We are part of a social and emotional structure that supports or hinders learning – 07/21/2023 – Policies and Justice

When you were in elementary school, were you considered “smart”, “average” or “terrible” at math? How did you reach that conlucsion?

In my first year as a math teacher at a public school, there was a student, a sixth grader, who always sat at the back of the class. While the rest of the class worked on activities, he stayed in the corner of the room with his head resting on his desk.

Every time I saw him in that position I thought it would be out of disinterest, but when I decided to ask him the reason behind that attitude, the answer was: “because I’m stupid”.

This is not an atypical story. This type of attitude can be misinterpreted, often being assumed to be disinterest, shyness or behavioral problems.

The perceptions constructed in the school micro-society about “who is good at what” are very strong and establish hierarchical relationships (status) associated with academic and social expectations.

Results of more than two decades of research by Elizabeth Cohen and Rachel Lotan, from Stanford University, some of them compiled in the book “Working for Equity in Heterogeneous Classrooms”, support that students who participate more, learn more in the classroom.

Therefore, inequality in levels of participation magnifies learning differences. Furthermore, when students doubt their intellectual abilities, they typically act in one of two ways: they hide and try to go unnoticed, or they avoid a situation where they might not succeed and be seen as “inferior” again.

Other studies indicate that the perceptions that students build about their own intellectual competence, as well as that of their peers, are connected not only to academic performance and popularity, but also to socioeconomic, racial and gender characteristics.

In the article “A Threat in the Air: How Stereotypes Shape Intellectual Identity and Performance”, Claude Steele addresses the issue of “stereotype threat”, which is the experience of anxiety or worry caused by situations in which a person has the possibility of confirming a negative stereotype about a social group to which he belongs.

The presented results indicate that stereotype threat can have a negative impact on student performance. For example, when black students are about to take a test and, for some reason, are exposed to the stereotypes of negative intellectual abilities associated with their group before taking the test, their performance tends to suffer. This negative effect is observed even among college students with a history of high academic achievement.

I constantly reflect on my experiences as a teacher. How could I intentionally act to build a classroom where my students feel safe and confident to learn?

Although there are no magic recipes when we talk about education, the literature shows us that it is possible to organize classrooms to reduce educational inequalities. In these classrooms, teachers design the activities and environment to encourage everyone’s participation and constantly publicly recognize their students’ intellectual contributions by highlighting their strengths.

Students, in turn, have many opportunities to recognize themselves as “smart”, demonstrate what they know, share their ideas, explore their mistakes and feel heard and valued.

Obviously, as a teacher, I know that organizing the classroom I mentioned earlier is not a simple thing. Certainly, adequate resources, conditions and training are needed, but we need to start this dialogue: when you were in basic education, what in your classroom and in your interactions helped or hindered your learning?

When I was a student, I wish I had been able to raise my hand and ask the questions that I had and didn’t ask because I thought they would be too silly, or to have shared an idea that I ignored because I didn’t think I was enough, felt heard and had more certainties than doubts about my potential. This is also my wish for all students.

The editor, Michael França, asks each participant of the space “Politics and Justice” of the Sheet suggest a song to the readers. In this text, the one chosen by Francielle Santos was “Asas”, by Luedji Luna.

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