When people wonder whether they belong in a given situation, their answer is shaped by cues in the environment: Are people like me represented in this space? Is my culture reflected? Do the people here respect me and expect me to succeed?
When students can answer these questions affirmatively, they are more likely to be engaged in school and persist in the face of the setbacks and challenges that are essential to learning and growth. When students’ sense of belonging is uncertain, they are more likely to withdraw and disengage.
The practices, policies, and norms of American schooling often signal to some groups and individuals that they belong in school and to others that they do not.
The Student Experience Research Network recently convened 25 experts on belonging at its annual Funder Briefing to discuss what the education system can do to create environments that foster belonging for all students. This is the first of four blog posts in which we synthesize lessons from these experts’ remarks at the event. The series builds on the Student Experience Research Network’s past publications about belonging, including a research summary entitled, “What We Know About Belonging from Scientific Research,” and the opening panel discussion of the Funder Briefing, “Studying Belonging in Education: Origins, Current Themes, and Future Possibilities,” a conversation with Claude Steele, Mary Murphy, and Greg Walton.
A sense of belonging is typically regarded as an internal, individual experience. Yet as the experts at the MSN Funder Briefing explained, experiences of belonging are systematically shaped by the interaction of students’ identities and their environment.
Resonant concepts from research
While prejudice is often discussed at the individual level (e.g., identifying a prejudiced person), Mary encouraged the audience to look for institutional norms, values, policies, practices, and procedures that advantage some social groups over others. Places become prejudiced when they “unequally tax the emotions, physiology, cognitive function, and performance of some groups more than others,” which leads to disparate experiences and outcomes.
Research reveals, for example, that asking students for their demographic information before they take high-stakes tests like the SAT can disadvantage students from social groups whose intellectual abilities are negatively stereotyped in society.
The act of checking demographic boxes can bring those negative stereotypes to the front of students’ minds, which can in turn put pressure on students to disprove those stereotypes. That pressure creates anxiety and stress that can negatively impact students’ test-taking performance. This practice, which may seem innocuous, creates a prejudiced place that produces predictable, systematic inequalities in experience and outcomes based on people’s social group memberships.
Places can also be prejudiced through the cultural values they espouse. Nicole Stephens described her research on cultural mismatch in higher education, beginning with the observation that “the culture of higher education is not neutral.” Many postsecondary institutions in the U.S. operate around cultural norms that align with those of the middle- and upper-class, she said.
The clash of working-class students’ interdependent norms with a college or university’s independent norms can create significant belonging uncertainty and poorer outcomes for working-class students.
When Harvard University’s promotional materials, for example, advertise that students “devise their own academic path,” the narrative aligns with the cultural models of students who have grown up with greater access to economic capital, fewer environmental constraints, higher power and status, and greater opportunities for choice, influence, and control in their lives. These students typically have been taught to challenge the status quo and express their personal interests.
In contrast, Nicole said, students from working-class backgrounds are more likely to have learned to adjust to others and their social context, show awareness of their position in the social hierarchy, and to rely on and collaborate with others for material support.
The clash of working-class students’ interdependent norms with a college or university’s independent norms can create significant belonging uncertainty and poorer outcomes for working-class students. This type of cultural mismatch can also result in educators evaluating middle- and upper-class students more positively (e.g., rewarding students who offer bold ideas during class discussions) and can limit access to resources (e.g., through schools hosting networking events that understand relationships as transactional and strategic, in accordance with independent norms, rather than as enduring aspects of one’s identity, in accordance with interdependent norms).
Importantly, Nicole’s work has shown that institutions can adopt practices that signal different cultural norms. For example, she found that reframing an assignment using interdependent norms can erase family income-based achievement gaps in laboratory studies. Specifically, when working-class students were asked to work together on a group project in these experiments, they outperformed their middle-class peers.
Creating places of belonging in school by understanding the role of culture in schooling
With this research in mind, a key question becomes how to transform what Mindset Scholar Jamaal Matthews has described as “an educational system that never intended for black, brown, and poor children to belong.”
