Thursday, February 19, 2004

Stereotype Threat

Some encouraging news from a recent Dallas Morning News story:
'Brain science is showing us that our conception of intelligence as this fixed thing is wrong,' said Joshua Aronson, a professor of applied psychology at New York University. 'Difficulties are surmountable.'
Since the early 1990s, psychologists led by Stanford professor Claude Steele have examined what they call 'stereotype threat.' The central idea: If you can convince kids that performance stereotypes don't limit their potential, they can do wonderful things.

Their latest study, published in The Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology in December, was conducted on 138 seventh-graders at Del Valle Junior High.

Dr. Aronson and the other researchers asked a group of University of Texas at Austin students to serve as mentors to the kids. The mentors spent about 90 minutes with small groups of students who were given different messages:

The first group was told that your brain is a muscle. The more you work it, the stronger it grows. Intelligence isn't a fixed endowment you're handed at birth. Study hard and, brain science tells us, your neurons will adapt and make new connections. Things that seem hard now will seem easy soon enough.

The second group was told that, yes, seventh grade is hard. But it's hard for everybody. It's a big adjustment from elementary school, but people tend to bounce back. The fact that many kids struggle in junior high is because it's a new situation, not because they've suddenly turned stupid. Most kids' grades go up by the time they reach eighth grade.

In other words, both messages were meant to tell students that any academic troubles they're having are not permanent. They can, with time and hard work, go away.

A third group of students heard a combination of the two messages. The fourth and final group – the control group, in experimental terms – was told only about the dangers of drug use.

At year's end, all the students took the state's TAAS test. The results were powerful. Minority students who got one of the experimental messages scored 4 or 5 percentage points higher on the reading TAAS than the control group.

The results for girls were even more striking. Girls who got one of the experimental messages scored 8 to 10 points higher on the math test than the control group.Those gains might not look that exciting, thanks to the slightly arcane way TAAS was scored. Look at it another way: The control group girls scored in the bottom 20 percent of the state; those who got the experimental messages were almost exactly at the state average.

"Kids need to understand that their intelligence is not fixed and can grow," Dr. Aronson said. "It sounds trite to say, 'All children can learn,' but these kids get lots of subtle messages that say they can't learn."


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