Recently, my students gave me a boost in teacher morale through their completion of a simple intervention that I believe supports the value, belonging, and credibility beliefs. (These are three of the five key beliefs that I write about in Chapter 2 of These 6 Things; I overview the beliefs in this blog post.)
The morale boost came from the fun things I learned about my students, such as:
- “I want to leave my mark on the world, however small it may be. My mind is constantly chugging along, trying to decide which of the infinite problems of the world it should try to solve next. I'm currently working on geopolitical, transportational, and dairy farming issues.”
- “My mother and my father have taught me to always stay humble but to know when to stand up for what I believe in.”
- “My character is more important to me than my athletic abilities.”
- “I'm an admirer of the wonders that come from nature.”
In each one of these instances and a dozen or so more, I was surprised at the depth in some of my students that I had barely suspected before.
The thing is, the simple intervention wasn't aimed at my morale; it was aimed at theirs.
The values affirmation intervention that I used is simple but well-informed. It's what social psychologists call a “wise intervention,”* which Stanford researcher Geoffrey Cohen describe as “theoretically informed and precisely targeted,” that “even while small can have lasting effects.”**
Let's look at what the values affirmation intervention is, how researchers think it works, and why it matters.
What is the values affirmation exercise?
The exercise is as simple as 1-2:
1) Students look at a list of values and identify several values that they hold.
2) Students then write why these 2-3 values are important to them.
Here's one sample from a student:
Honestly, it can all seem a little boring. Let's take a look at how it works.
How researchers think the values affirmation exercise works
Wise interventions get so much attention in the education-meets-social-psychology space because they have abnormally large effects on students years after they are administered. In the case of the values affirmation exercise, researchers followed students for two years afterwards, and they found that African American children who had received the intervention did better in their grades for the two (and in one case three) years that the study followed them. Importantly, these improvements led to a significant reduction in the achievement gap. (For an extensive review of this study and related ones, see Cohen, G.L., & Sherman, D.K. .)
In a video interview, Cohen suggests that perhaps “being given the opportunity to affirm an important source of value in a threatening context might actually be a big experience, like a sort of water on parched soil effect.”
“For all of us,” Cohen continues, “school or work can be chronically threatening. The problem comes when the threat becomes too intense. What [the work of various researchers] has shown is that regardless of the actual prejudice in the school environment, the perception that I could be negatively stereotyped or discriminated against can cause stress, and very subtle cues can bring about this stress.”
This phenomenon, which the research literature frequently labels “stereotype threat,” is a critical example of how fear so ruthlessly diminishes learning. And notice how these fears can exist in our classrooms despite even our best efforts!
“Fear is the mind-killer,” writes Frank Herbert in Dune. Indeed.
And rather than telling students not to fear, which any parent knows is rarely effective, the values affirmation exercise allows students to affirm something of deep importance to them in a setting that may be threatening.
Why the values affirmation intervention matters
I've shared several other simple interventions on this blog over the years:
- Build Connections (this is different than my homemade “Moments of Genuine Connection” strategy)
- Shared Birthdays
- Preventing symptoms of depression by teaching kids that people can change
The thing with all of them is that they can't be merely chucked at kids. Just like Doug Stark's brilliantly spiraled Mechanics Instruction that Sticks series of warm-ups, results will vary based on the user's skill and thoughtfulness. Even Cohen, co-author on the values affirmation intervention featured in today's post, shares that “there's a lot of stuff under the hood in the preparation of these things. We're not just throwing the intervention at them.” These aren't things to be chucked at kids; like all things non-silver-bullet, they require study and practice.
So why, then, are these simple and “wise” interventions worth our time and attention?
Because they kill fear. They cultivate the key beliefs. They combat oppression. And they can make our work as teachers so much richer and more fulfilling.
*Here's a journal article explaining wise interventions.
**Here's the video interview in which Cohen makes this statement.
If you'd like to study wise interventions in the context of the five key beliefs, consider registering for the Student Motivation Course. To date, over 600 educators from around the world have experienced this all-online, schedule-friendly PD. Once you register, you have access for life. Learn more, and register, here.
Jane Wisdom says
Hi, Dave! I love your weekly newsletter and resources! In this article the links to characterlab.org come up 404 Error. Do you have the new links for the Value Affirmation resources? Thanks so much!
Samantha Heitke says
I found it here. https://characterlab.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/grit_myvalues.pdf
Jane Wisdom says
Great, thanks so much!
Dave Stuart Jr. says
You both rock — thank you! I’ve got the links updated above now too.
Heather Wetzel says
Hello, Dave! Once again I find you on the same “page” that I am on. I am reading “Distracted” by James Lang and learning of the importance of values affirmation. As I was planning an exercise, I was looking for a resource to use, and here it is! Also, it really was an honor to get to visit with you last week as you visited Wyoming. Best to you (and all of us) as we begin this new school year!