Port City Notebook

News, views and random observations around Alexandria

What I’m Reading: Whistling Vivaldi

Achievement gaps have been highlighted recently in news reports about how the U.S. educational system falls short when compared with the rest of the world. And closer to home, they remain one of our school division’s biggest challenges.

So when a friend (and long-time educator) mentioned the 2010 book by social psychologist Claude M. Steele, Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do (W.W. Norton & Co.), I was curious to read it. The book looks at the role that one’s social identity—sex, race, ethnicity—plays in the classroom and on standardized tests.

The title of the book comes from the experience of a young African American male (who also happened to be a psychology grad student at the University of Chicago) walking around in his Hyde Park neighborhood.  He noticed that when he approached people on the street, they changed their behavior: They crossed to the other side of the street, clutched their purses, halted their conversations. To deal with his own discomfort, he started whistling excerpts from Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.” But when he did, a remarkable thing happened:  People noticeably relaxed and even smiled at him.  By associating himself with classical music, he successfully deflected others’ stereotyping of him as a dangerous black male.

Steele spent 20 years studying the effects of group stereotypes, primarily race and gender, on ability and performance. Throughout the book, he describes a fascinating collection of experiments, mostly involving college students, that look at questions such as: Why do black and Latino students with similar SAT scores underperform white students in the classroom? And why does the same phenomenon happen to women in advanced college math classes, law schools, medical schools and business schools?

According to the author, the pressures that come from trying to avoid confirming a societal stereotype about one’s group can by themselves cause underperformance, particularly on the high-stakes exams on which future careers may hinge. Women have been told time and again that men do better than them on math exams, and indeed when Steele presented a difficult math test to a group of women and men with equally strong math skills, the women underperformed.

But guess what else Steele found? When a math test was administered to women who had been told that women always do as well as men on that particular test, the women’s underperformance disappeared. The same general pattern even holds for normally dominant groups in society.  For example, white males taking a difficult math test that was described to them as one that “Asians tend to do better on than whites” performed worse than white male participants who were told nothing about the test.

Steele cites studies showing how physiological reactions to stereotype threats—increased heart rate, blood pressure and anxiety—interfere with performance.  Stereotype and identity threats create a vicious cycle by “diverting attention and mental capacity away from the task at hand, which worsens performance and general functioning, all of which further exacerbates anxiety, which further intensifies the vigilance for threat and the diversion of attention,” writes the author.

Can’t students just pull up their boot straps, work twice as hard, and prove the stereotype wrong? It turns out that academic success may depend more on how students study, not how hard they study. Steele describes an exploration of the differing study habits of black students and Asian students enrolled in a freshman calculus class at the University of California-Berkeley in which black students were underperforming.  The black students tended to study alone in their dorm rooms, while the Asian students worked in study groups outside of class that spent a lot of time together talking about calculus. The black students spent more time on answer-checking arithmetic, while the Asian students spent more time helping each other learn critical concepts (not unlike the group tutorial process that’s part of the AVID college readiness course).

When the researcher created a workshop that had the black students follow the Asian students’ study-group model, the black students not only got better grades, but also performed better than the white or Asian calculus students.

The author acknowledges that “reducing identity threat is not sufficient to overcome real skill and knowledge deficits in school.”  All students still need good instruction. But he concludes that interventions that make minority and female students less susceptible to negative stereotypes about their groups’ abilities can significantly improve their academic performance both in the classroom and on standardized tests.

Unfortunately, the book doesn’t fully follow through on the “What We Can Do” promise in its title. I would have liked more detail about remedies for how to make students feel safe from the risk of “identity predicaments,” and some of the remedies that Steele does provide, such as making sure that a group has a critical mass in a classroom, or fostering conversations between groups, seem fairly obvious.  Other remedies are more subtle, such as having teachers and mentors provide critical feedback more effectively and remind test-takers of positive role models who counter the relevant stereotype.

However, I took away from the book two ideas that might be worth exploring in our own schools. First, starting with our AVID students, we could try to duplicate the study-group model that was successful at UC-Berkeley. After-school study groups could be organized for middle-school AVID students taking Algebra I, for instance, or for TC students preparing for AP exams.

Second, we could try offering single-sex sections of Algebra I as an optional alternative to the regular mixed-gender classes. Now that most of our 8th graders are enrolled in Algebra I, this should be possible from a scheduling standpoint. I believe that it would benefit girls—who are more likely to experience the gender stigma in math class—as well as boys—who would not be trying to show off for the girls. I’m certainly no expert in this area of educational research, and I’d love to hear feedback from others, especially teachers, about whether this idea has any merit.

Whistling Vivaldi may not appeal to the mass-market reader, but it offers a lot of thought-provoking insights for teachers, school administrators and others who work in a classroom setting or as mentors to minority students.

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