whistling vivaldi

I try to read at least one education/social psychology/child-rearingish book per break. Here are a few of my favorites from breaks past (click each cover for more info.):

AloneTogether AppGen CurseG GoodKidsToughChoices Mindsetcover NurtureShock

This year my school decided to organize a summer book club around Whistling Vivaldi by Claude M. Steele. I jumped at the opportunity to read it right away, and I’m glad I did.


In it, Steele explains that stereotype threats arise when one’s setting either rewards or discourages aspects of one’s social identity. Regardless of our awareness to these situations, they influence us. When stereotype threat is experienced, we deal with the extra stress relating to how we might be seen as a member of a certain group (depending on the threat). This “multitasking” can impact both physical and mental performance on everything from golf putting to standardized tests.

I think the author sums this up well on pages 209-210:
“Negative stereotypes about our identities hover in the air around us. When we are in situations to which these stereotypes are relevant, we understand that we could be judged or treated in terms of them. If we are invested in what we’re doing, we get worried; we try to disprove the stereotype or avoid confirming it. We present ourselves in counter-stereotypical ways. We avoid situations where we have to contend with this pressure. It’s not all-determining, but it persistently, often beneath our awareness, organizes our actions and choices, our lives–like how far we walk down the isle of an airplane to find a seat, or how well we do on a round of golf, or on an IQ test. We think of ourselves as autonomous individuals. After all, we make choices. But we often forget that we make choices within contexts, always.”

The good news is that there’s lots to suggest that educators can make intentional choices that alter these contingencies and make stereotypes as irrelevant as possible to learning. Obviously reducing threat can’t change a student’s skills or knowledge outright, but Steele argues that no instructional environment can eliminate achievement gaps without first reducing the identity contingency of stereotype threat.

Here’s some of what Steele recommends:

  • Ensure that feedback is honest, specific, and tied directly to high standards for everyone (assure students that the same standards were used for all before giving critical feedback)
  • Increase “critical mass” by working for visible diversity in class groups as much as possible
  • Foster conversations amongst members of different groups to increase comfort and performance (use diversity within the group as the resource that it is)
  • Allow students to self-affirm by having them list their most important values (and reflect through journaling, self-assessments, etc.)
  • Provide students with information that can help them see a more hopeful personal narrative (stories about people who worked through hardships can keep students motivated when they face challenges)
  • Coach students through understanding of a fluid mindset (see: Carol Dweck)

This isn’t everything, but the entire book is worth reading and thinking about so I’ll stop here before I spoil it all. Does anyone have other favorite books like this that they’d recommend? If so, please share.


2 thoughts on “whistling vivaldi

    • Thanks, Robin! Wendy Mogel came to my school a few years back when Blessing of a B Minus came out. I never got around to reading Skinned Knee but your comment is a great reminder for me. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s