Welcome to our community of educators.  Read from other teachers and share your learning.

Grit, Vivaldi and the Gap

After watching Angela Lee Duckworth’s TedTalkhttp://www.ted.com/talks/angela_lee_duckworth_the_key_to_success_grit.html ,  I was struck by  the research she had done and is doing on the non-academic aspects of what allows students to achieve.  While, her TedTalk and research establishes the issue that is the largest factor in success, Grit, she openly admits that the process of instilling grit in our students is still a mystery.  Since watching her talk on the PBS special, I’ve been amazed at how beautiful, simplistic, and true her insight really is. I’ve tried to demonstrate some perseverance myself and work through the dilemma that Duckworth identifies.  A couple of points she made created a sense of importance worthy of investigation and I formulated these questions:

Why do some students see failure as a permanent condition? 

Do at-risk students tend to view failure as a permanent condition? 

And for a while that’s as far as I got. 

Then, I stumbled across Bill Gates’ summer reading recommendations and Claude Steele’s Whistling Vivaldi struck me as a potential source of inspiration to the questions raised by Duckworth.  Here in this short clip, Dr. Steele outlines the theory he developed that he calls “stereotype threat”.   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vvwvvbiwRkg 

Once beginning Whistling Vivalidi, I quickly began to see the implications on K-12 education.  The truth uncovered by Dr. Steele taps into the universal experience that all of us have experienced in some fashion.  The conditioning that society inflicts on an individual negatively shapes the intellectual performances we solicit from students in an educational setting.  Education itself does not create the conditioning, but rather the school setting becomes a part of the environment that the conditioned behaviors could manifest themselves.  The cues that individuals interpret from their surroundings determine whether or not someone would feel under a “threat” of confirming a preconceived stereotype.  The example that drives much of Dr. Steele’s research is that “women typically perform at lower levels than men in math”.   From his experiments his theory evolved to suggest that the reason that the lower performance occurred was because of the multitasking the brain was being asked to do.   Task 1 asked the brain to solve complex math problems.  Task 2 demanded the brain to deal with the social pressures of being a woman in a high-level math course.  Dr. Steele suggests that these two tasks conflict with each other and drains the brain of potential resources to accomplish Task 1.  So a cycle begins where the stereotype is consistently perpetuated.  Here is a visual of how I interpret Dr. Steele’s theory.

Dr. Steele’s research does establish some qualifiers for the levels of interference the stereotype threat manifests itself.  The two primary conditions that must be met are 1.) a task where the respondent feels that he/she is being measured and 2.) that completing the task is important, it matters, to the respondent. 

This is where Duckworth’s questions started to come bubbling to the surface in my mind.  Over time, I had also reformulated the two questions into one: Do at-risk students view failure as a permanent condition? 

I believe that Dr. Steele’s research may suggest that they do and here’s why.  Think back to your earliest school memories.  Did you feel out of place?  That you had to prove yourself to your classmates?  Teacher?  What if you were given cues that told you that you had “failed” more often than you were “successful”?  How long would it take you to lose your grit?  Now, compound that by adding a stereotype threat.  Do I look different?  Sound different? Live in the wrong part of town?  And on and on.  Students who enter the classroom already conditioned to understand stereotype threat are much more susceptible to the erosion of their grit. 

In Whistling Vivaldi, Dr. Steele provides some tools to help reduce the impact of stereotype threat. These include:

1.     Create an experience of positive affirmation.

2.     Help create a “critical mass”.

3.     Adapt the language around tests/assessments to be less threatening.

So these are actions that we can take within the cycle mentioned above to negate the stereotype threat to our students.  I believe, we, as teachers, can begin to embrace the notion that our students feel this pressure, or anxiety, even if they demonstrate a high-degree of apathy.  What if apathy, the lack of grit, is a pre-conditioned response to deal with the potential confirmation of a stereotype threat?  Is it better to not even try then to confirm what I already believe to be true about myself?  Would we say this student has grit?

There is also even a much larger application of this understanding.  Uri Treisman’s work at the University of Texas revealed that the cultural preferences that our students are raised impact how they seek out assistance in the classroom.  Students that perceived the existence of a stereotype threat in a particular classroom are less likely to ask classmates or the teacher for help because the question itself may be a confirmation of the stereotype threat.   In other words, the student may believe that it’s better to suffer in silence than to speak and confirm the weakness to the group.  As a teacher, I think of the student who appears removed, disinterested, and never causes a disruption to the class and then performs well below his/her peers on the assessment.  Was this distant, apathetic-appearing student truly performing at a lower level, or was the multitasking and cultural norms forcing the student to do everything he/she could do to not confirm the stereotype.  Compound this experience day after day, year after year, and we wonder why we have gaps in our student populations?

The larger impact for me was how we, as educators, work with students who are performing below grade level.  We typically subject them to an intervention that lets the student know that they are indeed a struggling student.  We create a social group of students that quickly assess the cues of the environment and realize that everyone else is also a struggling student, and then we are surprised that these students demonstrate less grit, become “at-risk”. 

What if we shaped academic interventions around the dynamics of the mind?  What if we implemented stereotype threat reducing cues into our classrooms and schools?  What if we created instruction that built supports for students even when their cultural norms don’t provide them?  What if we did little things to build perseverance and grit?

Please continue the conversation.  Leave a comment, some feedback, or a question.  Also, follow us on twitter @the_explicator and @kastidham

Thanks for reading,

Can we interrupt social Conditioning?

Reading, the Common Core, and a Confession

Reading, the Common Core, and a Confession