Studying belonging in education: A conversation with Claude Steele, Mary Murphy, and Gregory Walton
On November 27th, the Student Experience Research Network hosted its third annual Mindset Science Funder Briefing, which focused on belonging as a critical condition for learning. The event was designed to build an interdisciplinary understanding of belonging and highlight practices for creating a strong sense of belonging in K-12 and postsecondary education.
We are excited to release a video of the event’s opening panel. In the session, three leading researchers – Claude Steele, Mary Murphy, and Gregory Walton – discussed the origins, significance, and future directions of research on belonging.
This research makes clear the central importance of students’ subjective, psychological experience of school to their learning outcomes. But the conversation among these scholars underscored that students’ uncertainty about their belonging in school is not a problem that starts or can be solved at the student level. Strong, authentic relationships among students and between students and educators that convey a sense of respect and trust can help to promote a sense of belonging, but relationships alone are not enough. As Mindset Scholar Mary Murphy explained, the question is, “How can we produce places of belonging, places of non-prejudice?” This involves considering the “practices, policies, and procedures” of schooling, and how they may be experienced differentially by students.
For some students, belonging in school is something that they can take for granted. For other students, who belong to groups that have historically been marginalized based on their racial/ethnic background, language, gender, social class, ableness, or other aspects of their identity, their cognitive focus at school can be divided between wondering whether they belong and learning the material they are being taught.
Claude Steele, a professor at Stanford University, pioneered research on the intersection of identity, stereotypes, and academic performance that is a core piece of our understanding of belonging. “We’ve used identity in society to engineer advantage for centuries,” Claude explained. “And people know it.” This awareness “creates a predicament for students in school… Students [face] a tension between remembering how their group is seen and treated [by society] and forgetting that in order to engage with what is in front of them. And [as a student], I’m reading the cues to know whether I can forget and just engage and love you and trust you, or whether I have to be careful here.”
In contrast, “students who don’t have to worry about their belonging because education values them implicitly have 100% of their cognitive resources that they can put to the problems they’re studying,” said Mary.
The panelists discussed ways in which schools can be aware of belonging disparities from society and intentionally signal to students that they are seen and valued. They also discussed how to ensure, as Mindset Scholar Gregory Walton put it, that “message sent” by schools and educators is the same as the “message received” by students.
Watch the video of the full panel discussion here. In the coming months, the Student Experience Research Network will continue to highlight key conversations and themes from the recent event and share a summary of the field-level priorities for belonging research and practice that attendees surfaced throughout the day. All of these resources will be available on the Student Experience Research Network website.