and self-expression.
Trusting young people to follow their interests and instincts will incite a love of learning. Let them try, test, discover, and get their hands dirty.
3. Let teens lead dialogue and solve their own conflicts with peers.
Parents and other caring adults can be helpful in guiding discussions and supporting conflict resolution during complex issues. Most of the time, however, teenagers can be trusted to solve problems among their peers, and generate strong, effective dialogue. Young people have the capacity for openness, honesty, inquisitiveness, and empathy, and want to develop harmonious solutions. If we let teenagers lead discussions about people and cultures, race and identity, policy and politics, they can learn about how words, ideas, change, power, and laws have cause and effect. If they teach one another about their families, communities, experiences, and struggles, students can gain perspective and find common ground. When teenagers connect to one another, and to their communities, they can shatter barriers and decrease fear.
At school, I’ve seen our high school students organize teach-ins to discuss timely and important topics with their peers, planning and leading programming on their own. It is important to provide platforms for teenagers to learn from and teach one another, encouraging connection, honesty, problem-solving, self-analysis, and cultural awareness.
For younger students, our school offers a program called “Feedback” that teaches kids to have respectful, face-to-face dialogue with their peers. Once a week, in a circle, students give positive or constructive feedback to their classmates. Students who agree to receive feedback cannot respond or interrupt, promoting deep listening. Students become comfortable talking about their feelings, experience the joy of giving compliments, and learn the value of careful listening rather than moving too quickly to craft a response. Students remember and embrace this communication tool well into adulthood.
While Feedback is a formal program, the idea is something that can be implemented in different ways, in various settings in school or at home, and can be used for different ages and backgrounds. Offering young people a platform to speak and have their voices matter can make a difference in their learning, relationships, and leadership ability today and years to come.
Allow young people to speak, listen, and ask questions. Give them the chance to lead and guide. Let them self-improve. Step aside and give them a chance to connect.
What if teenagers break adult trust?
A teenager who has violated the trust of a respected adult will remember the feeling of letting them down and will be less likely to do so again. When trust is broken, provide appropriate consequences, but also work to renew it. Always offer hope and confidence that we can all do better; we can all learn.
Taking risks allows young people to grow and stretch their minds and talents. Making mistakes offers a chance to improve. It helps teenagers to know that even when experiencing failure, they are loved and supported, and we are always there for them.
I hope trust can become as ingrained in the education of our young adults as it is in basketball here in Philadelphia. By trusting teenagers and honoring their learning process, we can begin to learn from the collection of voices that we are counting on to lead our future.