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Stereotype threat, Prejudice and Growth Mindset in Children -

How might teachers induce a growth mindset in students?  

Our societies divide people into groups based on the classifications of race, gender, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, region, and economic status. Then they further stereotype members of those groups as being more or less competent or worthy than others. Sadly these stereotypes and their negative effects play out every day in playgrounds, in schools, colleges, communities, work organizations, and in politics.

In my research, I have been amazed over and over again, at how quickly students of all ages pick up on messages about themselves – at how sensitive they are to suggestions about their personal qualities or about the meaning of their actions and experiences. The kinds of praise (and criticism) students receive from their teachers and parents tell them how to think about what they do – and what they are.


- Carol Dweck ​


Stereotype threat is a self-confirming belief that one may be evaluated based on a negative stereotype. Because of stereotype threat, students who are reminded of negative stereotypes about their race or gender before taking a test perform worse on those tests, especially if the negative stereotype is one that makes them feel academically inferior. The anxiety of confirming a negative stereotype seems to be the driving force behind stereotype threat. That anxiety causes testers to perform worse than they would have otherwise. Stereotype threat is a reminder of how social forces can influence test scores, including intelligence scores. 

Between the ages, 11-14 many students come to conclusions like, "I’m just not smart enough" or "I am not good at math" or "I suck at art’’’. This is sometimes a result of stereotypes that surround us. Not just the youth but even adults don’t realize how many discriminatory messages infiltrate our everyday lives.


In 2002, Steven Spencer, along with Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson, discovered similar results when testing black students. Black students performed lower on tests when they were made to feel inferior before the tests. These research results are not limited to black students and women, however. White male students who scored high in math on the SAT performed worse when they were told they were taking a test to determine why Asian students typically outperform other students in math. It turns out that stereotype threat can cause all kinds of students to perform worse on tests when they believe the negative stereotype could be true or worry about confirming a stereotype.


​So, how do we avoid stereotype threat? Here's where I turned to: Dweck’s fixed vs growth mindset.


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According to Dweck, mindset refers to the way students perceive their own abilities. She argues that these perceptions fall somewhere between two poles: the fixed mindset and the growth mindset.


Fixed mindset - Fixed mindset refers to a mindset where a student believes their skills, intelligence, and talents are fixed traits. This attitude is essentially fatalistic and can often result in a student resisting learning or other attempts to improve upon their skills, intelligence, or talents.

Growth mindset - Growth mindset, on the other hand, is apparent where a student believes that their skills and talents can be improved upon by hard work and perseverance. This mindset results in a receptive attitude towards both learning and critical feedback. Students possessed of a growth mindset are also generally more open to trying new things.


Throughout Mindset (book by Dweck), Dweck quotes findings from extensive research projects on children (usually about the age of ten) which she has carried out with colleagues. One set of research studies asked the children to solve puzzles. They were then divided into three groups. 


The first group were given fixed mindset feedback. In other words, they were told that they had done well because they were very clever children. The second group were given growth mindset feedback. So these children were also praised but this time not for anything innate about their abilities – they were only praised for their effort and concentration. The third group, a control group, were only given bland feedback on having done a good job. 


Dweck and colleagues found that when these children were then asked if they wanted to undertake harder, more challenging puzzles, virtually all the children in the fixed mindset group refused while all the children in the growth mindset group accepted the offer. The control group split almost evenly between the two options. Dweck speculates that this no doubt reflected their own tendency to growth or fixed theories of intelligence. Some of her other research projects also show that children given fixed mindset feedback are less keen to keep trying to improve their learning or their abilities and, if asked to repeat the original task, will often not do it as well. In other words, their performance can often erode rather than improve as a result of being told they are talented or clever. This finding has huge implications for parents, teachers and anyone working with young people. 


"What if we emphasize that intelligence is malleable?". Writes Dweck in Brainology:

"The wonderful thing about research is that you can put questions like this to the test — and we did (Kamins and Dweck, 1999; Mueller and Dweck, 1998). We gave two groups of children problems from an IQ test, and we praised them. We praised the children in one group for their intelligence, telling them, “Wow, that’s a really good score. You must be smart at this.” We praised the children in another group for their effort: “Wow, that’s a really good score. You must have worked really hard.” That’s all we did, but the results were dramatic. We did studies like this with children of different ages and ethnicities from around the country, and the results were the same.’’


The children praised for their intelligence did not want to learn. When we offered them a challenging task that they could learn from, the majority opted for an easier one, one on which they could avoid making mistakes. The children praised for their effort wanted the task they could learn from. Many children believe that intelligence is a fixed quantity because of our society and our educational systems. So if they do badly at something, they believe that they can’t do better later with more work.  


