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.

7 thoughts on “Bruce Schneier, trust, teaching, and my daughter’s school

    1. I’m led to believe that many Montessori schools are averse to accepting kids past age 6 or so if they have not already had Montessori experience. I’m not clear on the policy here. I do know a kid who started there in mid-elementary, but I’m not sure of his earlier educational background. It looks like the application forms solicit information that would probably allow them to make that determination, but don’t require applicants to older grades to have actually been in Montessori schools.

      A lot of Montessori schools are only for preschoolers, of course, which renders the point moot. Ours goes through 8th grade but loses quite a lot of kids at kindergarten and 1st, when lots of other schooling options open up.


  1. I’m torn on Montesorri schools. I definitely feel like if you’re going to go that route, you go that route until you’re done with it (which is, I think around here, often 6th grage). And there are some fabulous things about it, as you point out, for development in the social range. Development that is VITAL to the academic success this culture values so highly.

    But I think it’s too easy to find the schools that aren’t true Montessori schools, or who follow the theory loosely. Leaving you with schools that are all about independent play, without offering enough framework for developing those social skills. (I know of some schools that encourage independent play to the point of isolated play – one student, one thing at a time, put away one toy before playing with another every time.

    I am particularly interested in schools (preschools, given my life at the moment) who use a “Tools of the Mind” approach, which shares a lot of overlap with, but is also somewhat different from Montessori theory. (You’re probably familiar with it, but here’s a link:

    Unfortunately, the only preschool around here I can find that advertises that they use this method is in Seattle, a good 30min drive away, which isn’t exactly a good fit for a 2-hr-a-day preschool session which we would start with. There’s one close (5min!) by that follows more of a reggio emilia philosophy ( which is similar, but we’re on a waiting list…


    1. “Montessori” isn’t trademarked, etc., as I understand, so there isn’t actually a restriction on who can use it, hence, yeah, a lot of variability in how people implement it. I think there’s an accrediting organization, so that’s the thing to look for.

      And yeah, tools of the mind is pretty cool 🙂 Too bad it’s so far away.


  2. In Chapter 9 he suggests that Elinor Ostrom’s Nobel-winning work on how to manage tragedy-of-the-commons situations also “serve[s] as a primer for effective institutional pressure:

    Everyone must understand the group interest and know what the group norm is.
    The group norm must be something the group actually wants.
    The group must be able to modify the norm.
    Any institution delegated with enforcing the group norm must be accountable to the group, so it’s effectively self-regulated.
    The group must be able to develop its own institutional pressure and not have it imposed from outside the group.

    There are a few more, not quite as inapplicable. But surely it’s obvious that these requirements — when applied to students, school rules, and their enforcement — are actually farcical.


  3. Every school has a culture; some are just more intentional and thoughtful than others. This has been brought home to me in a huge way through my recently-initiated (and ongoing) experience in teaching a weekly class to homeschoolers, and young homeschoolers at that. Coming from a conventional schooling experience, I have an expectation that classrooms are teacher-oriented places in which students are quiet unless asked to be noisy and wait patiently for instructions before doing anything. This is not, you understand, an expectation that I realized I had — until I walked into that classroom and my students left it in broken little shards all over the floor. Many of my students have never had a classroom experience before; none of them have ever been in a conventional classroom; none of them have ever been taught to sit quietly in a seat and wait to be told what to do. (Not that they’re unwilling to do so when asked, mind you, except for one boy with an autism spectrum disorder who brings his own brand of interesting with him, but now he brings his mom with him too, so that helps. It’s just not their default behavior at all.)

    In a way, I totally love who they are and what they know and expect. They walk into a room expecting to explore, to learn, to enjoy. They bring an exuberance to the experience that was completely lacking in my public school experience. They also make me feel like teaching them is an exercise in herding cats, or maybe butterflies. Or maybe I’m herding butterfly-chasing cats. My introverted self walks out of the classroom after one hour absolutely exhausted, happy to have survived, counting down the weeks until I will be free of this responsibility.

    And yet, somehow, I come home dreaming of how I can do it better in the fall. Smaller class size. (Current class size is 11.) A smaller range in ability level. (My current class goes from “well, she can count to 10….” (4yo) to “he’s doing fifth grade math at home” (7yo) Multi-level teaching, OMG!!!! This is probably far more critical than the class size, but the current problems compound each other.) A longer session, so I can have time to work on classroom culture. (The norm is a 10-week session; the current session is only 6 weeks.) And some thoughts about what I want my classroom culture and lesson structure to be, so that I know what classroom culture I’m aiming for. I love these kids; their enthusiasm for math is wonderful, and I want to grow that, not stifle it — but if they’re all talking at once, they can’t hear anything I say, even in response to their questions, and it makes me want to run away and hide my head under a rock until all of humanity goes away.

    So anyway, yeah. Every school has a culture. I like the Montessori approach a lot, and want to borrow from it extensively in what I do with my class(es) in the fall, and if you have any pointers on how to do that in a one-hour weekly class from what you’ve seen of your daughter’s school, I am all ears.



    1. I’m not enough of an expert to comment usefully (you’d probably find it fascinating to sit in on one if you can swing it) but here are some things I’ve seen:

      1) A lot (a lot a lot a lot) of hands-on stuff. Kids get initial lessons in how do use the activities, and then they practice independently, making their own choices as to what they want to be working on (with some guidance from teachers if necessary, especially in introducing new skills). The objects often have a self-correcting nature, so kids can get useful feedback without a teacher’s being present. This diminishes the herding-cats problem; when many kids are absorbed in the activities they’re doing, you don’t need to be organizing a whole room so much as intervening in specific situations which would benefit (for whatever intellectual or behavioral reason) from an adult.

      2) Routines. Oh my gosh routines. There are routinized ways of interacting with the works — get a mat, unroll mat, get work, do work, clean up work, roll up mat, put mat away (and yes they spend time teaching all of these steps — toddlers rolling and unrolling mats as an end in itself = pretty cute). Basically every discrete activity that can be done in the classroom seems to have associated routines that are part of what’s taught when teachers introduce the work. And this holds for social interactions too — the peace table at which there are particular habits of addressing conflict, the way kids practice walking around other kids’ mats so as not to disturb their work, et cetera.

      Obviously this is a LOT of overhead for something you’re doing an hour a week and as such not really practical. But the idea of hands-on materials can be adapted, if you can get a lot of them. And rather than having rules or expectations geared at cat-herding (a la the traditional schooling model) it might be more effective and profitable to have rules geared toward how we respect one another’s work, personal space, learning needs, etc.


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