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Confronting Stereotypes in the Classroom: Part 1

By Kayla Burrow, Communications Specialist, AVID Center

AVID’s mission is to close the achievement gap by preparing all students for college readiness and success in a global society.

There are many causes behind the achievement gap, also known as the opportunity gap or expectations gap, that exists in our education system today, but what can educators actually do to close the gap, and is there anything that we are missing? What else could we be doing to ensure that all of our students are college and career ready?

In his book, Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do, acclaimed social psychologist Claude M. Steele explores the surprising ways in which stereotypes affect us and research-based ways of neutralizing those effects, especially in educational settings.

In America, we want to believe that our talents and choices are at the core of our successes or failures, but every choice is made in a specific context.  Steele contends that we all have different social identities – that sense of who we are based on the groups and social categories we belong to.   

Everyone is affected by their social identities, in both positive and negative ways.  When people are in a situation where a negative stereotype about one of their social identities could be confirmed, that is called stereotype threat.  (For more information on stereotype threat, see our interview with Professor Joshua Aronson.)

The title of Steele’s book owes itself to one of these stereotype threats.  Steele writes about The New York Times Columnist Brent Staples’ experience as a psychology graduate student at The University of Chicago.  Staples, a young African American man, dressed like a typical college student, would walk down the streets of Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood and see fear in the people who passed him.  They tensed up, avoided eye contact, and some even crossed to the other side of the street to avoid coming too close to Staples. 

Out of nervousness, Staples began whistling; he would whistle music from The Beatles and Vivaldi, and he found that whistling actually put these people at ease and allowed Staples himself to relax.  The negative stereotype that was following him, simply for being a young African American male in a well-to-do neighborhood, disappeared.  Stereotype threats hang around us in the air, intangible, but there, leaving us “trying to slay the ghost in the room, the negative stereotype and its allegation about us and our group” (111).

These ghosts are everywhere, and they influence our daily lives.  Steele points out that, “…social identities can strongly affect things as important as our performances in the classroom and on standardized tests, our memory capacity, our athletic performance, the pressure we feel to prove ourselves, even the comfort level we have with people of different groups – all things we typically think of as being determined by individual talents, motivations, and preferences” (4).   

Why do women with similar math skills and commitment to math as their male counterparts tend to underperform on math tests but not literature tests?  Why do African American college students earn lower grades than other students with comparable SAT scores?  Why do white males who are told a golf task tests natural athletic ability perform worse than white males who are told nothing about what the task shows?  Why do the scores on a math test taken by Asian girls as young as 5 and 7 vary depending on whether they were reminded of their race or gender just before the exam?  Steele’s research shows that the effects of stereotype threats are very real, and, luckily, there are also very real things we can do to squash them, just as Brent Staples did by whistling Vivaldi.

As educators, we want all of our students to have the opportunity to shine, to show their potential.  We don’t like the idea that something as simple as the way an exam is presented could negatively affect a group of our students, but it can.

Steele and his colleagues have shown that stereotype threat actually affects people on a physiological level.  When we are put into a situation in which we fear, confirming a negative stereotype about one of our social identities, it affects us in ways that we ourselves are not aware.

In one study, a group of women taking a challenging math test showed different brain activity during the test depending on whether or not they had been told the test reveals gender differences.  The stereotype threat affected the women’s working memory, which was being used up by a racing mind, and fMRI scans showed that the women under stereotype threat had less activity in their prefrontal cortex and heightened activity in the amygdala and other regions of the brain “…associated with vigilance to one’s social context and to emotion” (125). 

Stereotype threat directly influenced brain activity; the women who felt no risk in proving the negative stereotype about their gender were able to access more parts of the brain that we use to solve math problems, and these women performed equally as well as the men who were tested.  The women who were told the test showed gender differences did not.  The only variable was the stereotype threat. 

Steele also refers to another study on African American students that yielded similar results.  Before taking a challenging exam, some of the African American students were told that they were taking the test so that researchers could study problem solving and not intellectual ability, and these students performed equal to or better than the other test takers.  Again, the only thing that changed was that there was no longer a stereotype threat.

It isn’t easy to accept that sometimes our performance is out of our conscious control.  We want to believe that if we care and work hard, nothing will hold us back.  Why isn’t it enough just to tell our students and children to buckle down and work harder?

It is true that determination and hard work yield great results, but Steele’s research shows that stereotype threat actually affects motivated students the most.  One study revealed that students who lack the skills and motivation to do well in school tend to perform at the same levels, regardless of their social identity and the stereotype threat placed on them by researchers.  The achievement gaps begin to appear when we test students who care the most about school, students like the ones who are in AVID, students who are driven to excel.

According to Steele, these students become vulnerable to the “over-effort effect” (105). The over-effort effect is actually very beneficial when the work isn’t too frustrating for students.  On easier work, students seem to use the negative stereotype as fuel to outperform others, but when pushed to the edge of their skills, where real learning and growth take place, the over-effort effect leads to underperformance compared to their peers with similar skills. 

After noticing that African American students in his first-year calculus class at Berkeley were underperforming in comparison to his other students who had similar SAT scores, Dr. Philip Uri Treisman asked his students if he could follow them around and observe them in and out of school.

He found that his Asian students were the most likely to study in groups, allowing many people to work out problems together and gain a deeper understanding of the math concepts.  Problems with the homework were quickly cleared up, and studying together was a social activity.  White students studied more independently than Asian students, but they were still quick to ask for help from others when it was needed.  “They talked shop about calculus outside of class, even compared notes on difficult problems…”  But African American students “were intensely independent, downright private about their work.  After class, they returned to their rooms, closed the door and pushed through long hours of study – more hours than either whites or Asians” (101). 

Even though the African American students were working harder than the other groups, they were not able to focus as much on the concepts of calculus, because they only had the answers in the back of the book to work with and were often caught up in the arithmetic.  This resulted in intense feelings of frustration and an aversion to discussing calculus outside of class.  These students had no idea that other students were facing the same struggles and anxieties with the work, and they often did not reach out for help from other students or teachers.  They continued to underperform, affecting their confidence and future academic choices.  Stereotype threat and the over-effort effect were both at work in these students’ lives.  More details about Treisman and his research can be found in our article on AVID’s Postsecondary Project.

So what can AVID do to help students conquer stereotype threat and close achievement gaps?  Steele and his colleagues have made it clear that stereotype threat and its effects are real, but luckily for those of us in education, they have also discovered creative solutions to help reduce and even eliminate stereotype threat.  We’ll explore Steele’s suggestions in part two of this blog!


Kayla Burrow is a Communications Specialist for AVID Center. She was a first generation college student and received her Bachelor’s Degree from the University of Texas at Arlington in English and Secondary Education. Kayla has worked in education in many roles, including AVID tutor. She taught English at Grand Prairie High School Ninth Grade Center in Grand Prairie, Texas, and was also the AVID Elective Teacher and Coordinator there.

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Reader Comments (2)

Extremely enlightening. As a tutor at an alternative high school, it is very challenging to not perpetuate a stereotype threat. Can't wait for part 2!

February 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMiranda

Thank you for reading and commenting! Part 2 is up now. I appreciate your feedback, Miranda!

February 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKB

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