Educators. Students. Community members. Much more unites us than divides us, particularly knowing we all wear multiple hats. Building relationships. Thinking BIG.
Challenging and supporting one another. Developing engaged, empathetic citizens. Please join me in pondering how best to nurture these common ground connections.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

A Guest Post—Stereotype Threat

On Monday night, I had the good fortune to hear Dr. Claude Steele speak about his research which focused on Stereotype Threat. My colleague also attended and put these thoughts together. He captured the talk so well, so with his permission, I'm sharing. Thanks, David.

Dr. Claude Steele gave a talk last night at ETHS on the concept of Stereotype Threat that was as personal as it was informative. He examined the question of stereotype itself, gave a series of examples where it happens, and then provided some solutions as to how it can be mitigated or even eliminated.

As part of his story, Dr. Steele shared his own early days in grad school, where white professors down the hall would freely use the "N" word, and there were regular open discussions on campus that explored the inferiority of black people's innate intellect. In this environment, as the only black man in the program, Claude Steele was not himself, he said. He was cautious and afraid to say anything for fear of promoting a negative stereotype. He was experiencing then what he would later go on to research extensively and define as stereotype threat.

During his talk, Dr. Steele shared many stories and ideas that resonated deeply. Here are just a few:
  • When black students took a non-verbal IQ test, they performed a full standard deviation lower than their
    white peers. When they took the same test, but where told before hand that it was "just a puzzle" and not any measure of anything, they performed at the same level... "Puzzles are fun," he said. "The frustration is part of the puzzle so it's OK".. but when you are feeling measured, he said, performance can drop, particularly if you are part of a group for whom there are negative stereotypes in our society.
  • "What makes you subject to stereotype threat is not anything about a lack of skills. It is when you care about your performance...It's the best math student that experiences the greatest stereotype threat."
  • "What creates stereotype threat is not anything about you," he said. "It is about context."  And thus there are remedies to eliminating stereotype threat. He provided these:
    • Teachers need to learn about stereotype threat and be constantly conscious of the cues they may be creating both personally and systemically
    • Teachers must take on, and teach, a growth mindset.
    • Identify less with the student, but rather with what he is dealing with. 
    • Schools should provide role models ("existence proof of what is possible")
As a continuation of his story of grad school, Dr. Steele went on to talk about his own advisor, a white man who, with time, demonstrated a true faith in the young Dr. Steele. "I began to realize he believed in me," he said. They had a strong relationship. "He'd ask me my opinions, and he cared what I had to say." They published a paper together. "Pretty soon I realized Shh... I can do this. I'm good."

Dr. Steele emphasized the explicit belief that someone had in his abilities. And then the authentic feeling of genuine success. He gives credit to these two things as propelling him forward early on to the success he has seen since.

Dr. Steele is now Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost at the University of California, Berkeley

"We need to treat our students," Dr. Steele said during the Q&A, "like they are our own children. We need to treat them with love. We have to start with that. We need to start with love and with appreciation. Students need to be met with that first."

"If I could summarize my own work in one word," Dr. Steele said as he closed. "It would be 'perspective'. I need to take the perspective of the student. I need to be in their shoes. When I take the perspective of the student, I don't see the student at all. I just see the circumstances they face and I begin to think about how to address them."

~David Wartowski, Director of Mathematics, Niles North

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