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Belief Drives Behavior

By Dave Stuart Jr.

The most significant thing I've learned about teaching in the past year is this: belief drives behavior. It sounds hokey, but it's actually the distillation of what I've come to find as the most actionable, robust takeaways from the vast research around noncognitive factors (or social-emotional skills or SEL or character or soft skills or life skills or… oh, the terms). If you've been reading the blog for a while, you've seen my search for the intangibles that underly our lesson plans and school years as I've written about character strengths, growth mindset, curiosity, grit, and so on.

Every teacher in the world works on these intangibles, but few of us have a simple way of summarizing them. And that's what I've been thankful to find in the literature: five key beliefs that act as levers in maximizing the degree to which our students learn and improve in our classes. Quite simply, when students believe certain things — believe them not merely at the “Yes, I intellectually assent to these statements” level but at the “I operate from these statements” level — about the reading or writing or speaking or arguing we ask them to do in our classes, then those activities will reap far more growth than they would otherwise. The right beliefs have a multiplying effect on the kinds of knowledge-rich, argument-steeped curricula we're trying to deliver each year.

Specifically, there are five beliefs that seem to matter a great deal:

  1. I believe in my teacher. Again, this sounds so hokey, but it's vetted by John Hattie's Visible Learning, which is also known as the largest analysis of the educational research literature ever conducted. In Hattie's work, this “I believe in my teacher” thing is called teacher credibility. When we can say with confidence that “this teacher is good at her job,” it's easier to listen, easier to learn, easier to muster the gumption required to grow.
  2. I belong in this academic community. This belief, and the three that follow, is taken directly from Camille Farrington et al.'s Teaching Adolescents to Become Learners, a critical literature review written for teachers about noncognitive factors. Belonging affects everything from the amount of days that our students come to school to the degree to which they identify themselves as the type of person to do the work our classrooms require. Basically, it's easier to do things that line up with how we fancy ourselves: if I fancy myself a reader, I won't need to put too much effort into getting myself to read; if I think of myself as someone who doesn't read, however, I'll certainly find it difficult to want to read or to read effortfully. In short, we need our students to affirm that “people like us do things like we do in this class.”
  3. My skills and knowledge in this course can improve through my effort. A big part of this one is Carol Dweck's growth mindset, but it's also about what students attribute their successes or failures to. When we believe that some people are just born good at school and others aren't — when that's our highest internal principle for how school works — then there's not much incentive to work hard. “If I'm to get better, then it's up to me.”
  4. I can succeed at this. Commonly called self-efficacy or confidence, this should ring true to our own experience. When's the last time you were heavily motivated to do something at which you felt there was zero chance of success? I'm not talking about golf, where (at least for me) there's always that 1% chance of success during my annual-or-so game. I'm talking about failure guaranteed. When our students think that they can engage with and enjoy To Kill a Mockingbird, when they think that they might be able to master the concepts of photosynthesis, this belief begins to activate.
  5. This work has value for me. I've come to find that in any group of students there can be dozens of reasons why the work I ask them to do is valuable — one may value it because they enjoy world history or English, another values it because the literacy skills it's developing in them will be useful in their future, and another buys into the idea that hard work is valuable simply because it's hard.

The first belief is inward facing — we never tell the students, “Hey, I'm a great teacher. Believe it.” But the others I've found are both inward and outward facing. I want my students to know that these things are hard to believe, especially when we're taking on challenges, but that's the internal work it takes to knead them into our hearts.

All of us have worked on these things in our classrooms for years. What Hattie and Farrington et al. have done for us is to make them clear, jargon-free statements. Big kudos to them.

4 Responses to Belief Drives Behavior

  1. Sherri July 15, 2017 at 8:08 am #

    In my 35 years of teaching I truly believe that my belief in a student’s ability to succeed and in the student’s belief/trust in the adults around them drive success. The work towards a student’s success can sometimes look very messy, confusing, and frustrating.But in the end it will lead to success. However success can be and look very different for each student..most times it can not be measured with a grade. I believe for children it is every day is a new day, when I can convince them of that and they trust methat I really believe that…the work starts to happen. Thanks for the “hokey” reminder…back to the basics is ok!

  2. Mike White July 26, 2017 at 10:00 am #

    This is exciting! I had an inkling of an idea, over the years, that what I was saying on the first day of school was powerful, about them belonging in my class and about their RIGHT to succeed. This refines my thoughts, and I’ve already begun preparing fresh words to use this year that encompass all five of these. Last year, one of my students came to me quietly and said, “You say you’re here to make us suffer, but really, you do care about us. I see it. You’re not foolin’ me.”

    • davestuartjr August 3, 2017 at 11:38 am #

      That is a good line that you use, Mike — “I’m here to make you suffer.” I love it because of the heart and love behind it. The kids obviously feel like I do.

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