Many students growing up in the United States have historically encountered a pervasive message that their ability is fixed and will not change. That it cannot change. This negative perception is most common for students at the low end of the achievement gap, many of whom are children of color and children from underserved communities.
The root of this bias manifests in myriad ways often not easy to detect and results in realities such as disproportionate suspension rates and lack of access to more rigorous courses. These realities of our education system push vulnerable students to expect less than they deserve—both from themselves and the adults responsible for their wellbeing.
This belief gap will take a great deal of time to close, but will be addressed when we, as teachers, change the way we frame ability as it relates to students. A student’s ability is not fixed, but is something that is malleable and has the capacity to grow. In order for students to accept this, they need to be surrounded by an environment that sends the message that what they are doing is important, that they can do it and that their teacher is not going to give up on them.
For a teacher to genuinely create this type of environment, it is essential that he/she recognizes his/her own implicit bias about a student’s abilities and how a lack of action to address that bias can influence a child’s learning trajectory.
In fall of 2016, the Yale Child Study Center confirmed teachers of students as young as preschoolers approach learning and discipline differently based on the child’s race and/or gender. The study found teachers held more biases against young Black children, particularly, young Black boys, who they are more likely to expect to misbehave. By the time that student reaches high school, a similar trend persists. Black K-12 students are nearly four times as likely to receive out-of-school suspensions as White students.
The disparities are also academic, leading students to limit their own expectations for their future. For example, Black students are less likely than White students to attend schools offering rigorous coursework in math or science. Fortunately, teachers have the power to change these trends, starting with their own classroom.
Teachers are the most critical factor in transforming students’ mindsets and there are proven methods to help teachers with this transformation:
- Frequent Quizzes: Quizzes are tools teachers can use to gain insight into what students do and do not comprehend, and then allow them to address the student’s lack of understanding.
- Scholar’s Loop: Not all students will understand new material the first time, every time. A scholar’s loop or re-teaching loop is a tool for teachers to deliberately reengage students in content they may not have fully understood the first time. Teachers encourage their students to identify for themselves that they need to relearn the material and empower them to do so. Through this approach, students take ownership in their own learning through self-evaluation, but with the support of their teacher and peers.
- Calling on Students: How a teacher calls on and reacts to a student’s response is a step toward eliminating unconscious bias. When a teacher calls on a student, the teacher should do so in a way that ensures the student that they think the answer is “something they can get.” Further, they can do this by asking their students to elaborate on their responses and by acknowledging student answers nonjudgmentally.
This mission is far from simple. For starters, requiring teachers to adjust their emotional and instructional support for students is a tall order for our time-strapped teaching corps. In addition to providing teachers the necessary resources and support to strengthen this instructional approach, we also have some work to do in education reform circles, and as a society at large.
We all need to be educated about growth mindset—that ability can grow—and we need to shift cultural attitudes to understand that learning can be accelerated for students who have experienced systematic disadvantages. Taking this on will bring us face-to-face with our own beliefs about our students’ capacity, our own biases, our assumptions about race and our own beliefs about innate ability.
As we await the educational policy priorities of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, we cannot lose sight of the work that should be happening in our schools every day. After all, this country is built on the foundation that everyone has the capacity to work hard, continually improve and defy expectations. That is the root of the American dream.