Stereotype Threat & The Unique Advantage of Community

Remember SchoolHouse Rock? “Conjunction – Junction, what’s your function?” If you are too young, it’s worth a Google. I loved it and learned plenty about “Hooking up words, and phrases and clauses…” But another thing that always stuck in my mind was one of the American History skits in which the only woman was Betsy Ross sewing an American Flag. I thought, at the tender age of eight or nine, “Well, my Mom and I don’t sew, so we will never be part of American History.” I now recognize of course, that that does not “make sense” but I have recently come to understand the dynamics that would create that kind of impression, especially in a learning context.

At this year’s TABS/NAIS Global Symposium, Andrew Watson of Translate the Brain, presented a fascinating session on Stereotype Threat. He detailed consequences, how “ST” functions and offered strategies to defuse Stereotype Threat in the boarding school environment. What is the threat? For boarding schools in particular, Stereotype Threat impairs learning capacity and erodes community. I have been thinking about it ever since Global and spoke with Andrew to get deeper into the subject.

Stereotype Threat, in my layperson terms, is under-performance caused by the person in question – let’s say, the student – perceiving that a stereotype is directed against him or her. Note that it doesn’t matter if a stereotype is actually directed at the student in the present environment. In order for Stereotype Threat to occur, what is important is that the student believes that others believe in the stereotype. If my curly haired student believes I think curly haired people can’t write good poetry, Stereotype Threat is in play, even though I have no such belief.

Another key precondition for Stereotype Threat to occur is Salience of a Stereotype Threat Identity. This refers to there being factors in the environment that signal the general existence of the stereotype. For example, a Star Trek poster in the computer lab indicates that “sci-fi geeks” go with computers. This creates a normative expectation of what a student pursuing computer science should be.  A devotee of Jane Austen may feel like s/he doesn’t belong or isn’t the right kind of person to be successful in computer science. Take me as a young woman in the Harvard Philosophy Department in the late 80s/early 90s – one of only two women to write a senior thesis, laboring under the weight of centuries of an all-male cannon…”do I really belong here?”

So aside from my feeling like an oddball in the face of American History, Kant, Hegel and Nietzsche, what are the consequences of Stereotype Threat? There are many, with considerable studies behind them, but Andrew drew my interest most, elaborating on a cognitive result of ST that significantly interferes with performance: Working Memory Problems.

Andrew asked me to recite my phone number, then recite it backwards, then recite it backwards adding a count of 1-2-3 and so on, after each of the ten digits. (So 212-555-6789 would reconfigure as 9-1, 8-2, 7-3, etc… I almost made it!) This exercise demonstrates the action of Working Memory – taking familiar information from long term memory, adding new information to it and reorganizing the original information to be something new. The tricky thing is we have to hold onto and track a bunch of information all at once, while we reconfigure it with new input.  It’s a temporary process that we perform and let go of – I would have to “think about it” again to recite my phone number backwards with the 1-2-3 count. Working Memory gives us the space – the scratch pad, as it were. And we use it all the time. It’s one of building blocks of learning. Students take what they know, add to it and expand. Working Memory uses several channels, including visual and auditory, and we use those channels for most everything we consciously do.

Enter Stereotype Threat. When the student believes a stereotype is aimed against him or her, part of the brain works on the task at hand (let’s say, learning in class) and part of the brain focuses on self-talk regarding the stereotype. Both functions use the same channels, such as visual and auditory; therefore, the resources the student’s brain uses to learn become divided over two (or more) processes, one of which is doubting his or her ability to perform the task at hand. This may sound like a kind of distraction, but rather than attention going in one or more directions, capacity to function is being appropriated by the self-talk, taking that capacity away from the action of learning. Think of when your computer starts to run a background task you didn’t initiate and all of a sudden the program or app you are using starts to run really slowly.

Andrew mentioned that Working Memory Problems are not often talked about, but can be consistently and pervasively destructive because they hinder a cognitive function that we use all the time. So what’s to be done?

