Three recent studies in social psychology show evidence that small interventions that “concentrate on a single core belief” may have outsize influence. These point to the importance of crafting school culture.
David Kirp, a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times, profiled the three studies to learn what their findings could mean for schools. He writes, “[S]ocial psychologists have demonstrated that brief experiences can have a powerful and long-lasting impact on students’ academic futures by changing their mind-sets.”
What we know is that schools shape the beliefs of their students by articulated statements and by implicit practices. The studies that Kirp summarizes confirm this belief.
For example, one of the studies in his piece explored the concept of “growth mindset.” Growth mindset is a psychological trait that is currently garnering close attention in education and other fields. The study found that by exposing students to the fact that the brain is a muscle and can be “worked out,” just as one would do in the gym, researchers were able to generate significant improvement in students’ grades.
In another study, researchers found that a teacher who provided both feedback and a note expressing her belief that students could meet her high expectations had the potential to generate substantial gains. In fact, Kirp says they found, “Eighty-eight percent of those students rewrote the assignment and put more effort into rewriting, while just a third of their peers, who were given comments that simply provided feedback, did the same.”
Kirp explains that what we are seeing in these studies isn’t magic; rather, it is simply that these interventions targeted “how kids, hunched over their desks in the back of the classroom, make sense of themselves and their environment.”
The teachers in these studies acknowledged that students have emotions, and can commit varying degrees of effort on their assignments. It is likely that students found this acknowledgement of their own needs and abilities to be comforting. In short, the interventions attended to the students as people, rather than just “brains on sticks.”
We see in these studies that small interventions that concentrate on a single core belief can be surprisingly durable. In schools where articulated statements and practices are intentionally aligned and sustained, the effects on character and learning are considerable.
The School Cultures and Student Formation Project of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture set out to investigate the power of culture to form students. Editors James Davison Hunter and Ryan S. Olson write in The Content of Their Character that “moral ecologies vary in relative thickness or thinness in the degree to which a moral culture is articulated, whether formally in the classroom or informally in the relationships between teachers and students.”
As David Kirp writes in the New York Times, “There is every reason to be skeptical of these findings” as “magic” solutions in formation and education. He continues, “Let’s be clear — these brief interventions aren’t a silver bullet, a quick-and-easy way to transform K-12 education.” Instead, they should take their place in sustained, intentional practices of formation.
ASCD’s tips on building and sustaining school culture don’t sugarcoat that it is hard work that goes far beyond small interventions. But, the formation—and transformation—of culture and core beliefs are worth the hard work.
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