How Belonging, Autonomy, and Meaning Can Empower and Engage Students
Teaching a room full of curious, eager, resilient students who get along and share a hunger to learn is the vision most teachers have when they enter the profession. Unfortunately, many of today’s classrooms seem to frequently be filled with defiance, disruption, and disrespect, as well as more extreme behavioral problems. Yet, when students are empowered and engaged and kids are learning, teaching can be exhilarating. When they are not, problem behavior dominates, and teaching can be exhausting.
In order to understand how to empower students, we have to understand what motivates them. Empowered students are curious and open. They ask questions because they feel as if they are psychologically safe in taking chances and making mistakes. Youth are persistent and resilient when they understand why the lesson or topic is important to their life. Students will study, practice, and demonstrate agency when they understand how their efforts directly impact their learning. Success in learning requires behaviors such as effort, persistence, resilience, and curiosity. This is why empowering students to take the action necessary to learn and be successful is so critical.
Neuroscience has shown that learning is not something that happens to us. Rather, learning requires curiosity, persistence, taking chances, resilience, practice, asking questions, and similar behaviors. These are the behaviors that result from creating a learning community that empowers students. As Table 1 shows below, engagement involves motivation in action, and motivation is a product of a sense of belonging, autonomy, and meaning.
|Table 1: The Engagement Equation|
|Do I belong?||Psychological
|Does this matter to me?||Sense of purpose||Apathy|
|Is there something I can do about it?||Growth
The classroom is a highly social place. Everything a student does is observed and judged by their peers. A student raising their hand to say “I don’t understand” is an act of great courage. Publicly admitting in front of 30 of your peers that you don’t understand something risks ridicule, laughter, and shame. When students enter a classroom, subconsciously most will be asking themselves questions such as, “Do I belong here? Am I welcomed? Do I share similar values, interests, and experiences with my classmates?”
In order to empower students to take control of their learning, you must shift their focused self-protection to engaged curiosity. This begins with providing students a sense of belonging. The brain will not be able to focus on learning until it feels safe and socially accepted. As Harvard Professor Amy Edmondson’s research, “Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams,” published in Administrative Science Quarterly, explains, in highly public settings such as a classroom, it is quite natural for individuals to engage in what is called “impression management.”
It is a natural human reaction in public settings to engage in behaviors that manage how others perceive us. As Edmondson explains (highlighted in Table 2 below), many students don’t want to look ignorant, so they don’t ask questions or admit weakness. When students are focused on managing impressions of their peers, many students will refuse to engage in the learning process of sharing ideas, making mistakes, and asking questions in order to keep from being judged and criticized.
|Table 2: Impression Management in Social Settings|
|We want to avoid looking:||So we:|
|Ignorant||Don’t ask questions|
|Incompetent||Don’t admit weakness or mistakes|
|Intrusive||Don’t offer ideas|
|Negative||Don’t challenge the status quo|
|Based on Amy Edmondson’s “TED Talk”|
Edmondson wrote that psychological safety is “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up,” in a study that has now been cited more than 6,000 times in research. “It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.” Until a student has this sense of safety, they will focus on impression management rather than engage in the risky behaviors of asking questions, accepting feedback, and making mistakes.
Belonging is the foundation of community—and shared experiences and similarities are the path to creating belonging. As human influence and sales expert Robert Cialdini explains, the best relationships simply allow people to say, “Oh, that person is one of us.” Confirming this idea, New York University Professor Jon Haidt explains in his book Righteous Mind, “You can make people care less about race by drowning race differences in a sea of similarities, shared goals, and mutual interdependencies.” Stanford researcher Gregory Walton and others confirmed this idea in their research by showing that simply telling students they shared the same birthday resulted in greater motivation and persistence on math problems. The researchers concluded that “even small social connections lead people to adopt the goals and motivation of others for themselves.”
Motivation is also driven by a sense of control or autonomy. Helping students see how their efforts will have a direct connection to their achievement is an important message that will impact their investment in studying, asking questions, and willingness to persist. Much of our job as educators is to motivate kids to do hard things. We empower students to take on challenges and be their best by helping them see how prior efforts created new skills. We should not expect students to work hard, recover from mistakes, and take chances if they do not believe their actions will have any influence on their learning.
