In recent years, the education community has become increasingly aware of the role that our conscious and unconscious beliefs play not only in how we experience the world but also in how we interact with and affect others. In my mind, understanding our individual and collective beliefs is some of the most important work we can do to transform opportunities for students because beliefs have the power to unlock infinite possibilities or exert profound limitations on our students’ future success. If we want to produce more equitable outcomes for students, as educators we must develop our cultural consciousness and become aware of how our beliefs shape our expectations of students and interactions with parents.
We can define a belief as, “an internal feeling that something is true, even though [it] may be unproven or irrational.” Dr. Sara Truebridge puts a finer point on this definition, stating that beliefs are “thoughts and mindsets that affect our behaviors, [and are] socially constructed and often personal assumptions [and] judgments…that we make about ourselves and the people, places, and things around us.”
The word belief is usually ascribed to one’s morals or values, such as, “It is against my beliefs to…,” or, “I believe that…and therefore I…” We develop beliefs about ourselves and others in response to what we are exposed to, and we use beliefs to help us to understand the level of connection and compatibility we have with others. Beliefs help us to feel safe, attract in the familiar, and to create guidelines that help us to make decisions. People sometimes take huge risks to defend their beliefs, and from my experience, the idea of beliefs is generally treated as a positive thing.
While beliefs can be catalyzing and inspire us to do great things, there is also a “shadow side” to beliefs. Because beliefs create a filter through which we experience the world, they can cloud our judgment and our understanding of ourselves, the people we encounter, and the circumstances we find ourselves in. Beliefs have the power to create invisible barriers that keep us isolated and limit what we think we can accomplish and what we understand to be true about others. Seen from this angle, beliefs are notions that must be brought to light and interrogated so that we can be conscious about how they influence our perceptions and impact others.
Where do beliefs come from?
As we develop from infants to adults, not only do we undergo stages of physical development, but our brains and levels of consciousness transform as well. Sociologist Morris Massey and scientist Dr. Bruce Lipton have independently identified distinct stages of our development and their impact on the formation of our values and beliefs. While their labels for each stage differ, they both assert that beginning at birth, our understanding of the world comes primarily through interactions with our immediate family. As we age, we gradually add in the influence of others within our social circle (such a teachers, religious leaders and peers) until we have formed our sense of self and solidified our beliefs, usually by the time we reach age 20.
Dr. Zaretta Hammond in her book, Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain (2015), identifies culture as the foundation of our values and beliefs. Aligned with Massey’s and Lipton’s theories, Dr. Hammond notes that, “culture…is the way that every brain makes sense of the world,” and that, “the brain uses cultural information to turn everyday happenings into meaningful events.” Hammond identifies three levels of culture (surface, shallow and deep), each with an increasingly profound impact on one’s sense of self, feeling of safety and cultural identity.
Our beliefs not only reflect our values and culture, but they also become filters that attract in experiences and create outcomes that mirror and reinforce themselves. For example, if one grows up with messages that they are smart and that they can accomplish anything they desire, then they develop a belief that they are smart and successful. This person will unconsciously replicate this belief throughout their lives, experiencing a sense of empowerment and efficacy that will allow them to accomplish anything they set their mind to. If, on the other hand, one grows up with messages that tell them that they are not smart and that they are doomed to fail, this person will likely encounter constant challenges and will not strive to accomplish lofty goals because they do not see themselves as successful.
Beliefs and Education
Each of us is a product of our own society. My own shared history in the United States includes a history of the mass genocide of the Native Americans, the enslavement of African Americans, the internment of Japanese Americans, and systematized subjugation of the rights of women, and people who identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transexual, and on racial and socioeconomic lines.
Given that our beliefs and self-conceptions develop in direct response to the information we gain from birth, both from our experiences at home and in society, then we must acknowledge that not only have we been influenced by our parents and community, but also we have been influenced by our collective history of racism and subjugation. The impact of this has influenced both how we see ourselves and how we understand those that do not share our backgrounds.
In schools, I believe that the influence of this shared history shows up in the form of microaggressions, inequitable expectations for students, and instructional techniques that do not reflect or integrate the cultural values of all of our students, among other issues. Dr. Hammond uses brain science to prove that when elements of one’s culture are not respected or come under attack, it sends students into a fight or flight response that prevents them from being able to learn appropriately. This means that whole groups of students in our education system are at risk of not being provided with learning environments that set them up for success.
As educators, it is incumbent upon us to become keenly aware of our perceptions, inherent biases and ways that our upbringing may be influencing how we treat our students. This is not to say that anyone is bad or wrong, as has been demonstrated through the research, we developed many of our beliefs as children and did not choose them. Nonetheless, a core part of our training and responsibility as educators should be to enter into an ongoing process of getting curious about and unpacking our beliefs. We must become aware of how our perceptions and interactions with students influence how we treat them. We must also become aware of how the subtle and overt messages we convey to students impact their sense of self and what they believe they can accomplish.
This is not easy work. Examining our beliefs requires that we question our assumptions and take the risk to acknowledge any biases we may be harbouring. Nancy Love notes in, Using Data/Getting Results,
“Most educators believe that their expectations for children have a strong influence on students’ confidence and performance. They are right. Most also believe that teachers have the same expectations for all children, regardless of class, colour, and gender. They, unfortunately, are wrong. Now we have decades of research showing that teachers tend to expect less of poor, minority, and female students and treat them differently in the classroom. These students receive less attention, praise, ‘wait time,’ and feedback than their white and male peers. And, because ‘what you expect is what you get,’ students quickly learn to sink to the teachers’ lower standards.”
While this is sobering information, the good news is that we have the tools and capability to change our beliefs and instructional practices. To do this, we must create safe spaces and provide intentional and ongoing training for educators in culturally-responsive instructional strategies and how to identify, unpack, and transform limiting beliefs. Through this work, not only do we become more empowered to consciously choose our beliefs, but also, we have the potential to change the trajectory of millions of students’ futures.