Are your students threatened?

One of my homework assignments this holiday was to read Whistling Vivaldi by Claude Steele, currently Dean of the School of Education at Stanford and previous Provost of Columbia University.   The book focuses on stereotype threat and how students are effected by it.  If you teach, you need to read this book.

Steele served on a minority retention committee while a professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.  There he saw that African-American students were under-performing based on their SAT scores as compared to other groups.   He describes experiments he and his colleagues did to try to understand what was causing certain college students to under-perform.  Through clear prose, he explains how he and others discovered stereotype threat was responsible for this disturbing trend.

When do students suffer from stereotype threat?  When poor performance would confirm a negative stereotype about a group they identify with.  Steel uses many examples including female math students, white sprinters, minority students and students from low-socioeconomic backgrounds.   The anxiety induced by wanting to disprove a stereotype or fearing confirming that stereotype actually changes the patterns of activity in the brain and results in poorer performance than the individual would have on that task without the threat.   Stereotype threat has a real and measurable impact on performance, physiology, and emotional well-being.

So, ask yourself, who in my classroom might be under stereotype threat?   Not limited to race or gender, stereotype threat can be based anything that  makes someone a minority in the room.  Fortunately, there are many small and inexpensive interventions that can help mitigate stereotype threat.  The studies in the book are fascinating; I have had the opportunity to read many of them in my coursework.  Small things like normalizing struggle, development of a growth mindset, and values affirmation can reduce the impact of stereotype threat in a surprisingly long-lasting way.

Chances are there is someone in your classroom experiencing stereotype threat.  You owe it to them to read Whistling Vivaldi.   


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