Teaching is an act of inclusion.

In a sociology of education course I took last winter, we discussed labeling theory and stereotype threat in terms of the effect of students’ self-perceptions on performance and the achievement gap. Even with the same contexts and academic training, students who feel they are more likely to succeed tend to succeed, and students who feel they are more likely to fail tend to fail. Performance and achievement are drastically shaped by they ways students perceive their own abilities. Placing students in labeled tracks based on disability and achievement actually works to (re)produce inequalities in society rather than facilitate social equity and individual empowerment.

One of the experiments I was exposed to in this course dealt directly with the affect of stereotype threat on students’ test scores. Multiple diverse classrooms with similar student demographics were given the same test. Upon being introduced to the test, each classroom was told that a specific group of students tend to do better on this test than another. One class was told boys do better on this test than girls; another class was told girls do better than boys; another was told black students score higher than white students; another was told white students score higher than black students. There were no significant differences in academic training or social context for the students across each of these classrooms and social categories, yet in each case the students who were told they were more likely to succeed got higher scores, and the students who were told they were less likely to succeed got lower scores. The only factor to explain the discrepancy in scores was the learned belief that certain groups of students were more or less likely to succeed. How do we as educators (re)produce assumptions and expectations of student ability and performance, both explicitly and unconsciously? How does this impact student performance and perception of ability? How can we confront, challenge, and reverse these damaging stereotypes?

Through my extensive work volunteering in elementary schools, I have realized that young students are already learning to make assumptions and expectations about performance based on social classifications. By kindergarten, kids can already articulate that ELL means special help for the brown kids because they are not as smart as the white kids; that boys are better at math and science than girls; that good readers are cooler than struggling readers. Not only are young learners applying these socially constructed ideas to their peers, but also to themselves. When thoughts of inferiority and inability become internalized, they often become a self-fulfilling prophecy. What if we strive for an integrated classroom approach instead of creating labeled tracks and ability groups? This would require an individualized, personalized, and diversified approach to teaching, in which students are not split into separate standardized curriculum tracks, but rather all learn together within a unified dynamic classroom that caters to a diverse set of learning styles and methods. This seems more challenging, but it also makes the classroom feel alive; it allows for a more fluid, flexible curriculum, and empowers each student to cultivate his or her own space within the classroom. It allows for a focus on capability, rather that disability. I believe that making school a fun place to be and building self-esteem and self-confidence are some of the best things we can do for our young learners.

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