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Simple Interventions: Birthdays and Belonging

By Dave Stuart Jr.

I've written before about how simple interventions can affect key student beliefs, so we'll add this one to the “simple interventions” list. In 2006, Gregory Walton (Stanford researcher, substantial body of work on the Belonging belief) published a study* with some of his colleagues called “Mere Belonging.” In the study, he highlights the following experiment:

  • Students in Group 1 read a report by a math major, and they were told that they shared a birthday with the math major. (This is the same-birthday condition.)
  • Students in Group 2 read the same report but were shown a birthday for the author that differed from their own. (This is the different-birthday condition.)

The simple intervention mattered. Students in the same-birthday condition

  • persisted 65% longer on an insoluble math puzzle,
  • reported greater math motivation than students in the different-birthday condition, and
  • rated the math department as more warm and fair than did students in the different-birthday condition

Get that last part: sharing a birthday with a math major made it more likely that kids found the entire math department to be more relationally supportive. Nuts.

So what?

Studies like this are most important to me not because of the immediate applications they suggest. I'm not going to rush out and tell all my kids that they share birthdays with achieving superstars, even though I would be curious to see if any of my unmotivated kids share birthdays with achievers. Walton and his colleagues give us reason to think this wouldn't hurt.

The reason studies like this matter is that they help cement in our minds that all of our lessons and interactions matter. Small interactions — in research, interventions — accumulate into belief-supportive contexts. The power of belief-supporting contexts help us understand why home life is important, and also why home life is not the final word on student life trajectories.

So, the point of this post: even though interventional approaches to belief-building are subordinate to contextual ones, Walton and his colleagues show us, once again, that tiny efforts matter. Even though there is so much outside of our control every day, we almost always control far more than we know.

Note from Dave: I've made an all-online, schedule-friendly professional development course on student motivation, and so far half a thousand educators have called it lovely. In the course, I unpack multiple interventional and contextual approaches for affecting each of the five key beliefs mentioned earlier in this post. If you'd like to be part of the course, learn more here.

*Thank you to Greg Walton, Geoffrey Cohen, David Cwir, and Steven Spencer. I accessed their study here.

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