Learning is social. It is about social factors that affect intelligence. The level of comfort we feel in another person’s presence can powerfully influence how intelligent we feel, and in some sense, how intelligent we actually are, at least in that moment. Now multiply that one-on-one interaction by tens or hundreds, and you start to get a sense of how important a sense of belonging to a learning community can be.
Early on in school, some children get the sense that, academically speaking, they don’t belong—that they’re not one of the “smart kids.” The same thing can happen when young people start middle school, or high school, or college: they take a look around and think, “I don’t belong here.” In our work lives, too, we may form an assumption that we’re not quick or sharp enough, not sufficiently creative or innovative, to belong at the top of our fields.
Recently I came across these three ideas…
Create your own community. In the late 1970s, Uri Treisman was a researcher at UC-Berkeley interested in why African-American students often struggled in the university’s math courses, even as Asian-Americans in the same classes flourished. With some probing, he discovered part of the answer: Asian students studied together in groups, while black students tended to work alone. Treisman’s insight became the basis of his Emerging Scholars program, in which students organized into study groups tackle challenging problems together. The lesson: even if you don’t feel a kinship with the school you’re a part of, you can find a smaller community within it that will foster the feelings of belonging and identification that allow learning to blossom.
Take care with transitions. When we’re starting at a new school or a new job, our sense of ourselves is especially fragile; we carefully inspect our new environment, looking for cues that this is a place we belong. Some researchers, in fact, have tied the slide in many students’ grades that happens in middle school to the transition from elementary school itself: during this fraught passage, some students decide school isn’t for them. Studies have shown that interventions delivered at such key moments—like a video shown to college freshmen in which upperclassmen explain that everyone feels unsure of themselves early on, but that these feelings go away—can increase feelings of belonging and improve performance.
Avoid impossible role models. Although we’re supposed to feel inspired by successful figures, comparing ourselves to these superstars can make us feel that we’ll never belong in their stratosphere. A recent study of middle-school girls exposed to eminent women in STEM fields, for example, found that the experience actually made them less interested in math, and led them to lower their judgment of their own ability and their odds of success. The achievements of these role models, investigators concluded, seemed “unattainable.” What’s the alternative? Find flawed role models—people who succeed but also fail. In one study, for example, students who were taught about the failures and setbacks of well-known scientists became more interested in science, remembered the material from their science lesson better, and did better at complex open-ended problem-solving tasks related to the lesson. Reminding ourselves that those we look up to struggle, too, can make us feel that we belong in their company.