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Can we interrupt social Conditioning?

This is a second post in a series considering social conditioning, grit, and stereotype threat.  For more information, please check out the earlier posts and also please leave your thoughts in the comments below!

Every once in a while, I hear something so true that it seems like I’ve just realized something I’ve always known.  I’m a fish learning the word for water.  This is exactly the kind of smack in the face learning I have experienced with studying Stereotype threat over the past few months, specifically in thinking about its implications to the classroom.  I have experienced the cycle myself and watched my students suffer through it but never have articulated what I observed clearly enough to begin to address it.  

Teachers know the symptoms.  Students perform to our expectations.  I know they learned that but they blew it on the test.  She’s smart but she has math/test anxiety.  Looking more deeply into the psychological science behind these effects, we can finally begin to address them in a real way, accepting that these are not isolated conditions, but are the outcome of long-term, societal conditioning.    The bad news is that its real – students underperform intellectually because of impossibly permanent conditioning, a cycle which we affirm and perpetuate.   The good news is that the more we learn, the more we can make choices that minimize the effects for our students day to day, interrupting the cycle, opening the brain energy up for learning, and developing grit.

Of course there are an infinite number of factors that effect student performance.  So to put my thinking in a controlled environment, I went to my experiences with the Math Design Collaborative.  Within this work, I’ve had the opportunity to see highly engineered and vetted lessons enacted by highly skilled and trained teachers in a variety of classrooms across the county.  Talk to one of these teachers and they’ll tell you that the work really does something magical – every student is challenged and supported through the lesson.  The students who rarely struggle with the math are stretched and those who are perpetual under performers engage and exceed their own expectations for success.  My theory is that the strategies and tactics we evoke interrupt the cycle of stereotype conditioning and ease the anxiety of classroom tasks, leading to these successes.   We believe the strategies below are important for learning, now we may know that they are CRITICAL and have new insight into why.


  • ·      Framing the lesson – We attempt to break the cycle here by being explicit with the purpose of the lesson – to reveal and value our misconceptions so that we can revise our thinking.  This mindset and language sets a positive context for the task, minimizing initial anxiety. 
  • ·      Analyzing student work – pre-assessment:  This is a critical step for teachers in addressing the cycle.  By attending to each student’s presentation of what they know and can do, the teacher can value what the math that each student is bringing to the table.   This establishes that the teacher is invested in the individual student’s learning, developing a “challenging and supportive” relationship.
  • ·      Writing feedback questions:  Again, this process established for the students that the teacher is confident that the students are owners of their learning and capable of success.  Effective feedback supports students in constructing their own understanding without excusing them from the work.   What message does it send to the student when we pick up the pencil and finish the problem for them?  You can’t do it.  Let me do it for you.
  • ·      Grouping students homogeneously:  Being intentional in grouping students by like misconception may seem counter-intuitive if we are trying to un-do the effects of stereotyping and social conditioning.  By focusing only on those immediate misconceptions demonstrated on the pre-assessment, however, we are clear in saying that these are not fixed qualities.  We often make the mistake of grouping students by trends in performance or our perceptions of their strengths and weaknesses, which can affirm the social groups that the students self-identify.  We have seen that grouping by evidence of learning around specific and timely ideas mixes up the expected pairings.  (I have heard a student say “I must get this because I am in a pair with the smart kid.”)
  • ·      Students openly discuss what they have learned – During the introduction and whole class discussion, the teacher makes intentional choices that highlight the individual and group contributions to the learning of the whole class, recognizing a variety of solution paths and reasoning that maybe valuable if incomplete.  This redefines success as growth and reasoning, not only correct answers, interrupting the answer-getting mentality and the affirmation of negative stereotyping.  It also established that the whole class is a learning community, creating a critical mass of learners and de-emphasizing the social groups within the class.
  • ·      Collaborative activity - this is a safe zone for students to engage in messy, puzzle-like learning.  Students may work in pairs to complete a card sort or examine the reasoning of sample student work.  Not surprisingly, this is where teachers report the most evidence of student learning.
  • ·      Pre and Post-Assessments - This element is where we see the most stress in the lessons.  The greatest complaint we hear from teachers is that they collect evidence of learning during the lesson that does not present in the post-assessment.  Students do not perform as well as is expected based on the collaborative activity and discussion.  Is this a symptom of the anxiety?  Perhaps the context of the post-assessment re-activates the engrained anxiety because it so closely resembles a traditional quiz or test.  How might we be more intentional in framing the post-assessment to minimize these effects?  Can we shift our instruction and classroom habits so that there are cues that establish positive contexts for tasks of this nature? 


These strategies are not MDC lesson specific and are certainly not the complete picture, but do offer up some potential action steps in addressing the cycle of social conditioning and its implications for learning.  The research fortifies our belief in the strategies, but also challenges us to incorporate this goal into our theory of action.   How will the goal of interrupting the cycle refine the choices I make?

The thoughts here are heavily influenced by the work of Claude Steele (Whistling Vivaldi), The Shell Center, and Ann Shannon of Ann Shannon and Associates.  Thanks to all.


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Grit, Vivaldi and the Gap