By Nicole Rivera, Ed.D.

School districts around the country are starting to look ahead as we approach the start of a new academic year, which, of course, brings a unique set of both concerns and opportunity.

A few years ago, an exceptionally charming Dalton Sherman recorded his infamous convocation speech for the Dallas Independent School District, asking his audience, “Do you believe?” This speech has been shared thousands of times through social media, and it carries a profound message about the importance of believing—believing that children can learn and that education is important. 

Belief systems like these shape behavior. Countless psychological theories demonstrate the connections between a learner’s beliefs and their outcome behaviors. But, where do our belief systems come from, and can we even impact them? 

Beliefs are developed largely through social modeling and direct messages that we receive from our surroundings. A belief may develop over a long period of time, or in a few moments if the message is delivered in a powerful manner. Beliefs are also developed based on our cultural perspectives, some of which are derived from family and institutional culture.

In a study I completed with first year college students, multiple interviews revealed how the students developed their beliefs about higher education. The students had participated in a summer bridge program for individuals who were identified as “at risk” because of socioeconomic, cultural or academic factors. When asked about why they chose to go to college, many students stated that “everyone at their high school” went to college, and that doing so was an expected behavior. The institutional culture of their schools set up that belief, which, in turn, guided their behavior.

Beliefs about the benefits of education were also impacted by the students’ perceptions of what their parents believed, and were developed through both implicit and explicit knowledge. Parents modeled the value of education by attending school functions or by talking with the study’s participants about their school experiences. In some cases, the participants even recalled explicit conversations with parents telling them why it was important to continue their education. 

Those in this study were considered to be at risk, but their central belief in the importance of education appears to have helped them engage in persistent behavior to seek out resources in support of their goals. The end result is that they ended up on a college campus, ready to extend their education with the hopes of bettering their lives.

As schools work through ever-changing school reform policies and deal with complex student groups, it is important that we recognize the power of the greater community to shape beliefs for individuals like these. In many ways, it does take a village (including those at home, at school, and in the community) to create positive learning experiences.

Sources

Dalton Sherman Keynote Speech, uploaded Feb 10, 2012. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hMe8Nil2i20

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