In this moment, our education system must respond to two major societal crises—COVID-19 and systemic racism—that have profound and disparate impacts on students’ experiences of school and their educational outcomes. One crisis is unprecedented and the other is longstanding. Both are challenging education leaders to think and plan in new ways, and insights from research can provide helpful direction amidst uncertainty.
Decades of research has shown that students make meaning of the messages and cues they receive from society and their institution, instruction, and interactions in school. Beginning at an early age, they learn to read between the lines to understand whether they belong, whether they will be supported to excel, and whether the work they are asked to do matters.
The practices, policies, and norms in education have inequitably shaped this experience of school depending on who students are and the opportunities they are afforded, resulting in what professor of education Gloria Ladson-Billings calls an “education debt” that has accumulated from the historical, economic, and sociopolitical marginalization of certain students.
In this context and as practitioners and policymakers make important decisions for the coming academic year, we elevate the following lessons from our work with researchers across the social and behavioral sciences about students’ experience of school.
- Students’ experience of school is inextricably linked with their learning and well-being. When students feel valued and respected at school—by the educators, peers, curriculum, and policies and norms of the institution—they can put the full weight of their cognitive resources behind what they are learning. When students’ needs are not met in terms of physical, emotional, and identity safety; human development; and strong and supportive relationships; they are more likely to disengage from key behaviors that are important for learning.
- People are born with a natural motivation to learn that is either nurtured or undermined by structures in educational contexts. People feel an emotional pull to participate in tasks at which they feel capable of succeeding and that they perceive as valuable (e.g., that are interesting or relevant to realizing meaningful goals or a valued identity). Under these conditions, people are more likely to take on challenges, persist in the face of difficulty, learn more deeply, and achieve at higher levels.
- Students experience school differently based on how they are situated in society. Practices, policies, and norms in educational institutions shape students’ well-being and motivation in systematic ways based on aspects of their identities and the opportunities they are afforded. The Eurocentric, middle- and upper-class culture of schooling privileges students who feel more at home in that culture while causing other students to hide or be penalized for being their full, authentic selves. Exclusion from opportunity via school funding policies, discipline practices, course tracking, and other structures in education harm certain students while giving other students a leg up.
To learn more about the research behind these lessons learned, please read Leveraging mindset science to design educational environments that nurture people’s natural drive to learn and The scientific story of student motivation, two syntheses available in our research library. We also recommend watching Abolitionist teaching and the future of our schools, a discussion with scholars Bettina Love, Gholdy Muhammad, and Dena Simmons recently hosted by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and Haymarket Books.
This body of research suggests important opportunities for reflection and change in the education system. In making decisions about how to transform education in response to crisis, we encourage education leaders to ask the following kinds of questions, which attend to the explicit and implicit signals that are being sent to students:
- What messages are being sent by the content that is taught? Whose experiences and perspectives are included and excluded in curriculum and instruction? While this is more commonly discussed in humanities disciplines, it is equally important in science and mathematics. Given that students are going through loss, economic hardship, and other traumatic experiences, how is curriculum and instruction offering opportunities to process and be relevant to those experiences?
- What messages are being sent by the presence or absence of certain people in institutions? From educators, to police officers, to social workers and mental health counselors, to families and community members, the people who are involved in in-person or virtual education speak to the values of the educational institution. How can hiring, staffing, professional learning, and community engagement practices ensure that students have access to people with diverse experiences and critical consciousness about how society functions?
- What messages are being sent by an institution’s response to these crises, and how that response is being communicated? If students are being given diagnostic tests immediately upon their return to school, or being held back a grade or placed on academic probation due to “COVID slide,” a deficit-based term that assumes that students have not done valuable learning during the pandemic and emphasizes a perceived shortcoming rather than their resilience, they may conclude that their academic performance is more important to the institution than their well-being or that they aren’t “cutting it.” How can policies and practices prioritize caring for students, and how can academic and other supports be delivered in ways that reassure students of their institution’s confidence in them and commitment to them?
- What messages are being sent by an institution’s response to individual students and groups? These crises are not being experienced equally by everyone, but rather are creating unique experiences in each community, household, and individual. These experiences are shaped by historical context and are unfolding in a society that has never offered equitable opportunity and access to all people. Many Black students are continuing to take in footage and news reports of anti-Black violence, and Black and Native American people are being disproportionately harmed by COVID-19, along with Latinx people. Distance learning has been more difficult for students without reliable access to computers and the internet and for students whose home is physically and/or emotionally unsafe. How can educational institutions better understand and be responsive to a wide range of experiences? Where are there opportunities to employ professor of law john powell’s framework of targeted universalism, which says that progress toward universal goals requires targeted approaches for different groups based on their particular context and access to opportunities in society?
- What messages are being sent by students’ and communities’ involvement in an institution? How are the voices and perspectives of students and families included in decisions about re-opening and re-building? What assumptions are institutions making about families now that they are sharing new responsibilities in K-12 distance learning? Are postsecondary students receiving all of the information they need to navigate decisions about cost and safety? Are institutions creating structures that will continue to integrate students’ voices and perspectives in a meaningful and sustained way?
With increasingly limited resources, and with students, educators, and administrators needing more support than ever, research can help ground education leaders in a focus on student experience. Such a focus is necessary to achieve an effective and equitable response in this moment and to achieve the unprecedented learning that is required going forward.