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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Thwarting Stereotype Threat: What Educators Can Do

Ideas for doing away with stereotypes.
Grace Rubenstein
Former senior producer at Edutopia
Related Tags: Assessment,All Grades

Researchers have only just begun to investigate how educators can protect their students against the damaging effects of stereotype threat. Their findings so far give some clues about where deeper answers may lie: in the messages we send students about their abilities and the kind of culture we foster in classrooms.

In 2003, Columbia University and New York University researchers reported that teaching adolescents to see intelligence as open to enhancement with hard work resulted in girls scoring significantly higher on a standardized math test. Similar benefits emerged when the students were encouraged to see their academic struggles as a natural, temporary symptom of the transition to junior high school.

Writing in the journal Applied Developmental Psychology, the researchers surmised that these lessons gave the girls -- who stereotypically are expected to do worse than boys at math -- an explanation for their difficulties that was a positive alternative to the notion that their inherent, fixed ability could be to blame. The same lessons about intelligence and academic struggle were associated with a boost in reading scores for all the students, most of whom were from minority and low-income families.

Recent and as-yet-unpublished work by Dorothy Steele, executive director of Stanford University's Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, suggests that the culture created in a classroom can help shield students from stereotype threat. In an urban California district, Steele, who is married to stereotype-threat theorist Claude Steele, used classroom observations, student questionnaires, and principal evaluations of teachers to elicit ideas for creating such a culture.

She identified a constellation of strategies associated with higher standardized test scores for African American students and, in some cases, other students of color and white students as well. These strategies included expressing high expectations for all, fostering warm and caring relationships among students and between teacher and students, employing constructivist teaching methods, and using students' diversity as a resource for teaching, rather than ignoring diversity in an effort to be colorblind and fair.

Steele posits that, taken together, these approaches give students what she calls identity safety, which protects them from threats to their sense of self, such as stereotypes. By comparison, test scores were lower in classrooms where teachers heavily restricted students' activities or took actions that students saw as unfair.

Stay tuned; studies like these are just the beginning.

Grace Rubenstein is a senior producer at Edutopia.

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