Column: Education experiment reveals power of great expectations

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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When the first talking Barbie doll debuted in 1992, she enraged women’s groups – and not just because of her impossible figure.

If you pressed a button on Teen Talk Barbie’s back, she proclaimed: “Math class is tough!”

The American Association of University Women demanded (and received) a recall, saying the blond bombshell would convince young girls that they weren’t expected to do as well as boys in math.

The world is one big expectations game. And that’s as true in our schools as anywhere else.

By the time they reach their teens, girls have heard the claim that boys are better at math. The stereotype gets repeated over and over until kids start to believe it.

The same is true for poor and minority kids: They get signals from an early age that they’re not expected to succeed. After all, newspapers such as this one are always publishing test results that show blacks and Hispanics lagging behind whites. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

That’s why a small experiment done in a junior high outside Austin is so interesting. It’s evidence that if you can coax kids past those pernicious stereotypes, they can beat the expectations that have been set for them – even on big, mean tests such as TAAS or TAKS.

“Brain science is showing us that our conception of intelligence as this fixed thing is wrong,” said Joshua Aronson, a professor of applied psychology at New York University. “Difficulties are surmountable.”

Since the early 1990s, psychologists led by Stanford professor Claude Steele have examined what they call “stereotype threat.” The central idea: If you can convince kids that performance stereotypes don’t limit their potential, they can do wonderful things.

Their latest study, published in The Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology in December, was conducted on 138 seventh-graders at Del Valle Junior High.

Dr. Aronson and the other researchers asked a group of University of Texas at Austin students to serve as mentors to the kids. The mentors spent about 90 minutes with small groups of students who were given different messages:

The first group was told that your brain is a muscle. The more you work it, the stronger it grows. Intelligence isn’t a fixed endowment you’re handed at birth. Study hard and, brain science tells us, your neurons will adapt and make new connections. Things that seem hard now will seem easy soon enough.

The second group was told that, yes, seventh grade is hard. But it’s hard for everybody. It’s a big adjustment from elementary school, but people tend to bounce back. The fact that many kids struggle in junior high is because it’s a new situation, not because they’ve suddenly turned stupid. Most kids’ grades go up by the time they reach eighth grade.

Troubles will pass

In other words, both messages were meant to tell students that any academic troubles they’re having are not permanent. They can, with time and hard work, go away.

A third group of students heard a combination of the two messages. The fourth and final group – the control group, in experimental terms – was told only about the dangers of drug use.

At year’s end, all the students took the state’s TAAS test. The results were powerful. Minority students who got one of the experimental messages scored 4 or 5 points higher on the reading TAAS than the control group.

The results for girls were even more striking. Girls who got one of the experimental messages scored 8 to 10 points higher on the math test than the control group.Those gains might not look that exciting, thanks to the slightly arcane way TAAS was scored. Look at it another way: The control group girls scored in the bottom 20 percent of the state; those who got the experimental messages were almost exactly at the state average.

“Kids need to understand that their intelligence is not fixed and can grow,” Dr. Aronson said. “It sounds trite to say, ‘All children can learn,’ but these kids get lots of subtle messages that say they can’t learn.”

By itself, one study in Del Valle doesn’t mean much. But there have been dozens of related studies through the years, all pointing to the same idea: If kids expect to do well, they often will. With the right sleight of hand, stereotypes can be overcome.

I don’t intend any disrespect by “sleight of hand,” by the way. It’s just that fighting stereotype threat seems like one of the easiest ways to squeeze a few extra points out of a kid’s bubble sheet. These kids took the same classes and came from the same backgrounds – the only thing different was a brief talk from a college student.

It’s like pulling test scores out of a hat.

‘Brain will adapt’

“Subtle messages are more powerful than being preachy,” said David Disko, one of the researchers who has since become a teacher in Del Valle. “When a student says ‘I’m not smart enough to do this,’ you have to let them know they are, that their brain will adapt if they work it hard enough.”

What does this growing body of research mean to you?

If you’re a teacher: Think hard about the expectations you have for your students. Studies have long shown that if teachers are told their perfectly average students are “gifted” or “have lots of potential,” they produce higher test scores. The simple act of labeling is powerful.

If you’re a parent: Kids blossom intellectually at different rates – don’t let a slow start set your expectations too low. Don’t tell your daughter, “I was bad at math, so I don’t expect you to be good at it.”

And for heaven’s sake, don’t ever tell your kid he’s stupid. Tell him he’s smart: Your wish just might come true.

Joshua Benton covers education for The Dallas Morning News. He can be reached at