Educators tend to focus on what students know in school. We teach, we test, and we intervene if needed. We also take into consideration the social and emotional wellbeing of students, caring about their socialization and their effort. But one of the most foundational factors in a student’s future is often ignored. One thing that, when changed, can literally change the course of a person’s life: their belief.
How often do teachers ask their students, “Do you believe you can be successful with this? Do you think you can do it if you apply yourself?” I have found this is very rare, but it really matters more than much of what we do.
Considering the Research
To take a quick look at some research, we will use Robert Dilt’s Nested Levels of Learning (or Logical Levels, depending on your translation). Dilt takes a psychological and neurological approach to the topic and lists five different areas that need addressing if learning (or belief) is to occur.
The levels begin at the most basic: the environment. In order for a student to learn, they must have an environment that is conducive to learning. Even though this is true, more than this is needed—like a pyramid, the levels build on each other. The second level is behaviors. We can change the behaviors of a student—mainly through rewards or consequences—but again, this isn’t enough to make lasting change. The third level is capabilities. We can teach the student new skills so that they are capable of success. The fourth level is the belief system. This is at the core of the person and comes directly from the fifth (final level): the foundational level of identity. The student may have all that we think they need—the environment, the behaviors, and the capabilities—but unless they believe, which forms their identity, lasting change really isn’t possible.
This model is one of many, so teachers might not agree with it, but we probably all have anecdotal examples of kids who we thought would make it. These kids seemed to have everything the needed in place: grades, work ethic, etc. But if that student doesn’t identify as a high school graduate or a college-bound student, the rest doesn’t really matter. As educators, we don’t understand why a student would choose something like this or throw away a great opportunity. What we don’t know is what the student believed and what they identified as.
The Participation Trophy Debate
As we take the long view with our students, looking at where they want to be in life someday and not just what their current grades are, we see how important knowing a students’ beliefs really is. And sharing beliefs isn’t something that we readily do in our culture. Most students don’t feel like teachers know them well, so they most likely aren’t going to feel comfortable sharing something as deeply personal as beliefs about identity.
There have been times in the past decade when people have bashed the participation trophy culture—the sentiment of this being that we're trying to falsely build up student self-esteem. There could be some truth to this, and sometimes there is overkill, but we know from Dilt’s research that if a student believes they can do things, this belief can impact their identity. Until they see themselves as a person who can go to college or believe that they can get a passing score on the SAT, all the intervention in the world is for naught. So, we give trophies. We give students recognition that their small successes are not just part of making teachers happy, but part of who they are as a person—someone who is successful. This is a teacher’s primary job: to instill hope.
Think of how many times you might have sat in a student meeting and heard a parent say things like, “I wasn’t any good at math either” or “She comes by it honestly, I’m just like that.” These kinds of comments begin to form a student’s identity from early on. The reality might be that a student could be good at math, but they just don’t believe they are (it isn’t who they are) and therefore they don’t succeed at it.
I even fell into this trap myself as a parent recently. My wife and I are not musical at all and cannot carry a tune. We have guided our kids into things that we are good at: sports, academics, reading, etc. When our son came home telling us about a solo in the 5th grade music program, I inwardly cringed. I didn’t see him as a singer because I was never one myself. I was so proud of him for trying and was really taken aback when he did a great job. I had created an identity in him that I hadn’t intended, but through the encouragement of a teacher instilling belief in him that he could be successful, he changed his identity.
The power we have as teachers is profound: the power to help students believe.
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