Our presenters offered several strategies to shift and re-create school and classroom culture in ways that align with students’ cultural backgrounds.
Cassandra Herring, the President and CEO of Branch Alliance for Educator Diversity (BranchED), explained during her remarks that “we teach the way we were taught.” For many educators, this means teaching in a way that reflects white, middle-class cultural norms. In her role, Cassandra works with educator preparation programs at minority-serving institutions (MSIs), which constitute 13% of educator preparation programs in the U.S. but train 48% of U.S. teachers of color.
“MSIs,” Cassandra said, “have an intentionality around creating a sense of belonging for students that is probably unprecedented among other institutions of higher education.” MSIs’ attention to culture and supporting candidates’ “whole selves” is key. She pointed to practices such as cohort models that create structured opportunities for relationship-building among teacher candidates at MSIs, modeling “inclusive pedagogy,” and screening for a “duty of care” among teacher candidates that indicates they will prioritize their own students’ sense of belonging.
By studying and strengthening the impact of these educator preparation programs, BranchED aims to diversify the U.S. teaching profession and provide a model for infusing belonging-related best practices into other educator preparation programs, both of which have the potential to support student belonging at a broad scale.
Presenters from Durham, North Carolina and Oakland, California also underscored the need for practices and policies that reflect the cultures of all students.
DeLeon Gray, an educational psychologist at North Carolina State University, and Shamia Truitt-Martin, an educator in Durham with more than 20 years of experience, spoke about their collaboration on the iScholar program. iScholar lessons honor students’ identities and strengths and strive to create “cultural continuities” between students’ “ancestral heritage” and classroom material, DeLeon said.
Several lessons, for example, embed communal values by asking students to work on team-based projects that focus on pressing issues like addressing gentrification and homelessness in Durham. The team has found that these interdisciplinary, culturally-relevant lessons correspond to increased motivation among students.
DeLeon closed with a simple, powerful definition of belonging from his research: “Belonging is about fitting in and standing out at the same time.”
Chris Chatmon, Deputy Chief of Equity for Oakland Unified School District and Executive Director of Kingmakers of Oakland, spoke about the program he founded in 2010, the African American Male Achievement (AAMA) initiative, alongside Mindset Scholar Thomas Dee, who is currently evaluating the effects of the program.
AAMA has addressed structural inequality in Oakland through a policy audit, which replaced zero-tolerance discipline with restorative justice; a curricula audit, which replaced Eurocentric curricula with eight new Common-Core aligned, culturally-relevant courses specifically targeted to black young men; and a re-structured school day that provides comprehensive academic mentoring led by black male instructors. AAMA also works with district leadership to provide professional development for teachers and engages parents to support their child’s college readiness.
“We are all located in the ecosystem very differently,” Chris explained, “so when you move those students, families, and children furthest away from opportunity into the center, and you’re intentional and unapologetic about the systems, structures, culture, and conditions necessary to not just elevate but accelerate academic performance and life outcomes, you can do that, and we are doing that.”
Tom pointed out that holistic, culturally-relevant programs like AAMA resemble intensive versions of the light-touch interventions often used in social psychological research. These interventions are designed to affirm people’s values, forewarn people about stereotypes, and provide external attribution for challenges, among other things.
Culturally-relevant pedagogy addresses multiple psychological mechanisms simultaneously and, as Tom explained, is “not done for fifteen minutes, but done every day during a 180-day school year.” Additional quantitative research into culturally-relevant pedagogy by Tom and other scholars could help expand the evidence base for culturally-relevant practices in the future.
DeLeon closed with a simple, powerful definition of belonging from his research: “Belonging is about fitting in and standing out at the same time.” By expanding the culture of schooling to encompass more than just the white, middle-class norms that have historically been elevated in K-12 and postsecondary education, educators and system leaders can help all students feel a greater sense of belonging in school.