Most people are aware of the negative effects of stereotyping in our society, but in the classroom, the impact can be even more harmful. “Stereotype threat” is a phenomenon in which a student’s academic achievement is thwarted by their fear of confirming a negative stereotype about their social group. This threat can affect anyone, but is particularly prevalent in members of underrepresented groups or those (wrongly) assumed to be “academically inferior”.
The good news is that teachers can address the implicit biases that pervade their classrooms, ensuring everyone is treated with respect, dignity and care. Here are four effective strategies you can use to reduce the impact of stereotype threat and create a fair and inclusive learning environment for all students.
1. Have Honest Conversations About Stereotype Threat
Honesty and openness are the keystones of change. A good place to start is reflecting on your own inherent biases and owning up to and correcting your mistakes. When you lead by example, you can create a safe space that allows for difficult conversations and encourages students to address their own faulty thinking.
Look for opportunities to raise awareness about stereotypes during lessons, whether they come from resources or from the students themselves. Be clear but respectful, and keep in mind that even if you don’t have time for a deep dive into the bias in the moment, acknowledging it briefly will still help to shift perspectives.
2. Create an Inclusive Environment
As a teacher, you set the tone in your classroom, and what you choose to share and highlight can help you create a bias-free environment. For example, what type of images decorate the classroom walls and feature in material – do they represent all cultures and a balance of genders? Is the room accessible for students with disabilities? Do you use examples of past student successes that include a range of social groups?
These things can make a big difference to the sense of belonging that students feel, not to mention broadening their world views by making diversity the norm.
3. Expose Students to a Range of Perspectives and Teaching Materials
Many of us have a natural tendency to only want to hear from those we agree with, but actively challenging this inclination is a key aspect of reducing stereotype threat in the classroom.
Stereotypes are rife in literature, movies, teaching materials and even current events – and while this isn’t ideal, it does provide a great learning opportunity for students. Ask them to identify stereotypes they notice in curriculum resources or in the news and discuss them in class, and make sure to point out anything that is missed to show how easily we accept biases as reality.
Additionally, take care to select diverse materials wherever possible, as it’s important for students to see themselves represented in what they’re learning. Exposing them to multiple perspectives and people helps to teach them empathy, thereby diminishing the power of stereotype threat.
4. Foster a Growth Mindset in the Classroom
Encouraging a growth mindset is an effective remedy to counter the messages of embedded stereotypes. Teach your students that their potential is not fixed – with continued practice and dedication, they can change and improve even within areas that are currently challenging.
Create an atmosphere that values mistakes as opportunities for learning. If a student answers a question incorrectly, ask them to explain their thought process and help them recognise where the error occurred. When setting assignments, try to include some “low stakes” activities such as quizzes and projects where effort and critical thinking are more important than being right. Encourage students to think out loud, take risks, ask questions and embrace problems – and model this behaviour yourself.
Stereotype threat can be difficult to combat for the simple reason that it often goes unrecognised. But by incorporating these strategies into your teaching practice, you can begin to silence the dialogue that inhibits students’ performance and build an environment that allows each of them to realise their unique potential.