More meaningful interaction, less labeling

We would all benefit from more meaningful interaction and less labeling– not just by gender, but along any dimension by which we divide humanity.

In Education Week’s “Scholars Say Pupils Gain Social Skills in Coed Classes”, Sarah Sparks describes the negative consequences of segregating and labeling children by gender, as well as the benefits of the Sanford Harmony Program in avoiding and counteracting those effects.

Here are some choice quotes on the benefits of gender-balanced classrooms, based on research by Erin E. Pahlke, an assistant research professor of social and family dynamics at Arizona State University:

boys and girls in classes near sex parity had better self-control than those of either sex in a class in which they were the dominant majority, 80 percent or more.

Teacher stereotypes about student abilities may also be tempered in a more balanced classroom… Prior research has shown that teachers’ own beliefs about gender stereotypes—such as that girls perform worse in math, or boys in reading—can bring down their students’ performance.

On avoiding labels, based on research by Rebecca S. Bigler, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin:

even casually organizing students by gender or mentioning it in a way that labels causes boys and girls to develop the idea that gender is fundamentally oppositional, in ways the teacher has not mentioned or discussed

using a noun description like calling someone a ‘hat wearer,’ rather than saying ‘he likes to wear hats often,’ makes the description seem more permanent and intrinsic in children’s minds.

when teachers use groups to label children in their classrooms, you get the formation of stereotyping and prejudice, and when teachers ignore the presence of those groups in their classrooms, you do not find stereotyping and prejudice.

On the consequences of gender-based segregation, according to Laura D. Hanish, the co-director of the Lives of Girls and Boys: Initiatives on Gender Development and Relationships project at Arizona State University:

when boys and girls played mostly with same-sex classmates in preschool, they began to behave in more gender-stereotyped ways: Boys played farther from teachers, became more aggressive, and used more ‘rough and tumble’ play over time; girls moved closer to teachers and included more gendered play.

On the Sanford Harmony Program at Arizona State University:

each week, every child is paired with a new ‘class buddy’ of the other sex. Every day, buddies do a different activity together, from art projects and music to active physical games outside. The program also includes regular activities to teach the children social skills, such as listening, sharing, and cooperation.

students who participated in the buddy matching and social curriculum were more socially competent, less aggressive, less exclusionary, and showed better social skills toward both boys and girls.

students are now more likely to play together, cooperate, and help each other.

Yet again, we see the importance of reinforcing actions rather than appearance or group identity, and emphasizing behaviors over which people have control. Indeed, a little careful effort improves social relationships.


D. F. Halpern, L. Eliot, R. S. Bigler, R. A. Fabes, L. D. Hanish, J. Hyde, L. S. Liben, C. L. Martin. The Pseudoscience of Single-Sex Schooling. Science, 2011; 333 (6050): 1706 DOI: 10.1126/science.1205031

From positive self-esteem to positive other-esteem and learning

Dealing with differences needs to be encouraged gently, whether with ideas or with people.

As described in “People with Low Self-Esteem Show More Signs of Prejudice”[1]:

When people are feeling bad about themselves, they’re more likely to show bias against people who are different. …People who feel bad about themselves show enhanced prejudice because negative associations are activated to a greater degree, but not because they are less likely to suppress those feelings.

The connection between low self-esteem and negative expectations reminds me of related research on the impact of a value-affirming writing exercise in improving the academic performance of minority students:

From “Simple writing exercise helps break vicious cycle that holds back black students”[2]:

In 2007, [Geoffrey Cohen from the University of Colorado] showed that a simple 15-minute writing exercise at the start of a school year could boost the grades of black students by the end of the semester. The assignment was designed to boost the student’s sense of self-worth, and in doing so, it helped to narrow the typical performance gap that would normally separate them from white students.

After two years, the black students earned higher GPAs if they wrote self-affirming pieces on themselves rather than irrelevant essays about other people or their daily routines. On average, the exercises raised their GPA by a quarter of a point.

