The older a student gets, the quicker they're likely to disqualify themselves from what you're up to.
- “Oh, we're doing a math problem? I'm bad at math.” Disqualified.
- “Oh, this teacher likes writing? Not me.” Disqualified.
- “Wait, the gym teacher wants us to run? I can't run. I'm out.” Disqualified.
- “Wait, all my teachers are white? Must be school's not a place for people like me.” Disqualified.
It doesn't stop at adulthood, either. You and I self-disqualify, too.
- “This is a literacy training? I teach science. Time to check my email.” Disqualified.
- “Today's PD is about MTSS? Sounds irrelevant. I've got papers to grade.” Disqualified.
Self-disqualification is a function of the Belonging belief, which is one of five key beliefs to human motivation. Starting in adolescence, the mind becomes keenly interested in identity-context fit. In each new context, a deep part of us asks:
- Do people like me do things like this, in places like this, with people like this?
- Do I fit here?
When we resolve these questions, the finite resources of the mind, heart, and will are freed up to focus on the work at hand.
When we don't, it's like we're running an application in the background of our mind, using up RAM and battery.
- Do I fit?
- Am I being judged?
- Are my setbacks because I don't belong?
These are like running with weights but without any of the strength or endurance benefits. They're like not shutting your computer down for fear of losing the 100 open Google Chrome tabs you've collected in the past month. (Not that I know what that's like.)
The good news is that there are really simple methods for mitigating self-disqualification — for helping the folks in your care to believe that they fit. Some quick ways to start doing this:
- Use diverse examples in your instruction. Identity is multifaceted and therefore the way we think about diversity must be, too. But the examples we use do matter — no two have an equal effect. Don't make this a weight on your shoulders; make it a palette of paint.
- Create Value in your lessons by drawing from a broad palette of rationales and hooking angles. Try the utility of writing one day, the beauty of writing the next, and the power of writing the following. Use Build Connections once in a while.
- Make the implicit explicit. For example, teach students how to study effectively — don't just tell them to study. When we assume that all of our students know how to do well what we want them to do well, we make our less confident students more likely to self-disqualify: “I've tried studying before. It never works. People like me just don't benefit from studying.” But when we make effective study methods explicit — e.g., those described by Pooja Agarwal — the act of studying seems instead like a manageable thing for a greater swath of your students: “Oh. I could do that.” Easy way to remember this: John Wooden taught his college basketball players how to put on their socks and tie their shoes.
- Share birthday buddies. Birthday traditions help with Belonging when they're done carefully (here's the one I've done most years of my career), but when you can show students someone in a discipline related to yours with whom they share a birthday, it packs a special pop — more on that, and the research behind it, here in this “Birthday Buddies” post.
Like all of the five key beliefs, Belonging is a powerful force for motivation in any setting. These things help us to cultivate it in our students.
Belonging in ourselves? That's another blog post. But as a teaser, it helps to realize that when you're struggling with Belonging you're biased toward interpreting negative events as reflective of your ill fit.
Knowing that can help you disrupt the loop of attributing negative events to your fit in a given place.
I'll write more on this as I'm able.