It has been said that the student who does not believe they can learn is the most difficult student to teach. Learning requires effort, risk, and persistence. This prospect can seem like a heavy lift for students who doubt their abilities, lack confidence, or have not experienced much learning success. In fact, all students are, at some points, likely to wonder about their capability and question their ability to succeed.
Yet, the presence of hope for success is often the first step in the learning process. It opens the door for students to see the purpose and possibilities associated with learning. Still, it is a factor in learning that we may overlook and take for granted as we prepare to teach.
When hope is lacking, investing energy and enduring the frustration that can accompany learning can seem like a “bridge too far.” In fact, it can be easier for students to see themselves as incapable and tell themselves that what they are asked to learn is not relevant, useful, or worth the effort. Such self-talk can actually feel better than risking engagement with an activity that may lead to embarrassment and shame.
Obviously, negative self-messaging undermines our efforts and our messages about the importance and value of learning. A well-prepared, focused, professionally prepared lesson is of little value if students are not ready or able to engage in the learning we have planned.
To be clear, hope is not just voiced optimism or a naïve view of life. Hope is the realization that success is possible with patience, effort, strategy, and persistence. Hope is a key motivator that pushes and pulls people toward their goals. Equally important, students who are hopeful also are more likely to bounce back when they make mistakes and experience setbacks.
The good news is that hope is a learnable skill. We can teach and nurture it. Here are five actions that can help us to get started.
Create an emotionally safe learning environment. Students need to feel safe to take risks. They need to be free from the prospect of embarrassment and public criticism. Respect, valuing, and support are crucial elements of an environment in which students feel safe to take risks and learn. Of course, a safe learning environment by itself is not enough, but it is a condition that we need to create to make taking learning risks feel like a reasonable commitment.
Conduct empathy interviews. The more we understand about students who struggle to gain and sustain hope, the better able we are to reach and teach them in this crucial area. Explore the student’s history with learning, including that which occurs outside of school. Inquire about past challenges they have confronted and overcome to find success. Nudge for details about what they did, how it worked, and how they felt. What we learn from these conversations can provide helpful reminders and levers to instill, nurture, and sustain hope. Finally, assure students that we want them to experience this type of success, and the feelings that accompany it, over and over in our class.
Give students a sense of control. Hope is closely associated with a sense of control. Helping students to see connections between their efforts and learning outcomes can be crucial to the development of hope. We can start with small things: making choices about activities, what to do first, with whom to work, and so on. Over time, we can expand and build choices to include use of time, learning strategies, and other learning drivers. The goal is to help students gain a sense of agency relative to their learning.
Coach students to set goals. Goals are tangible elements of hope. Goals create a path to the future. We can help students to break goals into specific, actionable steps so they can see how they can get from where they are to where they want to go. At first, the goals may be modest and short-term, but over time they can build into more challenging and significant learning targets. Initially, students likely will need instruction, coaching, and support. However, we need to be careful to ensure that the goals are owned by the student. If students perceive the goals as ours, we will have lost much of the leverage the goals can provide.
Encourage students to reflect on and talk about hope. At first, students may be reluctant to discuss this aspect of their learning. To build awareness and comfort, we might start with activities such as writing about or discussing a sentence stem like “Today, I hope…” as a warm-up activity and collect or invite reflections at the end of class. We might share vignettes of people who persisted and prevailed in the face of a challenge because of the power of hope. We can also connect examples of how the power of hope led to solving complex and difficult challenges related to our subject area to make a connection with what students are learning. As students become more comfortable and conscious of the power of hope, we might even have them write a letter to their future selves describing who they hope to become and why.
We do well to remember that the level of hope in people ebbs and flows. We may see progress one day, followed by a day that will require more attention and reassurance. Experiences and circumstances can impact hope, especially as students are building confidence and growing the power of their hope. We must be patient without giving up. As hope grows, we can be assured that in the face of struggles and setbacks, we will see students bounce back faster and persist longer.