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.
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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

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3 Responses to How Can We Make School Less Threatening?

  1. Anonymous says:

    I have to say that your article was very insightful and intriguing. As a student, I agree, when in school teachers definitely push the fact that there is so much students do not know. Also with students there have been times where I feel a fellow student “out-shined” me in class and I felt a little bit inferior. From my understanding, some of the psychological perspectives were used in this post. One I identified would be “Humanistic Perspective” – you stated:

    “but nobody of any age wants to be told about how much they don’t know. It’s a scary notion.”

    By mentioning scary notion-I automatically think of someone becoming nervous and/or worried that they are not good enough. That internal fear can also lead someone into thinking they’re stupid, and I am sure no one wants to be that way. Anyway, what I am trying to say is I feel that quote definitely reflects self-concept and internal feelings-which are strong components of the Humanistic Perspective.

    “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.”

    I also wanted to comment on that quote as well because from the post, I feel the quote applies to the “Behavioral Perspective” of Psychology. I say this because I feel the outside environment that the student is in plays a strong role in how he/she views school. So if a student feels threatened in a classroom setting then that would project negative feelings. And like the Behavioral Perspective dictates: environment determines behavior.

  2. Marie Schumer says:

    Basically, this article covers many different threats relating to school. Such as the stereotype-a cluster of characteristics that are attributed to members of a specific social group or category. Research by psychologist Claude Steele has demonstrated another detrimental effect of stereotypes, particularly derogatory stereotypes, which he calls stereotype threat. As discussed in the article above. Which is said to be “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”. Thus causing the student to disconnect. When a student disconnects they tend to give up on pretty much everything. They lose hope in themselves, and their ability to succeed. They tend to not care if they get in trouble cause they often feel they don’t have anything to lose, causing them to be threatening in mild ways.

    Another threat that was mentioned in the article was “mindsets” and this focuses on how differing attitudes affect the way that people view both themselves and their interactions with others. Now to go into depth of the previous sentence, Psychologists formally define “attitude” as a learned tendency to evaluate some object, person, or issue in a particular way.

    “trying and failing is extremely threatening because it’s evidence you are eternally stupid”

    I wanted to comment on this quote because of previous experience, it is easier to simply not try and fail, then try your hardest and fail completely. Once you give something your all and you fail in the end, you do feel “eternally stupid.” This all plays a roll in the Humanistic Perspective which focuses on the motivation of people to grow psychologically, the influence of interpersonal relationships on a persons self-concept, and the importance of choice and self-direction in striving to reach one’s potential. If you keep failing after trying you lose all motivation and self drive to better yourself.

    “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”

    Mentioning standardized testing relates to the Behavioral Perspective. When taking a standardized test your behavior seems to change. You tend to get nervous and tense up which plays a role in the results of your test. Just as the quote above states “after being directly told that you’re ‘not proficient” is the epitome of a threatening situation, which goes back to “mindset” stated earlier, also the quote about trying and failing. Completing a standardized test with “not proficient” takes toll on your self-esteem, thus causing you to fail and give up on other things, like stated earlier.

  3. Keagan Lumpa says:

    I found this article very interesting and really wanted to focus on the section discussing student judgement on other students and the effect of it. The social cognition and social influence can be very strong and cause threats on student education, especially at this age. When people use person perception on other students, it can really cause a person to worry and lose focus on their own personal goals. Sometimes people don’t realize that your reactions to others are determined by your perceptions of them, not by who they really are. We may also categorize these people either by explicit or implicit cognition which may also effect how a person may act. I loved the point that he made when he said ” 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.” Giving the students more independence and choices of there own will make it harder to make judgments and comparisons to each other, boosting their sense of self and reducing social influence.

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