For many students, when they receive a bad grade, they may be unsure if it is because they didn’t prepare well enough or because of the biases of the teacher and schools. This is why directly teaching students the control they have over their learning and achievement is an important aspect of being an exceptional teacher. In Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck explains that students who attribute outcomes to factors under their control, particularly effort, are more:
- Receptive to instruction
- Willing to learn from others
- Honest about their performance
- Willing to take on challenges
- Willing to take risks
- Accurate in their estimations of their abilities
- Likely to view failure as temporary
- Likely to take action when depressed
- Resilient after failure
In order to empower students to do hard things, take chances, ask questions, and make mistakes, educators need to help them answer the question, “Does this matter to me?” Despite our best efforts, learning to cross-multiply fractions, memorize the periodic table of elements, or practice the intricacies of comma placement are not fun. Students, like all people, will not put forth the effort, time, and struggle necessary to master difficult tasks unless they feel it has relevance in their life. Over time, if we don’t consistently build the connection between what is being taught and our students’ futures, lowered motivation and engagement become likely. Unfortunately, this can become a downward spiral in which the lowered engagement leads to poorer performance, which further diminishes motivation and confirms a student’s belief in the lack of relevance.
When teachers are able to shift how students answer questions about belonging, autonomy, and meaning, they can reignite engagement and empower their students.
The Mindset Scholars Network is a group of leading social scientists dedicated to improving student outcomes and expanding educational opportunities by advancing our scientific understanding of students’ mindsets about learning and school. Their research on the interaction of task relevance and a student’s level of motivation tells us motivation isn’t particularly important when performing fun, simple, or rewarding tasks. Empowering students to take control of their education becomes important when tasks are difficult or mundane.
When topics are challenging, a student’s sense of purpose leads them to demonstrate self-control with thoughts such as, “I know this is challenging. I want to stop, but this is important for my future.” This persistence results in deeper learning and greater success. As a result, this sense of purpose can create a virtuous cycle that further empowers students by creating increased confidence and new opportunities. As educators, when we can create this self-sustaining cycle whereby a sense of purpose leads to taking on challenges and experiencing the results and then carrying those lessons into the next challenge, we have empowered students to take control of their education.
In their article “Helping Parents to Motivate Adolescents in Mathematics and Science: An Experimental Test of a Utility-Value Intervention” as published in Psychological Science, Judith Harackiewicz, Christopher Rozek, Chris Hulleman, and Janet Hyde explain, “a person chooses to take on a challenging task—such as taking a physics course in high school or becoming an engineering major in college—if the person both (a) expects that he or she can succeed at the task (on the basis of self-beliefs) and (b) values the task.” Many girls have been socialized to believe that math, science, technology, and engineering (STEM) are subjects for boys. This can lead some to conclude that learning advanced math concepts is not important to their life and that if they attempt to learn those skills, success is not likely.
The combination of being taught to have low expectations of success and that these concepts are not as valuable to future success as being pretty or likable will undermine many girls’ motivation for science. In contrast, when students understand why STEM classes are important to understanding the world and that those classes can create a range of career opportunities, they will feel more empowered to explore their interests in these topics, ask questions, and make mistakes.
Empowering students is particularly important for educators committed to creating equity. The experiences of many girls in STEM classes, the frustration and isolation common to students with disabilities, and the stigmas and judgment that many ethnically and culturally diverse students experience will almost certainly impact their willingness to take chances, make mistakes, welcome feedback, and be curious.
Teachers can challenge all their students with high performance standards that presume their motivation and ability to achieve. This teaching style can empower students with a sense of belonging and agency that can bring greater equity to classrooms. When teachers are able to shift how students answer questions about belonging, autonomy, and meaning, they can reignite engagement and empower their students.
Dustin Bindreiff, EdD, has spent nearly 20 years serving youth in need as a mentor, educator, and administrator committed to creating educational opportunities for all students.