Today in my Seminar in School Psychology class we discussed the issue of black cultural learning styles. As the only African American in the class, I could not help but to think what this conversation would have been like if I were not present. Not taking anything away from my classmates, (I have learned a great deal from their perspectives, they are all very intelligent and insightful) but it appears that discussions about black students in general, have been dominated in academia and in research predominately by Caucasian scholar’s, scientist’s, and researcher’s. I could not help but to think of how underrepresented African Americans are in higher education & graduate programs in general. If our goal is to decrease the achievement gap for all students (specifically students of color), how can we adequately achieve this goal if we do not have enough experts, professionals, and highly trained practiticioners of color? Are we to sit back and leave this task (improving academic outcomes and decreasing the achievement gap for black students), to those that are most unfamiliar with black students?
In reality, in the majority of graduate programs the likelihood of an African American being in the class is about 2%, while the likelihood that an African American male is in the class is less than 1%. Realizing that I am in a very small percentage of black males that pursue a doctorate degree in the field of psychology, I also am faced with the challenge of “representing” and holding it down for African Americans. In other words, I have a ton of pressure not to look bad, not appear dumb, and yes, not to fulfill any stereotypes (being late for class, speaking in slang, eating fried chicken, etc.,).
It’s the whole idea of double consciousness that Dubois talked about, a dueling war of conflicting thoughts, in which blacks struggle to “stay true” to black culture or assimilate in order to fit in with the majority culture. All the while, despite this internal conflict raging within most black students (from Kindergarten to higher education), they are expected to perform well academically and achieve at the same standards as their peers. Recently, there is an glimmer of light that may potentially aid in decreasing the achievement gap for black students.
From the Sanford University News:
A new study by Stanford psychologists has found that negative stereotypes can also prevent minority students from learning new academic material. But alleviating concerns about stereotypes dramatically improves black students’ learning.
The idea that a person’s work might suffer if he or she believes a poor performance will reinforce a negative stereotype about that person’s group is known as “stereotype threat.” Studies have shown that stereotype threat is a likely cause of educational achievement gaps.
“What hadn’t been done was to see whether the same stereotype threat affects how well people learn new academic material,” said Greg Walton, an assistant professor of psychology and co-author of a new study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
When students of color walk into a classroom, “They might be aware of stereotypes that their group lacks intelligence,” said the study’s lead author, Valerie Jones Taylor, a former Stanford graduate student who is now at Princeton. “These concerns could impact how well they acquire novel information.”
To determine if stereotype threat actually affects learning in addition to performance, Taylor and Walton set up a two-part experiment.
First, black and white students studied the definitions of 24 obscure English words. Half of the students studied in a threatening environment designed to make intellectual stereotypes relevant. They were told that the task would assess their “learning abilities and limitations” and “how well people from different backgrounds learn.”
Meanwhile, students in the non-threatening environment were told that the study focused on identifying “different learning styles.”
One to two weeks later, the students were tested to see how many word definitions they could remember. They were first given a low-stress warm-up exercise with half of the word definitions. Then, in order to evoke concerns about stereotypes, a test was given which was described as evaluating “your ability to learn verbal information and your performance on problems requiring verbal reasoning ability.”
The results were eye-opening.