This Week In The Brilliant Report: Why A Sense Of Belonging Is Essential To Learning

From the latest issue of my newsletter, The Brilliant Report:

“This week I blogged about a new study that suggests one reason why there are so few women in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math): they are vulnerable to feeling that they have to put in more effort than others to achieve the same results, and that therefore they must not “belong” in that sphere. There’s a lesson here about the importance of a ‘growth mindset’—researcher Carol Dweck’s term for the belief that success is all about effort, and that ‘even geniuses work hard’—but what I want to focus on today is this notion of belonging, and how crucial it is for effective learning.

Learning is inherently social. The level of comfort we feel in another person’s presence can powerfully influence how intelligent we feel, and in some sense, how intelligent we actually are, at least in that moment. Now multiply that one-on-one interaction by tens or hundreds, and you start to get a sense of how important a sense of belonging to a learning community can be.

Early on in school, some children get the sense that, academically speaking, they don’t belong—that they’re not one of the ‘smart kids.’ The same thing can happen when young people start middle school, or high school, or college: they take a look around and think, ‘I don’t belong here.’ In our work lives, too, we may form an assumption that we’re not quick or sharp enough, not sufficiently creative or innovative, to belong at the top of our fields.

Social psychologists have documented how corrosive this self-doubt can be: sapping our motivation, lowering our expectations, even using up mental resources that we could otherwise apply to absorbing knowledge or solving problems. The feeling of not belonging becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. By contrast, a solid sense that we’re among our peers, that we’re where we ought to be, can elevate our aspirations and buoy us in the face of setbacks.

So: how do we bolster a sense of intellectual belonging—in ourselves, our children, our students and employees? Here are three ideas.”

To read the rest, please sign up for my newsletter in the box at left. Thank you!—Annie

6 Responses to “This Week In The Brilliant Report: Why A Sense Of Belonging Is Essential To Learning”

  1. Thank you for writing about this! Really great points, yet again! This idea — social support as a necessary part of resilience and goal-setting — has been on my mind a lot lately. My dissertation is about the experiences of high-achieving, urban female graduates of a nonprofit that prepares them for elite independent schools. This is exactly one of my main findings: the graduates of the nonprofit (although they went off to different boarding schools throughout New England) created a peer community (mostly online and during vacations) that provided crucial support that other students (other minority students at their schools) lacked. It was a critical part of their success at confronting the social, racial, and cultural challenges of this new environment.
    In my own experience, I recently moved and had a baby (definitely one of the “transitions” that you might be talking about!!) and this had a huge impact of my academic progress. I no longer had the day to day support of my doctoral program cohorts. I recently began blogging, partially as a way to find that support and feedback for my writing. Thanks again!

  2. Hi, Annie!
    Great and thoughtful piece. In America, I see youth sport as the best example of the “all welcome” and “everyone can succeed” environment. That’s why I am trying to create a motivational online community with some of that same attitude. That’s why I’m calling my new Common Core vocabulary site AmericanLearningLeague — A.L.L.
    That’s how I’m trying to bolster a widespread sense of intellectual community.

  3. Peter Lydon says:

    You say “Early on in school, some children get the sense that, academically speaking, they don’t belong—that they’re not one of the ‘smart kids.’”..Interestingly, the ‘very smart’ (gifted) children often feel they don’t belong.

    While I agree that learning is a social activity, in the sense that it involved interpersonal communication, I think the stronger argument lies in the fact that a sense of belonging is a deficiency need which, if unmet, prohibits learning which can only occur if a student believes themselves capable. Call it ‘learning self-esteem’.

  4. I would say that a student needs both a sense of belonging and a sense of not belonging–or, rather, of apartness and possible good things in it.

    Just what proportion one needs may vary from situation to situation, but students need both.

    They need belonging so that they can imagine themselves contributing to the larger endeavor. They need it, also, for the warmth: the knowledge that, even in subtle ways, someone cares for them and takes interest in what they think and do. As they get older, they may need less of the latter–but they may still yearn for it and seek it out.

