How Can We Make School Less Threatening?
I have a new article in Pacific Standard about the power of threatening information — if you haven’t read it, do it now. (Seriously, go read it.) While the article focuses on how self-image concerns create a disconnect between what a policy’s supporters perceive to be effective arguments and the arguments that are likely to actually persuade their opponents, the desire to mitigate threats and maintain self-worth is important in a number of different domains, including education.
Two lines of research that can be traced back to theories about self-worth have received a good deal of attention from educators and education researchers. The first is Carol Dweck’s work on “mindsets” and the benefits of believing intelligence in malleable. The basic idea is that if you believe your intelligence is fixed at birth, trying and failing is extremely threatening because it’s evidence you are eternally stupid. On the other hand, if you believe it’s possible to increase your intelligence, failure is much less threatening (pdf) because it’s only a snapshot of where you stand in that specific moment. The research of Dweck and her collaborators is couched in a variety of different terms and phrases, but its theoretical basis is in making the act of learning less threatening.
The second and more ostensible threat-related work deals with “stereotype threat,” a problem that can arise when the anxiety of confirming a negative stereotype (e.g. girls are bad at math) causes somebody (e.g. a girl taking a math test) to perform poorly. Stereotype threat presents a slightly different situation because the threat is not strictly posed to the individual, but it’s another popular example of how the school day presents students with an environment from which they might want to disconnect. Unfortunately, while researchers have created a number of interventions that successfully mitigate the threats posed by bad mindsets and stereotypes, not much is being done on a large scale to bring such interventions into the traditional school day.
Perhaps more troubling, there are a number of additional overlooked ways that school can create a threatening environment for students. For example, one of the simplest messages schools send to students is that there’s a world of stuff they don’t know. We take this for granted when it comes to kids, but nobody of any age wants to be told about how much they don’t know. It’s a scary notion. One reaction kids might have is convincing themselves that there’s not actually all that much they don’t know, and a step in that direction is a step away from the idea that classroom learning is a valuable opportunity.
Another threat posed by the school day involves other students. Even if a student has an adaptive “growth” mindset with regard to intelligence, they’re still getting potentially threatening information about where their intelligence ranks within their peer group. And when something poses a threat, people respond by derogating it. For example, in one study (pdf) meat-eaters rated vegetarians less favorably after imagining how the vegetarians would view them. The meat-eaters’ moral standing faced a threat from the vegetarians’ judgment, and so the meat-eaters responded by characterizing the vegetarians in a more disparaging way. When it comes to learning, it seems plausible that if a student sees school as a threat to their social or intellectual standing, they’ll respond by downplaying its importance or relevance.
The knee-jerk reaction to the threat posed by peer comparison is to blame standardized testing — after all, being directly told that you’re “not proficient” is the epitome of a threatening situation. But I think a focus on testing misses the forest for the trees. Kids are clever. They know who’s raising their hands, who’s getting questions right, and who’s doing a good job on class assignments. Even if we get rid of 80% of the accountability-driven standardized testing kids are going to know where they stand. Regardless of how much testing there is, each day of school presents an opportunity for kids to be reminded that other students are achieving goals they still haven’t reached.
I suppose my broader point is that it would be beneficial to shift some of the focus on buzzwords like “motivation” and “engagement” to the underlying psychological factors that are likely to produce them. I’m hopeful that in the next 20 years we’ll see legitimate efforts to re-design the traditional school model we’ve had for the last half-century, and it would be great if such efforts started from a point of creating an experience that poses less of a threat to a student’s self-image or self-worth. This might involve giving students more choices or independence to make peer comparisons less obvious. It might involve changing the way we talk about education to emphasize how young students are consistently successful in putting their education to good use. Frankly, I don’t have a slam-dunk research-supported idea for a less-threatening core model. That’s why the previous to sentences are painfully broad. Nevertheless, the right design or innovative changes could do a lot to encourage kids to approach school less defensively.
Minson, J.A., & Monin, B. (2011). Do-Gooder Derogation: Disparaging Morally Motivated Minorities to Defuse Anticipated Reproach Social Psychological & Personality Science DOI: 10.1177/1948550611415695
Blackwell, L.S., Trzesniewski, K.H., & Dweck, C.S. (2007). Implicit Theories of Intelligence Predict Achievement Across an Adolescent Transition: A Longitudinal Study and an Intervention Child Development DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2007.00995.x