I want to camp out on the idea of home life today. Too often, I think we tend to write kids off who meet the following two conditions:
- They've got a tough home life.
- They are not motivated to learn.
When I say “write them off,” I mean one of these:
- We stop trying to teach them grade-appropriate material, and instead try to be their friend or their counselor or a listening ear or we let them read manga all day. Because, c'mon, they've got it hard at home. (This is what Amanda Ripley calls “a perverse sort of compassion.”) OR
- We stop trying to teach them at all. As long as they're in the back and being quiet, we'll let them be.
So: why do we do this? Here's what I think: We assume that sixty minutes in class per day can't overturn what's been wrought by however many years in a tough, demotivating home environment.
Like all of the most dangerous assumptions, there is a thick slice of truth here. My class is not going to magically undo the wear and tear of years of pain or hardship or abuse or neglect. What a self-centered fool I would be (and have been!) to assume otherwise. Our rooms are not the center of our students' universes; we are not omnipotent. The kid who spends one hour with me a day spends 23 hours elsewhere, still living her life.
And yet — and yet! — it's simply not true to suggest that we can't, in our sixty minutes per day, affect the degree to which our students believe the following five key things:
- Credibility: My teacher is good at his job.
- Value: The work we do in this class matters.
- Effort: I can get better at the stuff we do in this class if I try.
- Efficacy: I can succeed at this.
- Belonging: People like me do work like this.
I'm not saying we're guaranteed to cultivate these five key beliefs in the kids who come to our classes from tough homes and no motivation — I'm just saying that we can cultivate them. They are malleable. Dave Yeager is one of many researchers who has demonstrated that key beliefs can be durably influenced in as little as a single class period.
So then: Why are those tough home life/low motivation kids so hard to teach?
From a student motivation perspective, the biggest disadvantage of coming from a tough home is that you miss out on years' worth of belief-cultivation opportunities. In my own home, I look for any chance I can to help my kids believe in their teachers (Credibility), value school and learning (Value), focus on their effort (Effort), think wisely about success (Efficacy), and see themselves as the kinds of people who apply themselves in school and treat others with kindness (Identity). My actions as a parent don't guarantee that my kids will be successful in school or flourish in the long-term, but these actions do, especially when multiplied over years of trying, increase the odds that my kids will believe the five key things in a cemented, durable way before they leave my home.
Do you see it?
First, beliefs are malleable in your classroom, even if no one else in your school cares about them, even if all of your kids come from tough, demotivating home situations. You can cultivate the key beliefs as you teach kids to read, write, speak, and learn.
But second, if you want to create a school or a system that transforms low motivation/tough home life kids into learners, then Job #1 is creating as many belief-supporting contexts in the school day as possible. You want your teachers to understand the beliefs, how they work, how they get undermined inside and out. You want your support staff to understand these things. You want to teach your parents about them. You want the people coaching your sports teams to understand them, and the folks sponsoring your clubs.
And this is because the key to making the beliefs stick — to cementing them in so that they are no longer so context-dependent — is a critical mass of belief-supporting contexts. When kids are inundated with systems and procedures and messages and learning experiences that cultivate these beliefs, tough home circumstances won't be erased, but they will be mitigated. Equity starts here.
Note from Dave: I've made an all-online, schedule-friendly PD course on the key beliefs. If you'd like to learn more, head here.