Andrew offered a number of strategies to diffuse Stereotype Threat but particularly aimed at opposing Working Memory Problems is simply, Normalizing Struggle. One of the glories and greatest strengths of Boarding Schools is that they present challenges and opportunities to students on many levels. As schools become more diverse and international, perception of these challenges is likely to become entangled with stereotype beliefs from the outside world. Remember the precondition for ST is that the student believes that others hold the stereotype. In a multi-cultural environment, a student could presently perceive a stereotype that exists in his or her culture, but that teachers or staff at the school have never even heard of. When struggle is normalized and framed as a helpful challenge – the true intent at boarding school – part of Working Memory Problems dissolve. Stereotype Threat can be diffused by dissolving its consequence, even when we don’t know what the stereotype is. Here’s an amazing example.

Gregory M. Walton and Geoffrey L. Cohen ran a study on a college campus, in which they told students that seniors found freshman year really difficult. Over a 3 year observation period, the intervention raised African American students’ grade-point average relative to multiple control groups and halved the minority achievement gap. Additionally, the intervention improved African Americans’ self-reported health and well-being and reduced their reported number of doctor visits 3 years post-intervention. Senior-year surveys indicated no awareness among participants of the intervention’s impact.  (Walton, Gregory M. and Cohen, Geoffrey L.  A Brief Social-Belonging Intervention Improves Academic and Health. Science. 18 Mar 2011 pp. 1447-1451)

Planet earth in blue human eyePart of this outstanding result may be attributed to effects on Working Memory. When struggle is perceived as normal for everybody, the student does not attribute struggle to Stereotype Threat and the cycle of ST (which in its entirety is deep and too much to discuss here) just doesn’t get started. The difficulty or challenge is “handled” in the brain – “this is hard for everyone, this is normal.” Working Memory doesn’t get highjacked by self-talk about Stereotype Threat because “difference” is a non-issue.

Similarly, Claude Steele in Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do (Steele, Claude. Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do. W.W. Norton & Company, 2010. Print.) cites a study in which he and his colleagues sponsored late night “bull sessions” at which college students could gripe about personal issues. African American students benefited most getting one-third of a letter grade higher than African Americans in other control groups, and also achieving close to the same grade point average as white students in the study. Essentially, the gripe sessions allowed students to see that the stresses of college life were common among everyone, regardless of race. Structured sharing. Struggle normalized. Stereotype Threat out the door.

What is also operative in the above examples, Andrew pointed out, is a Growth Mindset, as opposed to a Fixed Mindset, two opposing ways to conceptualize intelligence. In a Growth Mindset, if I don’t do well on a test, I just didn’t work hard enough – I can work harder and do better.  In a Fixed Mindset, I am just not smart enough. Stereotype Threat lives in a Fixed Mindset – X kind of person is such-and-such a way. Or as I put it together, women participate in American History by sewing. Period. Andrew pointed out that a huge difference in perspective can be made simply by how we talk about things. If we say to a kindergartener, “you are a good drawer” we are presupposing that there are two kinds of people in the world – good drawers and bad drawers. Fixed mindset. If we say, “you made a good drawing” – we make no assumption about the kind of people who exist in the world.  Distinction is created by action, a fluid factor.

Andrew mentioned that often times, Diversity Training at schools can end up making those in the majority, the perceived norm, you know I mean white males, feel like they should just stop being bad people.  Claude Steele makes a solid point that the problem is not that anyone is bad: the problem is that badness exists in the system, and some people know that that badness exists and that it’s pointed at them.

So boarding schools are their own systems, their own universes. Can’t we fix the system? In some ways, yes and in some ways, no. Schools do not exist in isolation: a new population enters the universe every year, bringing hundreds of concealed perceptions, expectations and Stereotype Threat beliefs. It is reasonable, at the least, for a student to believe that someone is aiming a stereotype against them, since those stereotypes do exist in the larger world. But Andrew noted that enough can be made to happen – or not happen – that fosters an environment where students are less hindered by Stereotype Threat. Instead of, or in addition to battling stereotypes, another strategy, utilized in both the Walton-Cohen and “bull session” studies, is to create an environment where racism or other stereotyping cannot take hold. Boarding Schools uniquely excel at molding environments and creating the circumstances that establish community, and are especially equipped to do this.

Normalizing struggle, focused sharing among diverse groups, growth mindset strategies and well conceived wall decor… The current discussion on Stereotype Threat is vast. It is with great respect for today’s educators, and with hope, and thanks to Andrew Watson of that I offer this food for thought and intend that it be useful for expansive ways (and neural pathways) forward.

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