The children praised for their intelligence lost their confidence as soon as the problems got more difficult. Now, as a group, they thought they weren’t smart. They also lost their enjoyment, and, as a result, their performance plummeted. On the other hand, those praised for effort maintained their confidence, their motivation, and their performance. Actually, their performance improved over time such that, by the end, they were performing substantially better than the intelligence-praised children on this IQ test.​"


So, by understanding the growth mindset and using micro-affirmations to combat stereotype threat, parents and educators can help their children perform their best inside and outside of the classroom.


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The following suggestions are drawn from research on some of the interventions that have been shown to reduce or ''defuse'' the impact of stereotype threat on student performance. These are for educators and parents. For additional ideas and research read about Killpack and Melon.

​1. Foster a “growth mindset” by conveying the idea that intelligence is not fixed, but can change and grow incrementally, with practice and “exercise"

2. Create a learning environment in which mistakes and missteps are valued as opportunities for learning. Encourage students to “think out loud,” to ask questions, to embrace difficult problems, and to take intellectual risks. 

3. Describe for students situations in which mistakes, missteps, and wrong turns have led to discovery and innovation in your field. Hong and Lin-Seigler (2012) have found that learning about struggles faced by famous physicists increased students’ interest in science and problem-solving.

4. Prompt students to reflect on their work by asking questions such as “Who made an interesting mistake today?” or “Did you find any stumbling blocks or places where you struggled when you were writing this paper? How did you work through those difficulties?” (Dweck 2008)

5. If a student contributes an incorrect answer, follow-up with questions that will help the student explain their rationale and identify any “wrong turns” or missteps. Communicate often with your students about the usefulness of wrong answers—they help us to illuminate incomplete understanding and spur us on to learn more. Sometimes, moreover, what appears to be a wrong answer turns out to be an alternative way of correctly solving a problem or answering a question.

6. Be careful to avoid assuming that a students’ performance on an exam or assignment is evidence of “natural” ability (or lack of ability). When speaking with students who are not performing well in the course, avoid statements such as “some people have trouble with math [or writing] [or critical thinking]”; these statements can communicate the idea that intelligence is fixed and may also remind students of identity-based stereotypes. Instead, work with the student to identify areas where the student is struggling and 1-2 new strategies the student can use to improve in those areas (Rattan, Good, Dweck, 2012).

7. When commenting on student work, provide “wise feedback,” which combines 1) assurance that you are providing critical feedback because you have high standards, 2) specific commentary indicating where the students’ work does and does not meet the standards, and 3) confidence that students can meet those standards. This type of feedback has been shown to improve students’ motivation and reduce students’ perceptions of instructor bias (Cohen et al., 1999; (Yeager et al., 2014).

8. Articulate and share with all students the criteria you will use to evaluate their work. When appropriate, grade with rubrics or answer keys that promote fairness and transparency. Explain to students the rationale behind these criteria. 

9. Provide students with challenging feedback that identifies areas for improvement and expresses your confidence that they can learn new strategies for studying, writing, or solving problems. Trying to comfort students by, for example, telling them that you will give them easier problems, or call on them less often, has been shown to de-motivate students, while “strategy feedback” has been shown to increase students’ motivation. Moreover, students perceive “comfort feedback” to be associated with a fixed mindset, while perceiving “strategy feedback” to be associated with a growth mindset (Rattan, Good, Dweck, 2012).


10. When students learn that it is common to experience academic struggle and to be concerned that these experiences suggest that one does “belong” at the institution, they have improved academic and health outcomes compared with students who do not receive these messages (Walton and Cohen, 2011).

11. Teachers can improve your students’ sense of “social belonging” by providing narratives written by students who initially struggled and questioned whether or not they belonged in the course or at the institution, but ultimately learned new study strategies and succeeded. Include narratives from diverse students, for example in terms of race, religion, gender, or nationality. As a second step, teachers can ask their current students to write their own narratives about a time when they have experienced academic challenges and ask them if you can share this narrative with future students in the course. This act of writing their own stories of struggles and perseverance can help them internalize the message that academic struggle is common and, often, transient (Aguilar, et al, 2014).


12. Don’t praise unless it is warranted. Praise for effort, concentration and good strategies – not for talent, ability or intelligence. Be specific – well-judged praise helps young people to learn what they are doing well and what they can build on. Don’t go over the top with praise – it can lead a young person to feel anxious that they may disappoint you in the future. 

I believe Dweck's ideas are of fundamental importance to us in India. The stereotypes kids acquire early on can become deeply entrenched and hard to change as adults. In my view, schools need to educate teachers and parents too.


This will not only help these children. If it’s done on a big enough scale it may well contribute to the creation of a more just and civil society.

Feel free to reach out for a collaboration or a conversation!

© Aishwarya Jare