What Students Believe

Years ago I was running a summer debate camp and a father of one of the students came to pick up his son. We got to chatting and he asked me what I did for a living. I told him that what I was doing at the camp was what I do for a living. His response was, “No way.” But not like a “No way, how cool is that!?” It was more like a, “There is no way that that is true and I don’t believe you.” It took a while to convince him.

I must admit that it is hard to blame his disbelief. Frankly it was difficult at that time to fill classes and then get students to come back to classes the next year. It didn’t always look like the whole project was going to work out. But thankfully it did, and at this point I don’t have trouble filling classes; if anything I have trouble limiting them. I’ve reflected on that experience periodically and I’ve asked what changed? The answers to that question are a multitude, but it is probably not surprising that the most important change was that I changed. And among the many changes I’ve experienced as a teacher, one seems most important to me of all.

That change is a subject on which I’ve written before, but to which I would like to return and which I would like to reiterate in a different form. That change is that I began to appreciate the importance of, to contemplate, and to attend to the internal environment of the student. To help you conceptualize this idea let me ask a question. What drives student behavior? Certainly there are many answers, but what is the best for what drives student behavior? Is it the personality of the student, the home environment, the class environment, student goals, student habits, etc.? Growing as a teacher is a little bit like being a scientist. You create theories to explain how things are working and you see how well those theories explain what you are able to observe. As I’ve tried out various theories of student behavior over the years, one theory has consistently been able to explain student behavior better than others: student behavior is driven by student beliefs. This framework for approaching students grew out of the fact that I could best understand, explain, and help students change their behaviors when I thought about their behaviors in terms of what they believed to be true. Along the way I also found that education and social scientific research offered significant support for thinking about student behavior in that way.

Consider the following anecdote which I share with permission. I recently had a conversation with a student. She said she was feeling discouraged and it was making some aspects of class difficult. In earlier days, maybe I would have seen any troubling behaviors as a result of her emotional state and so I would have tried to change her emotional state. I would have asked her what was discouraging her, offered her encouragement, and hoped that she felt better. I’m sure I did that exact thing with many students over the years, with limited success.

Asking her instead what she believed, in this case, bore better fruit. What is causing the discouragement, I asked? She feels like no matter how much she works (and she definitely works) she isn’t getting better. Why does she believe that? Because her rankings in tournaments aren’t improving. If those were a non issue would she believe she was improving? Yes. Why? Because people stopped telling her she needed to be more confident when she spoke. Because she feels more comfortable thinking for herself and defending her opinion, even if it is in the minority. In another class, she had a discussion and switched the class to her side even though she started in the minority. She is better at thinking through the issues we discuss in class. Why isn’t that proof that she is improving? She (with misty eyes now) isn’t sure if she is living up to the expectations the people around her have. Is it difficult to deal with that sort of pressure? Yes. She feels a lot of pressure to be a great student and feels like she isn’t measuring up. Does she think that it makes sense that her rankings wouldn’t improve very fast this year given that this year she is competing against students of all experience levels and last year she was competing only against beginners? That makes sense. Could she see the person she is becoming as the more important issue and be patient with the outcomes that person achieves in any given moment? The thought seems to make her happy. It looks like you are feeling a little better? Yes.

Beliefs Beliefs Beliefs. What is giving this student a hard time? She believes that all the work she is doing isn’t getting her anywhere. She believes that the changes she is seeing in herself aren’t meaningful unless they produce a concrete result at tournaments. She believes that she isn’t measuring up for others. She believes that her own evaluation of her own growth isn’t as important as the evaluation of others. This is a student who, earlier in my career, I would have likely lost. She would have been discouraged and I would have never really understood why. I would have felt her disengaging as the year went on and I would have felt entirely helpless to understand or deal with the situation. I would have made up the same lazy excuses about her behavior that adults often make about teenagers (she’s just not motivated, she decided she didn’t care, she just can’t see the benefit of the class, etc.). And then that would have been the last I saw of her.

When I say that one change in myself has really made the difference in my program, that is the change I’m talking about. I started to care about and attend to the internal environment of beliefs within my students.