And from 15-minute writing exercise closes the gender gap in university-level physics[3]:

Think about the things that are important to you. Perhaps you care about creativity, family relationships, your career, or having a sense of humour. Pick two or three of these values and write a few sentences about why they are important to you. You have fifteen minutes. …

In a university physics class, Akira Miyake from the University of Colorado used [this writing exercise] to close the gap between male and female performance. … With nothing but his fifteen-minute exercise, performed twice at the beginning of the year, he virtually abolished the gender divide and allowed the female physicists to challenge their male peers.

Helping people feel better about themselves seems like an obvious, “everybody-wins” approach to improving education, social relations, and accepting different ideas.


[1] T. J. Allen, J. W. Sherman. Ego Threat and Intergroup Bias: A Test of Motivated-Activation Versus Self-Regulatory Accounts. Psychological Science, 2011. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0956797611399291

[2] Cohen, G.L., Garcia, J., Purdie-Vaughns, V., Apfel, N., & Brzustoski, P. (2009). Recursive Processes in Self-Affirmation: Intervening to Close the Minority Achievement Gap. Science, 324(5925), 400-403. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.1170769

[3] Miyake, A., Kost-Smith, L.E., Finkelstein, N.D., Pollock, S.J., Cohen, G.L., & Ito, T.A. (2010). Reducing the Gender Achievement Gap in College Science: A Classroom Study of Values Affirmation. Science, 330(6008), 1234-1237. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.1195996

Teaching stereotypes

On “When Teachers Highlight Gender, Kids Pick Up Stereotypes“:

When preschool teachers call attention to gender in any way, kids pick up on it. When boys and girls line up separately and when teachers say things like, “Good morning boys and girls”, children express more stereotypes about gender and even discriminate when deciding whom to play with.

Needless categorization fosters needless categorization.

How feeling a lack of control influences learning

Before you read any further, first think about a time that you felt in control of an important situation.

OK, got it? Now go ahead and visit “How people respond to feeling a lack of control” (Ed Yong’s summary and commentary on Whitson & Galinsky’s 2008 Science paper).

(I suspect the psychiatrists here will tell me that they already knew this phenomenon and have used it to help their patients develop healthier attitudes and more productive habits.)

I think it’s interesting to consider how this phenomenon could be related to Steele’s research on stereotype threat and Dweck’s research on beliefs about intelligence as fixed vs. malleable. Someone who feels less control over a threatening situation may be more susceptible to perceiving false patterns that interfere with deeper learning. Steele’s and Dweck’s (and their colleagues’) manipulations (of presenting them positive but not overly demanding stereotypes, or encouraging them to think of intelligence as malleable) strengthen students’ feelings of control. Such an approach could help learning, not just performance, and through a specific mechanism.

J. A. Whitson, A. D. Galinsky (2008). Lacking Control Increases Illusory Pattern Perception Science, 322 (5898), 115-117 DOI: 10.1126/science.1159845

The influence of stereotype threat on learning

On “Negative stereotypes shown to affect learning, not just performance“:

While the effect of negative performance stereotypes on test-taking and in other domains is well documented, a new study shows that the effects might also be seen further upstream than once thought, when the skills are learned, not just performed.

The power of expectation influences learning, not just performance. Next steps should examine tasks where more effortful processing is beneficial. (It’s also a fascinating demonstration of the distinction between learning and performance, often difficult to disentangle.)

Rydell, R.J., Shiffrin, R.M., Boucher, K.L., Van Loo, K., Rydell, M.T. (2010). Stereotype threat prevents perceptual learning. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107, 14042-14047. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1002815107

Transmitting math anxiety

On “Female teachers’ math anxiety affects girls’ math achievement“:

I’d like to know more about the potential mechanisms of belief transmission– what are the teachers saying or doing that may be influencing these girls’ math learning and achievement? Remedying those behaviors could also help reduce the teachers’ anxiety (in addition to the extra math training recommended in the article).