In promoting effective teaching and learning, we can’t ignore social-emotional factors

In discussions of the science of learning, two concepts rightfully loom large. The first, effective effort, is a more finely tuned version of growth mindset that seeks to avoid the just work harder! pitfall that growth mindset, poorly understood or applied, can slip into. The second is belonging, a subjective social-emotional stew of context-specific emotion. Both are necessary for enduring, transferable learning — the stuff that a good education is made of. Often, however, they are tackled independently, one seen as a cognitive process, the stuff of curriculum design, assignment creation, lesson planning, and the other the work of school culture, advisory programs, mentoring. But can these concepts really be taken on separately? Are there entanglements between the cognitive and affective prerequisites for learning? This piece, part one of a two-piece series, will seek to answer these questions, specifically:

What is the relationship between effective effort and belonging? How do confidence and self-efficacy affect student abilities to engage in automatic processes (such as system 1 thinking or wu wei), effortful processes (such as system 2 thinking), and activities that bridge automatic and effortful processes (such as flow)?

Part two will take a look at how self-efficacy manifests in students and the way that student context influences social-emotional and character skills — grit, resilience, and confidence.

When discussing cognitive processes, affective states, and their intersects, it’s necessary first to define the terms. Though the cognitive/non-cognitive dichotomy is largely a false one — our brains are specialized but not neatly compartmentalized, and the impact of affect on cognitive processes is well documented — distinguishing between affective and cognitive states can provide a useful frame for helping us look at different factors that affect students’ ability to effectively learn. In the question above there are three distinct types of factors: those that are by-and-large socio-emotional, relational, or epistemological; those that are more purely cognitive; and those that require interaction between the belief and cognition. First, a look at the emotional and belief-driven factors — the ones that are most like what they sound (though this does not make them any less thorny of concepts, but more on that below).

Belonging refers to a student’s projection of her own self-worth and prerogative to take up space in the classroom; it is the answer to the question Do I have a right to be here? Or, more accurately and in the language used by our students, Am I in the right place? Do I belong with these people? Do they want me here? Are they judging me? Do they wish I wasn’t here? This series of questions reveals the anxiety attached to belonging — one could imagine the spiral continuing, pushing a student into higher and higher levels of existential stress. When a student doesn’t have a sense of belonging, it is impossible to engage with the work of learning in any meaningful, enduring, or transferrable way. The extraneous factors of the classroom itself have already sent her into cognitive overload.

Confidence elaborates on belonging — first you need to feel you have a right to be in the room, then you need to feel confident having a voice in the space. A student can achieve a high enough sense of belonging to be present and attentive in the classroom, but she will remain passive until she feels confident enough to voice her thoughts. (I’m reminded of my first grade teacher who always sat next to the one student who had just immigrated to America and was not yet confident in her English. Every day, the teacher would lean over and the girl would whisper her thoughts and questions in the teacher’s ear; the teacher would then amplify her to the class. By second grade, this particular classmate was the chattiest in the class.) Confidence is what opens the door to intrinsic motivation, which, per Carol Dweck, is the type of motivation we really need to be looking at if we want students to engage in enduring, transferrable learning. (This is sensical — if a student is reliant only on extrinsic motivators, as soon as they are removed, her motivation dwindles down to nothing.) Dweck defines intrinsic motivation as the mindset that is born from “students [thinking] of themselves and school in certain ways” — that is, intrinsic motivation comes from epistemological prior knowledge. A student comes into the classroom with an already formed conception of herself as a learner in that environment. Without belonging, confidence, and a positive epistemological frame, she cannot engage in the cognitive processes that allow for enduring learning. In order to get something real out of school, a student must feel she’s in the right place, that her voice is welcome, and that she is capable of learning in the classroom.

So what are the cognitive processes that allow for enduring learning, and how might a deficit in these socio-emotional and epistemological factors affect them? To take them in order of ascending complexity, we’ll start with system 1 thinking. These are the automatic processes that are so well practiced we can do them (mostly) without conscious effort. The behaviors that have achieved automaticity change over time — while a two year-old may have to concentrate and consciously think through the steps of uncapping a pen and putting it to paper, a twelve year-old typically does not. We acquire more and more automatic processes as we continue to learn. Every student in a classroom has a roster of automatic processes and, in the case of a student who questions her belonging, lacks confidence, or does not have a picture of herself as a learner, it is these behaviors to which she will default when in a state of cognitive overload. Even automatic processes, however, are not a sure thing in a student who does not feel belonging. Automatic processes can be interrupted — think, perhaps, of when you are writing while distracted and look down to realize that you have written something totally different from what you intended, the distraction invading your thoughts and hijacking the automatic process, or have written something illegible, skipping letters or words, as though the distraction has somehow stopped parts of the automatic process of physically forming words on the page. In a student overcome with the anxiety of trying to feign belonging where she feels she does not truly belong, even automatic processes learned in earlier years may not be fully accessible.

Taking our overloaded student into system 2 thinking is yet more difficult. System 2 represents effortful processes, conscious thinking where the student must pull information from long-term memory, elaborate upon it using new information from working memory, and recategorize that information back in long-term storage (all of which already assumes she has gotten that information through the attentional bottleneck and has started to actively work with it — processes with can themselves be interrupted or prevented by a socio-emotional or epistemological deficit). Again, the extraneous cognitive load of just fitting into the classroom easily dwarfs the intrinsic load necessitated by taking in information and germane load created by manipulating, elaborating, and re-encoding it. In effect, a student with enough of a belonging deficit cannot even begin to engage in system 2 thinking.