In the past couple of weeks I count five conversations with students similar to the one above. All just as serious or more so than the proffered anecdote. In the course of a year, I probably have dozens of such conversations with students. This is to say nothing of the beliefs that students write about in their reflection assignments or that they discuss in group settings within class as we process our class experiences. It suggests to me that if students aren’t telling us as teachers what beliefs are getting in their way, it isn’t because they aren’t experiencing those sorts of difficulties. It just means that we don’t see them. And whether or not we see them really matters. Consider how it would change student behavior if students believe-

  • That everyone is watching them waiting for them to mess up
  • That they will inevitably fail to do their homework because that is who they are
  • That the people they love most don’t love them
  • That they were made to be abandoned by their friends
  • That they have to be cool to win the affection of their peers
  • That love is a scarce resource
  • That never doing their best keeps them safe from confirmation of their incompetence
  • They should be able to control their peers
  • etc.

All of these beliefs manifest in student behavior one way or another. From conflict with other students, to an inability to take risks, to a lack of consistent positive behaviors, and more, these beliefs sabotage student success in and out of the classroom. This hypothesis is supported not only by my own observation, but also by a great deal of education research. In the John Hattie MetaX meta analysis of educational influences, right at the top of harmful students influences are issues such as-

If you’ll take a moment to consider, can you see how intertwined those sorts of influences are with what students believe about themselves, those around them, and the world in which they live.

And, of course, on the other hand, students who cultivate healthy and robust beliefs about themselves, those around them, and the world in which they live are benefited by the way those beliefs manifest in their schoolwork. What might a student accomplish if he or she believed-

  • What I am able to do right now is less important than the person I am becoming
  • Nobody gets to ensure that everyone likes them, and they don’t need to
  • It’s ok that I’m human and therefore not perfect
  • I have a good idea of who I am and I like who I am
  • Getting feedback helps me understand where to improve
  • My performance and my value as a person are separate issues
  • I have people I can rely on when I need them and they take my concerns seriously
  • Its ok that I feel bad sometimes because that is part of being human
  • etc.

As I see students cultivate these sorts of beliefs, it is so exciting to see the way they grow and how resilient they become. Just a few weeks ago I had a student who had not completed his homework for a few weeks in a row. I asked him why and he seemed stumped. A thought came to mind based on previous conversations so I asked, “Is it feeling inevitable at this point? Like there isn’t anything you can do about it?” He responded, “Yes. That’s what the evidence says.” I took a minute or two to let him and his whole class know that I didn’t believe that was true about him or any of the students in the class. I told him that I believed that in a year or two he would look back and realize that he had changed so much and gotten so much better and that just about the only thing that would keep that from happening is if he really bought into the belief that he was destined to failure. I’m happy to report that he’s been doing better on his homework and seems a little less discouraged.

So the question is, what are you doing to contemplate and attend to the internal environment of your students? There are so many ways you could do it. It is less important which way you are doing it, and more that you are doing it.

McKay Earl, our Director of Entrepreneurship begins each week in our entrepreneurship class asking students to share their fail of the week as they try to get their businesses off the ground. What a great opportunity to probe what students believe about those failures! When a student is struggling to give a speech, Joseph Holt (our Director of Constitution) likes to have students stop and explain to him how they feel right in the middle of the speech. I try to take students aside for a personal conversation after class if they seem to be struggling. I try to tell students that I love them and that it matters to me whether or not they are happy. I think that if I tell them what I think about them they might be more open to telling me what they think about them. Any of these are good answers!

So what opportunities are built into your routine?

Considering how student beliefs are affecting their class experience doesn’t require the teacher to take the role of a counselor or therapist. Certainly those roles should be left to those with adequate training and experience. But that training and experience isn’t necessary to love students and to think about their beliefs and how those beliefs are affecting their behaviors.

What do my students believe? Of all the things I’ve learned as a teacher, caring about that question has made a bigger impact than all the rest. It has transformed the way I teach and interact with my students because it has changed the way I see my students. I hope that the question can be as impactful for the reader as it has been for me.