Abbe personifies a lot of the habits and traits I want my students to cultivate: working hard each day, maintaining a great attitude, treating others with kindness, keeping track of her work and completing it with care, asking questions when she has them, appreciating a challenge, and on and on. If my classes were filled with kids like Abbe, I would not need to be very good at teaching. I could almost just show up, put some assignments or concepts out, and say, “Go. Learn. Master. I'll be here if you have any questions.” If only…
Unfortunately, we too often stop the line of thinking right there. It's true, but it's incomplete. It makes us miserable. Because we think, “Well, that'd be nice to teach all kids like Abbe, but it's just not the way the world works. After all, there's home life and socioeconomics and student motivation and social media and… Some kids just aren't motivated to learn.”
But what if the traits that Abbe exemplifies were possible to improve in all of our students? If we could get better at targeting those things, wouldn't it be possible to promote the long-term flourishing of kids with significantly less effort?
That was my thinking five years ago when I started rigorously wondering about a few questions:
- What in the world makes a kid like Abbe act like she does?
- Is that “what in the world” something I can cultivate in all students?
These questions led me on what became the most significant research project of my career so far.
I read as widely as I could — educational psychologists, cognitive scientists, prize-winning economists, best-selling journalists, practicing teachers — and I experimented aggressively with what these people taught me, trying things out with my students. For years, I thought it all had to do with character; I would weave character into every workshop or keynote that I could, even if they were on literacy, because I knew that the best literacy instruction can't magically solve for bad attitudes and rough home lives. I was sharing good stuff, but the things I had gleaned from my reading had a major flaw: they lacked coherence, a sense of how it all works together. They were too complex to be manageable and practical in my work as a busy classroom teacher.
The coherence came when I started finding, in some of the most robust treatments of the research available, a thick throughline: belief. What I found is that when you dig all the way down, the things that make Abbe such a breeze to teach aren't isolated to her upbringing or her home life or her IQ or even her character.
Rather, Abbe is the way she is in my classroom because of what she believes about learning.
A few things from the research, quick, before I jump into the actual key beliefs:
- Beliefs — truths held at the heart level, truths that shape our behavior — are malleable. They can change.
- On the one hand, this malleability is bad news. You don't do a growth mindset intervention and then ever after kids believe that their effort matters. You don't scaffold a learning experience so that a kid succeeds at a challenge and then ever after the kid believes they can succeed. Beliefs change. There's no one and done.
- On the other hand, this is great news. It means that you and I have the power — and the research supports this — to affect student beliefs about learning in our classrooms. It means we don't need to make excuses for why all the kids aren't like Abbe — we can just patiently, professionally work toward helping them all believe helpful things about school, focusing on what we can control and mitigating what we can't.
- The key academic beliefs are heavily influenced by context. The research demonstrates that it's common, for example, that a student might highly value learning in third hour and find learning pointless in fourth hour. Something about that third hour class makes the beliefs easier of the student, and something about the fourth hour makes them harder.
- The key beliefs are powerful — they predict the degree to which our students 1) do the work of learning and 2) do it with care.
So specifically, there are five malleable, powerful, key beliefs that we want to help all our kids cultivate:
- My teacher is good at her job. (Credibility — this is featured in John Hattie's meta-analysis)
- I belong in this class with these people. I'm one of them. (Belonging — this, and the rest of the list, is featured in Camille Farrington's review of over 400 pieces of research literature)
- I can improve my knowledge and skill through my effort. (Effort)
- I can succeed here. I can do this stuff. (Efficacy)
- This work is valuable to me. (Value)
Credibility, Identity, Effort, Efficacy, Value — these five beliefs are highly malleable in our classrooms, and they create the drive in our students that we long for. They are the source of Abbe's superpowers. Whatever our tack is toward long-term flourishing — helping kids master course material, developing lifelong literacy skills, cultivating critical thinking, practicing healthy habits, or contributing positively to society — it all starts with key beliefs.
It's so important that right now I'm working on a limited-enrollment, teacher-friendly, all-online professional development course on this topic. You can learn more here.