Flow, as defined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is the state achieved by perfectly balancing system 1 and system 2 thinking, or ease and challenge. When in a flow state, a student loses track of the passage of time, is not susceptible to distraction, and maintains work right at the edge of her comfort zone — with just enough complexity and challenge to keep her actively thinking and just enough mastery and deftness to keep her confidence high. Flow is, in some ways, embodied cognitive confidence — a sense that you can do the next thing, and the next, and the next because you have successfully and masterfully gotten this far. A student who lacks belonging or a strong sense of herself as a capable learner then might either find herself unable to get into flow (because she is constantly questioning her right to engage or her ability to do so correctly) or in a false flow (where she loses the sense of time and feels at ease but does not engage with any challenging or rigorous thinking, staying, essentially in system 1, which carries a similar “in the zone” feel by virtue of its automaticity). Csikszentmihalyi’s studies comparing the relative accessibility of flow to middle school students in Montessori and traditional school environments make a direct connection between flow and intrinsic motivation. Without a positive epistemological picture of herself as learner, a student struggles to achieve flow.

All of this is perhaps not so revolutionary — surely every teacher has witnessed a student who feels uncomfortable or out of place in the classroom struggle to access prior content knowledge, become distracted by social interactions, or hijack her own process with endless questions in an attempt to ensure at every step that she is still, in the eyes of the teacher, on the right track. But it’s easy to chalk this up to effort — she just needs to decide to engage, take a risk, dive in! How often do teachers offer these platitudes? In the case of our student with a belonging deficit, they are entirely unhelpful (most likely only reinforcing her sense that she’s not in the right place). She cannot engage in the complex cognitive processes necessitated by system 2 thinking or flow because she hits cognitive overload before she even reaches the content or the act of engaging with it. At this point, effective effort becomes impossible. Effective effort is best described as a three-tiered process. At the most basic level, you have to try. But you also must try within a strategy — strategic effort. Finally, you have to evaluate your trying — did it work? If the answer is no, you have to iterate and try again with a new strategy. That process — of putting in thoughtful, iterative, reflective work — constitutes effective effort. It’s easy to see how without a sense of herself as a someone who can learn and without the cognitive space available to engage in reflective, system 2 thinking, our student will never achieve effective effort.

To add to the complexity, in searching for belonging and a sense of connection, our student is also likely to often be in a state of continuous partial attention and engage in cognitively harmful multitasking (especially if she’s got a phone or laptop in front of her). Studies have shown anxiety and technological dependency to be positively correlated with multitasking behaviors. The student who seeks belonging, who suffers from a fear of missing out — or, more apt for a classroom, a fear of saying or doing the wrong thing and being excluded — is more likely to seek the connection offered by social media and digital connection. A Snapchat stream has become a place that students who lack confidence in the three-dimensional world can belong, a safe space in which to dwell that doesn’t require complex thought or even engagement with the physical world or community around you. Once our student has reached this point, what can a teacher do to foster the belonging, confidence, and self-image necessary for enduring learning? Interestingly, a solution may exist in the concept of wu wei.

Wu wei is often considered a close cousin to flow, but it is its distinctions that make it a potentially effective tool for our struggling student. Wu wei comes from the Daoist tradition and is often translated as “effortless effort,” a paradoxical state of action and ease. But digging into its origins a bit more provides a more nuanced — and useful — definition. To be in a state of wu wei is to be absorbed in something larger than yourself, to be in harmony with a greater whole, to relax to the point that you lose sight of yourself as individual actor. It also carries a connotation of moral good; whatever you are absorbed in is working toward an aim outside of yourself. On the surface, this seems wholly unhelpful — wu wei necessitates belonging, so how can it help our belonging-deficit student? The beauty of wu wei as a tool is that unlike flow, it does not require system 2 thinking. Though one may attain wu wei doing objectively difficult things — say, rock climbing — it is by definition subjectively easy. Everyone has her own point of wu wei, a place where automaticity can be tapped and, by virtue of connection to some greater whole, transform into wu wei. This is where teacher as architect comes in.

The key to building belonging is to put students in the way of scenarios where they can tap into automatic processes as a collective. Think well-designed service learning. Or a class hiking trip. Or a buddy program that puts students in charge of younger peers for a day. In each case, there is connection to something larger — a purpose or environment that expands the lens through which a student views the world. Belonging anxiety requires a narrow lens: the focus is wholly on the self. By designing experiences in which a student must focus on people or things outside of herself and where she must do so in concert with her classmates, a teacher can both circumvent the anxiety and develop a sense of belonging through shared experience. Because our student does not feel she belongs in the classroom, these experiences will have to take place outside the traditional realm of academia. (Mindfulness practices or meditation present as interesting possibilities here, but that’s a topic for another piece.) By creating opportunities for wu wei, a teacher can foster a sense of belonging that can be transferred to other scenarios, including the academic work of the classroom.

Lack of belonging, confidence, or positive self-image threaten the foundational tenets of enduring, transferable knowledge: if we don’t feel like we have a place in the room, we’re not going to feel comfortable making meaningful connections — if we don’t belong, our connections and experiences don’t either. It also makes effective effort impossible. It is only by creating connection to a larger whole, reinforcing the inherent belonging of each student — a process that may have to take place outside of the classroom, and at the very least will need to take place outside the realm of traditional, content-based academia — that we open up the possibility of complex cognitive functions, flow, and enduring learning. The first function, then, of a teacher is to teach her students that they belong.