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See Inside Scientific American Volume 308, Issue 6

How to Expel Hurtful Stereotypes from Classrooms across the Country

The fear of confirming derogatory stereotypes can hinder academic performance. Researchers are scaling up relevant interventions to statewide programs



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In this month's Scientific American science writer Ed Yong explores new research on stereotype threat—the fear of confirming derogatory stereotypes about one's social group. Such anxiety can undermine people's performance in school, sports and the workplace. A girl in an advanced math class, for example, might worry that she will not test as well as the boys, because of the stereotype that boys are better at math. Her concerns might distract her and tax her mental resources so that she performs below her abilities. Similarly, a young white basketball player might play poorly because he is worried that he is not as skilled as his African-American peers. Stereotype threat is one of the explanations for certain achievement gaps.

In recent years researchers have developed surprisingly simple and brief interventions that seem to thwart stereotype threat in actual classrooms. Such interventions include hour-long essay-writing assignments, in which students reflect on what matters to them—boosting their positive self-image and making them resilient against prejudice—or read surveys of older students emphasizing that everyone has difficulty fitting in at first but eventually make friends. In the following essay Geoffrey Cohen and Julio Garcia of Stanford University address current efforts to scale up these interventions to statewide education programs.

Social-Psychological Interventions: Solving the Scaling-Up Problem
By Geoffrey L. Cohen and Julio Garcia
Graduate School of Education and Department of Psychology, Stanford University

Stereotype threat research has shown that intellectual performance is more malleable than previously thought. Subtle changes in the way a test is presented, for instance, can lead to dramatic differences in student performance. This fact affects how we should see the problem of achievement gaps based on race, gender and class in the U.S. The most common explanations for such gaps have focused on differences in academic aptitude and preparation, which explicitly or implicitly assume a view of intellectual performance as relatively fixed or slow to change. The more malleable view of performance offered by stereotype threat research moves us to a more interactive view focused on the relationship between the classroom situation and how it is subjectively experienced by the student.

For example, given their personal and historical experience, minority students may worry that they could be judged or treated through the lens of a negative stereotype, a concern their nonminority peers do not have. This concern can cause stress and mental load that can depress minority students’ performance to a level far below their potential. The cumulative toll of such a threat can be great when encountered repeatedly, day after day in a classroom. While stereotype threat is an important factor for solving the problem of systemic achievement gaps, it is by no means the only factor that if addressed would promote educational equality.

As the article by Ed Yong describes, theory-driven interventions can lessen stereotype threat and improve performance. Interventions using growth mind-set, values affirmation and strategies to buttress students’ sense of belonging in school have, in randomized field experiments, yielded lasting positive benefits on the grades and test scores of ethnic minorities and the exam performance of female students in advanced science courses. These interventions draw on decades of psychological research, target key psychological factors and are highly crafted to fit with local conditions in order to maximize the likelihood of positive impact.

These promising results, however, raise a critical question: How do we scale up social-psychological interventions to reach more than students in a single school, but also those in an entire school district, state or even the entire nation? As Lisbeth Schorr suggested in her books Within Our Reach and Common Purpose, the attention to detail, knowledge of theory and human touch that make interventions work at a small scale can be lost when they are scaled up. In the process key details can also be missed or key elements changed. For instance, values affirmations might have little effect if given in a haphazard way or belonging interventions might do more harm than good if they are seen as offering only platitudes rather than credibly conveying the important message. Finally, it would be foolhardy to assert that social-psychological interventions are magic bullets that work in all places at all times. They are rather context dependent. They work under certain conditions and function as catalysts interacting with existing situational factors. The interventions are not panaceas. Stated differently, the interventions unleash the positive forces already in the student and the environment. They obviously will not compensate for inadequate infrastructure or a violent neighborhood. But they can catalyze large gains under the right conditions, and they may even be necessary for the full benefits of larger reforms to emerge.

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