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The Power of Beliefs

Beliefs are one of the most powerful things in school. Don’t believe me? Students' beliefs in how well they will do is the second highest predictor of student achievement according to John Hattie. The highest factor? Collective teacher efficacy, our teachers’ shared beliefs about their capacity. Shared beliefs within an organization are one of the main drivers of culture. If you’ve followed the work of Allensworth or Hoy, you know that school culture has huge impacts on student learning.

Why are beliefs so important? Because, they shape our behavior. The vast majority of our actions are based on our beliefs--either implicit or explicit. When we believe a student is intelligent, we challenge them. When we believe a student is going to struggle, we provide supports. If we believe bringing snacks to staff meetings makes everyone happier, we bring snacks. If our shared beliefs (culture) frown on staying late at work, then we’re less likely to do so. If they promote working an extra five hours a day, we feel that pressure too.

The problem is that we can’t change someone else’s beliefs. (We rarely change our own.) Talking about beliefs won’t change them. Showing research won’t change them. Why? Because beliefs are based on our past experience, and even when we inaccurately encode those experiences (see the excellent Adam Grant book Think Again), we trust them way more than words from someone else.

I’ll change the well-known maxim a little bit. When it comes to our beliefs, our own experiences speak louder than any other words.

Here’s how it works. We have an experience or take a specific action. We reflect on the results of that experience. We then start to build a belief around the experience. For example, we touch a hot stove. We get the result of having a burned hand. We create a belief that stoves will burn us and that belief shapes our future behavior.

Here’s a more subtle example. As a new teacher, you have a wide range of students--on grade level, below grade level, white, Latino, ESL, SPED, etc. You do the best you know how to do and you get the results of those actions. Some students do better than others. Maybe you’re reflective enough to think about how you’re a new teacher and those results might be from your inexperience, so you work on improving your practice. You get a little better results, but over time you have a lot of experience doing the best you can and having a range of student outcomes. You start to create a belief (it may be completely unconscious) about the capabilities of students. For example, your ESL students always score lower than your other students. This makes complete sense, because they aren’t proficient in English and we shouldn’t expect them to achieve at the same levels as native English speakers. Right? Some of the other students come from poverty and how can we expect them to achieve at the same level as students who have so many more experiences? ...or should we?

Plus, we’re working in a culture of isolation. People don’t talk about their results. We have meetings, but then we close our doors and teach. We rarely have the opportunity to learn from others and it would feel “strange” to ask. We might even be told, “we don’t do that here.” Our past experiences plus the existing culture reinforce each other and create our beliefs about teaching.

And, it’s not just that we create beliefs about the capabilities of students. We also create beliefs about what we are capable of as a teacher. All of those beliefs shape our future behavior.

What to Do?

We don’t change those beliefs by talking about them. This may be a part of what we do, but we have to understand how beliefs are created, if we want to change them. We also can’t choose to change the results of actions. Once the actions have taken place, the results follow whether we want to change them or not. The only place to impact this behavior-result-belief cycle is by changing behavior and ensuring we recognize different results.

Notice the second part of that statement: “recognizing different results.” As a leader or coach, we should be constantly asking ourselves how we can get teachers and students to see an immediate difference based on new behaviors. This means not having PLCs wait to analyze end of year data or even end of unit data. It also means ensuring we have ways to measure immediate differences within our coaching cycles.

Our goal should have two parts: (1) shift practice/behavior and (2) ensure we connect the new results to that shift. This is how we change teacher beliefs about themselves and their students. It’s also how we create collective teacher efficacy and it’s how we change school culture.

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