How to Build Systemic Belonging

At nearly 40 years old, I was an unlikely candidate to start Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ), yet there I was in the basement of a high-rise in downtown Indianapolis, pouring sweat while a blue belt—with at least 50 pounds more on his frame—wrapped his leg around my neck and slowly and methodically began to apply pressure, consequently giving me my first experience of “tapping out.” Naptown BJJ and Boxing is run by black belt Eric Board, who has not only mastered this ancient martial art but also the art of building a culture of belonging.
Defined by the Student Experience Research Network, a culture of belonging is “the extent to which students feel socially connected, supported, and respected in school[s]”—or dojos in this case. It’s hard enough to start anything new; it’s much harder to start something new when spending precious cognitive energy looking for and negotiating threats to identity, intelligence, or dignity.
When students process “information from the environment through the senses, [their] nervous system continually evaluates risk,” a process called neuroception, a term coined by psychiatrist Stephen Porges. “[W]ithout our conscious awareness,” when we enter a new environment, we look for cues of psychological safety and belonging. In the dojo, at every turn, I was accommodated, welcomed. These cues made me feel like I belonged, which cleared the path for my engagement and, consequently, my learning. I didn’t have to bleed or go through any rites of passage; they just respected me as a person interested in their craft. The barrier to entry was low, but the challenge was high.
There is a belonging rhetoric in every dojo or classroom, and teachers have myriad rhetorical devices: tone, language, energy, wall hangings, arrangement of desks, feedback, or grading. As teachers, especially during the summer, we must consider how we are designing our classrooms for systemic belonging—foundational practices in our classroom that communicate a low barrier to entry in a cognitively or physically demanding environment and a belief in the student’s capability to meet those demands—which begins by examining how we provide feedback and with our policies around grading. These practices are the cornerstones of systemic belonging and support a culture in which students feel connected, supported, and respected.

Feedback for Belonging

Do your students know how you plan to give feedback and what you expect them to do with it? Effective feedback builds systemic belonging because it engages the learner in a conversation about their growth. They are involved in this process and need to know how to meet the high expectations you have for them. Here are some practices that faculty can use to ensure systemic belonging.
Communicate high expectations for and belief in every student. In 2014, the authors of “Breaking the Cycle of Mistrust: Wise Interventions to Provide Critical Feedback Across the Racial Divide,” a research report in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, discovered that when teachers emphasize “high standards and belief that the student was capable of meeting those standards—a strategy known as wise feedback,” students were more likely to revise their essays and improve the overall quality of their writing. The “[e]ffects were generally stronger among African-American students than among white students, and particularly strong among African Americans who felt more distrusting of school.” This kind of communication builds trust in the student-teacher relationship and supports a culture of belonging.
Avoid “next time” feedback. In How to Give Effective Feedback to Your Students, Susan M. Brookhart reminds us that “students will not memorize our feedback and call it to mind the next time it is relevant,” categorizing “next time” feedback as “ineffective.” Feedback is a means to an end—student growth and achievement—and effective feedback requires something from students and communicates that learning is an involved process. That involvement leads to the feeling of belonging.
Address student thinking. The most effective feedback addresses student thinking. As Brookhart notes, “elaborative feedback—feedback that concentrates on evidence of what students were thinking and not merely about whether their answers were correct—leads to more improvement in learning.” Feedback should seek “to discover meaning,” in the words from Ellen Langer’s The Power of Mindful Learning, yet this meaning is only possible if teachers focus their feedback on how their students think instead of on “fixed categories” of right and wrong. Though important, concentrating your feedback on these categories conveys exclusion, not belonging.

Grading for Belonging

How teachers design gradebooks is telling of how they think about education, learning, and students. Great teachers use this educational tool to communicate a message of belonging. Below are strategies that are not new but may represent a shift in how you think about grading.
Grade for mastery of skills/content, not behavior. As Joe Feldman writes in Grading for Equity, “When we grade behaviors based on our subjective interpretation of those behaviors, it isn’t just unavoidable precision; it’s a recipe for inequity.” Participation and effort grades are often categories we use to “balance” our gradebook, but our judgments about student behavior are subjective, often biased, and can skew our understanding of the students in front of us. Have expectations for classroom behavior, of course, but don’t grade them. These grades are often used to build a compliant culture (i.e. grades are my tools to manipulate student behavior), not a belonging culture.
Provide frequent no-stakes/low-stakes formative assessments. In Neuroteach: Brain Science and the Future of Education, Glenn Whitman and Ian Kelleher argue that “[p]roviding students more frequent, nonthreatening, or low-stakes feedback on their understanding is critical to memory consolidation” and overall learning. Frequent no-stakes/low-stakes formative assessments communicate that grades are secondary to learning the material. That message decreases student stress and anxiety and supports a belonging mindset.
Quit the zero. There is no better way to communicate “you don’t belong” than to give students a zero on missing or incomplete assignments. Not only does this decision compromise the validity of a student’s grade, but it reinforces a compliant culture. Research shows that this practice doesn’t motivate struggling students; in fact, they are less motivated because of the statistical hurdle before them. Mark the work “incomplete,” assign the student to academic support, do anything possible to communicate that you care about why they didn’t submit their work. As a last resort, perhaps a zero is needed, but it should never be our go-to strategy in the immediate. Remember, behavior is communication, and it cuts both ways.
It’s important to remember that building systemic belonging has nothing to do with removing “threats,” which, for our purposes, I will define as the cognitive or physical challenges in our classroom. A culture of belonging simply allows us to deploy those challenges so that learning can happen. My jiu-jitsu instructor didn’t say, “Take it easy on the new guy.” No, a leg was wrapped around my neck and pressure was applied, but I knew I could tap out at any point and no judgment would be rendered. We require stress to thrive, but in school, we want that stress to come from cognitive or physical challenges, not ones that threaten a student’s sense of belonging and well-being.
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Brent C. Kaneft

Brent Kaneft is head of school at Wilson Hall in Sumter, South Carolina.