    But then there’s the other side: the need not to belong. To go into a subject, to spend time on it alone, to think about it in unusual ways, one needs a sense of separation. This separation can bring insights. I don’t think I would have been drawn, in my teens, to Homer, Virgil, Racine, Baudelaire, Donne, Milton, Tennyson, Eliot, Faulkner, O’Connor, and other authors, if I had had the continual comfort of the group. Nor would I have practiced the cello three hours a day. On the other hand, extreme isolation would have been harmful; my good friends and my teachers kept my spirits up.

    I see a similar situation with my students. It means a great deal to them to belong in certain ways. But I notice that they need room not to belong as well. My tenth-grade students just read a chapter of Epictetus’s Discourses, where he relates the story of Florus, who was trying to decide whether to attend Nero’s festival.

    “Wherefore, when Florus was debating whether he should enter Nero’s festival, so as to make some personal contribution to it, Agrippinus said to him, ‘Enter.’ And when Florus asked, ‘Why do you not enter yourself?’ he replied, ‘I? why, I do not even raise the question.’ For when a man once stoops to the consideration of such questions, I mean to estimating the value of externals, and calculates them one by one, he comes very close to those who have forgotten their own proper character. Come, what is this you ask me? ‘Is death or life pleasurable?’ I answer, life. ‘Pain or pleasure?’ I answer, pleasure. ‘But unless I take a part in the tragedy, I shall be beheaded.’ Go, then, and take a part, but I will not take a part. ‘Why not?’ Because you regard yourself as but a single thread of all that go to make up the garment. What follows, then? This, that you ought to take thought how you may resemble all other men, precisely as even the single thread wants to have no point of superiority in comparison with the other threads. But I want to be the red, that small and brilliant portion which causes the rest to appear comely and beautiful. Why, then, do you say to me, ‘Be like the majority of people?’ And if I do that, how shall I any longer be the red?”

    My students responded strongly to this and understood it right away. I think many were glad to read it; it fortified something in them. Just as they long to belong, I think they (or some of them) also long to stand apart, to do what they think is right, rather than what fits in.

  5. Don Davis says:

    Peter notes that the learning ‘belonging’ might be described as a learning ‘self-esteem’ (or perhaps learning efficacy).

    This blog post makes a concerted effort to note issues that might affect the substantive numbers of students underserved by our educational system and underrepresented among the successful. In dealing with such issues, it is certainly important to disambiguate the concerns of the affluent and typically successful demographics and those of students who are not well served by our educational system.

    Margolis & Fisher (2003) published a very well known and widely respected collection of findings related to the underrepresentation of women in computer science. Many of their findings highlight problems with CS and other STEM elements being dominated by a boys club like atmosphere and concomitant stereotypes. This is then taken by many within CS to be a fundamental underlying cause of CS underrepresentation.

    However, Varma (2007) has done many more studies with minority populations in CS. She highlights that the concerns registered by Margolis and Fisher are concerns more typical to middle class white women at an elite university (Carnegie Mellon) much more so than those of minority and low-SES students who are very much underrepresented in CS and elsewhere.

    The point being – it is very problematic to assert that the needs of systemically underrepresented and underrserved populations are synonymous with those expressed by those already part of the dominant culture (see Bale, 2011; Hertzberg, 1998; Perreira, Harris, and Lee, 2006).

    Bale, J. (2011). Tongue-tied: Imperialism and second language education in the United States. Critical Education, 2, 1–25.

    Hertzberg, M. (1998). Having arrived: Dimensions of educational success in a transitional newcomer school. Anthropology & Education Quarterly, 29, 391–418.

    Margolis, J., & Fisher, A. (2003). Unlocking the clubhouse: Women in computing. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

    Perreira, K., Harris, K., & Lee, D. (2006). Making it in America: High school completion by immigrant and native youth. Demography, 43(3), 511–536.

    Varma, R. (2007). Women in computing: The role of geek culture. Science as Culture, 16(4), 359–376. doi:10.1080/09505430701706707

  6. [...] Friday, Annie Murphy Paul blogged about how learners need a sense of intellectual belonging—how, if they feel excluded from (or [...]

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