¶ … harsh realities of the human condition is the fact that everyone, including students and teachers, has stereotypical views about other people that influence the manner in which they think and behave. When stereotypes are introduced into the classroom, though, they can adversely affect the environment in ways that detract from the learning experience for all students. Besides traditional gender-based stereotypes, the increasingly multicultural nature of American society has created a wide range of new stereotypes in the classroom today. To determine what can be done, this paper provides a description of different approaches that teachers can use to eliminate stereotypes from their classrooms. A summary of the research and important findings concerning stereotypes in the classroom are provided in the conclusion.
Review and Discussion
Impact of Stereotypes on Learning
Beginning in the early 1990s, social psychologists first identified the cognitive processes that activated various negative stereotypes in the minds of students that were engaged in taking important academic tests and found these activated negative stereotypes adversely affected their academic performance (Herboth & Mason, 2012). In this regard, Herboth and Mason cite the example of "a girl who is asked to indicate her gender before taking an important math test (such as the SAT) may be reminded that people of her gender are not expected to do particularly well on math tests, or an African-American student who is asked to indicate his race before taking an achievement test is reminded of the stereotype that Blacks have poor academic ability" (2012, p. 121).
In response to these powerful stereotypes, minority students develop fears that they will fail, thereby reinforcing such stereotypes, and these fears contribute to an additional cognitive burden that can further adversely affect academic performance, a cognitive process that is termed "stereotype threat" (Herboth & Mason, 2012). According to Herboth and Mason, "Stereotype threat is a social psychological phenomenon in which individuals underperform on academic tasks when subtly or subconsciously reminded of their group membership before beginning the activity" (2012, p. 121).
Stereotypical threats operate by reinforcing the preconceived notion that individuals belonging to certain groups tend to behave in a specific fashion or that their capabilities are inferior or superior to those of the general American public (Herboth & Mason, 2012). For instance, Reyne (2000) points out that, "Stereotypes also provide ready-made explanations for individual acts performed by stereotyped group members. The same stereotypes listed above could also be used to rationalize an African-American who loses his job, a girl who fails on a math test, [or] a Japanese student who gets into a good college" (p. 87). When educators apply these stereotypes in the classroom, affected students may respond with even more fear of failure. In this regard, Herboth and Mason add that, "It appears that reminding a person that they belong to a group about which society holds negative stereotypes (such as girls in math or African-Americans in academic settings in general) creates extra pressure on the individual to disconfirm these stereotypes" (2012, p. 122). Therefore, the use of many classroom instructions materials that focus on ethnicity or race could result in evoking stereotype threats among minority students (Herboth & Mason, 2012).
The insidious nature of many types of stereotypes can have far-reaching negative effects, even outside the classroom. For instance, according to Reyna (2000), "Stereotypes play in imposing...
85). Moreover, stereotypes that are learned early in life tend to remain salient during later adult years. For example, Reyna points out that, "Stereotypes convey explanatory information about groups -- such as blacks are lazy, girls are bad at math, and so forth -- that may be used as attributions for performance by adults as well as the children themselves" (2000, p. 85). Such stereotypes become self-fulfilling in the classroom when teachers and students accept them wholesale. For instance, Reyna emphasizes that, "In the classroom, African-American students are given less attention and are ignored more than their Caucasian counterparts, regardless of the former's academic performance or gifted status" (2000, p. 86). In addition, African-American students have been found to be on the receiving end of more negative feedback and mixed messages than their white counterparts (Reyna, 2000). Likewise, female students tend to receive less overall feedback from teachers in the classroom compared to their male counterparts, particular in subjects that have been viewed as traditional male-oriented such as math and science (Renya, 2000). As Reyna concludes, "Teacher expectations not only affect the way teachers treat students, but also strongly affect the academic self-image as well as the scholastic performance of students" (2000, p. 86).
Indeed, even "positive stereotypes" can be damaging for students in and out of the classroom. For instance, Billings-Harris (2014) points out that, "There is no such thing as a 'good' stereotype. All stereo-typical beliefs lead to inaccurate assumptions about individuals, whether the belief is a positive one or not" (para. 2). As an example, Billings-Harris cites the stereotype of Asian students in the United States as being intelligent and particularly good as subjects such as science and math. According to Billings-Harris, "It is true that many Asian-American children test well in these subjects. However, they were not born smarter than other people. Their ability, as it relates to these two subjects, is a result of their environment" (para. 3). While many Asian-Americans do in fact perform well academically in these subjects, it is reasonable to suggest that students from other backgrounds could do equally well if they were brought up in homes that placed a high value on these goals (Billings-Harris, 2014).
Moreover, stereotypes are self-reinforcing in that whenever a situation occurs that conforms to stereotypes, the stereotype is reinforced but when events occur that defy stereotypes, these are simply disregarded as being anomalous. For instance, Billings-Harris (2014) emphasizes that, "Stereotypical beliefs do come from some degree of truth, however. There is probably someone in the group who fits the stereotype. The challenge is to acknowledge people as individuals without generalizing that individual's behaviors or characteristics" (para. 2). This challenge is especially difficult because stereotypes provide a ready-made explanation for many important issues in American society. In this regard, Reyna (2000) maintains that, "Stereotypes provide the cause of a particular state of affairs regarding a group. For example, the stereotype that 'Blacks are lazy' is not just a putative description of African-Americans, but it is an explanation of why African-Americans are not successful in our society" (p. 88). Indeed, stereotypes pervade American society and it is little wonder that most young learners enter the classroom with a set of ready-made explanations for why others act the way they do. For instance, Reyna points out that, "Women are not good at math' is a stereotype often invoked to explain why women are less likely than men to pursue math-oriented careers. 'Japanese are hard-working' is one interpretation for Japan's economic success" (2000, p. 87).
Ways to Overcome Stereotypes in the Classroom
Unfortunately, there are no magic bullets for overcoming stereotypes in the classroom, but there are some steps that teachers can take to mitigate their adverse effects. For instance, Shields (2014) emphasizes that, "On the surface, negative comments by students about race, gender, or sexual preference may seem to be part of the benign banter of youth, but they're exactly where teachers should start their battle -- and lessons -- to build a better child and world" (p. 21). Besides eliminating negative commentary about others in the classroom, it is also vitally important that teachers recognize their own stereotypes about their students. In this regard, according to one multicultural classroom educator, "It is impossible to eliminate stereotypes entirely. The best we can do is become more aware of our own stereotypes. This way we can become more aware of how our…
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