The first half (or maybe more) of social psychologist Claude Steele’s book Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do proves the detrimental impacts of “identity threat” on academic performance for stereotyped groups. This morning, I skipped ahead a few chapters in search of some solutions. What can we do to reduce identity threat and unlock the potential of all learners?

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Steele theorizes that the “cloud” of stereotypes that exist relative to our identities – girls are bad at math, or African Americans don’t belong at elite colleges – create a “vigilance to threat” narrative for those trying to navigate environments where they fear they are perceived as being inadequate. For instance, a white student in an African-American Studies course dominated by his black peers experiences “identity threat” because he fears that other students in the class assume he is racist. Therefore, every day in class, a large percentage of his mental capacity is taken up by being “vigilant” to this identity threat. He rehearses what he wants to say and considers the connotation of each word before contributing to the conversation. He studies the body language of others in the class, taking cues from the slightest of reactions to what he has to say. All of this vigilance prevents him from using his brain to think and learn.

Now imagine the impact of the “vigilance to threat” narrative for minority students who experience identity threat in all of their academic and social interactions at school. Yikes! Steele suggests, and I’m convinced by his research, that this is a significant factor in the racial achievement gap we see in our schools.

So what do we do? In order to reduce the impact of stereotypes, Steele offers a few concrete, research-based actions we can take. And they’re pretty simple:

  1. Be deliberate about the feedback you give. When giving feedback, convey the message that you are holding students to high standards and believe that they can meet those standards. In a recent study, explicitly saying these things to students made them more trusting of the feedback and more motivated to improve than sandwiching critical feedback with positive praise or trying to be “neutral.” Why does this work? “It told them they weren’t being seen in terms of the bad stereotype about their group’s intellectual abilities.”
  2. Create a narrative of belonging to replace the “vigilance to threat” narrative. Researchers  showed minority college students survey results indicating that, despite a tough freshman year, most minority students came to feel like they belonged to a community and generally felt happy at college, which provided a narrative of hope for freshmen who were struggling. The result? Students imposed this hopeful narrative onto their own experience and their grades rose as a result. A similar result occurred when students participated in regular, structured conversations with white students about topics of personal relevance, such as parents, friendships, dating, and classwork. Seeing that white students were also struggling in their classes or earned a C- on the last paper, or were worried about making friends, or felt the sting of a shortage of cash, helped minority students realize that the stresses of college life were impacting others as well.
  3. Teach “incremental” intelligence, or growth mindset, to supplant a “fixed” view of intelligence. Students who studied and then wrote about the brain’s ability to grow and change, and thus a person’s capacity to grow their intelligence and competencies, showed improvements in their grades.
  4. Use affirmations. Students who wrote about their values – family, religion, friendships, talents and hobbies – and why these values were important to them showed grade improvements as well. Why? Calling to mind the positive aspects of one’s identity, and the larger picture of who one is, can help put early setbacks into perspective instead of allowing these failures to reinforce stereotypes. Without some sort of “interrupting” force, such as a positive affirmation experience, early failures worried students more, which worsened their performance, which in turn worried them even more. Stop the cycle with positive, identity-supporting experiences.

What I love about these suggestions is that each of them is implementable on the individual level – I can work to incorporate them into my practice and see results regardless of whether or not the whole school is on board. So often we talk about shifting the culture of the entire school and I feel exhausted by the challenge. This, on the other hand, offers some simple steps in the right direction.