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The #1 Place in School Where Students’ Key Beliefs are Shaped

By Dave Stuart Jr.

I recently came across a substantial “big data” analysis of PISA scores from around the world by the McKinsey group. The data represented over 500,000 students across 72 countries, and from what I can tell they used machine learning algorithms to see what patterns they could find in the data. One of the chief findings harped on a familiar tune to those who've been reading my blog for a while: “mindsets” (what I refer to as key beliefs) were twice as predictive of PISA scores as socioeconomic background, and “having a well-calibrated motivation mindset is equivalent to leapfrogging into a higher socioeconomic quartile” (the study brief is here).

Whether a given study calls them mindsets or dispositions or attitudes or beliefs, this concept is a central thread in the literature these days. In my own classroom and writing, I call them “beliefs,” and I see five key beliefs as being particularly critical components of students who are motivated from the inside out. The five are credibility, belonging, effort, efficacy, and value. (I treat these in the second chapter of my upcoming book, These 6 Things: How to Focus Your Instruction on What Matters Most.)

I've shared before the good news that, even for our students with challenging home lives, these beliefs are remarkably malleable at the classroom level. Over the past decade or so, a growing number of social psychologists have demonstrated that things like growth mindset (the effort belief) and students' sense of belonging (the belonging belief) can be impacted through simple interventions. When you empower a teacher with a robust working knowledge of the five key beliefs, that teacher is able to create classroom contexts in which the beliefs are self-evident to students, thereby markedly improving the degree to which students do the work and do it with care.

I want you to camp out for just a minute on this encouraging pair of truths: the key beliefs are both impactful and malleable and that malleability exists at the classroom level. Woe to us when we underestimate the latent potential in every day of our work, whether it's the day before spring break or the first day of school! I was reminded of this truth recently when I read a piece by a principal at a Jewish day school in Houston. Dr. Paul Oberman spent a day shadowing one of his students (which he wrote about here), and one of the many insights he gained was that “almost everything of consequence in a school happens in our classrooms.”

For Dr. Oberman, this reminded him that he needs “to prioritize classroom time… and hear regularly from students about their experiences [because] students' perceptions are their reality.” For me, I'm reminded that even when I feel misaligned with the latest policy initiatives or edu-fad, I still work with kids in the #1 place in school where key beliefs are shaped: the classroom.

That's really all that I have to say — nothing much new, just more evidence that we're on the right track and doing the right work.

Note from Dave: I have an all-online, schedule-friendly PD course on the five key beliefs. It's called the Student Motivation Course, and I plan to open registration for a limited-enrollment summer session starting in mid-May. Sign up for the “first to hear” list here.

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