Coaching Letter #129

Hello, I hope this finds you well. Amazingly, this newsletter now reaches people on every continent (except Antarctica), so it’s possible that where you are educators are not crazed, stressed or fried. But most of the people I talk to are all three—being an educator during this pandemic presents challenges greater than almost any of us has faced before. I am sorry that I can’t do more to make your lives easier.

This is a follow-up on the interplay between emotion and cognition. I was asked a couple of questions that I wasn’t able to answer in the moment, so I’m doing that now.

Here’s a story to illustrate. I was sitting at the kitchen table (where I spend a great deal of time these days—I even bought one of those expensive fancy cushions to make it a bit more comfortable) working on my laptop, and I got an email letting me know that I had sent out meeting invitations for a time that was different from the time advertised on the flyer. You know the expression “my heart sank”? I don’t know if it actually sank, but it sure felt like it did. I felt awful. Then almost instantly, I thought to myself, “I’m not the only one who didn’t catch it”, and I felt better. I mean, I was still annoyed and embarrassed, and I was still capable of admitting that as the lead on the project it was actually my fault, but without consciously looking for an excuse, I generated one anyway. So that’s a great example of several things: the initial emotional/physiological reaction that kicked in before I’d had a chance to think; the change to the way I felt based on choosing to think differently about the event; and the fact that the shift I engineered for myself from initial reaction to more considered response was a defense mechanism—I was protecting myself from feeling completely inept. I don’t know why telling myself that I wasn’t the only one to blame helped, but it did, even though it was demonstrably untrue, and even though it doesn’t reflect well on me.

There are other researched phenomena that demonstrate the interplay between thinking and feeling. Particularly pertinent to educators is the concept of stereotype threat:

It springs from our human powers of intersubjectivity—the fact that as members of society we have a pretty good idea of what other members of our society think about lots of things, including the major groups and identities in society. We could all take out a piece of paper, write down the major stereotypes of these identities, and show a high degree of agreement in what we wrote. This means that whenever we’re in a situation where a bad stereotype about one of our own identities could be applied to us—such as those about being old, poor, rich, or female—we know it. We know what “people could think.” We know that anything we do that fits the stereotype could be taken as confirming it. And we know that, for that reason, we could be judged and treated accordingly. That’s why I think it’s a standard human predicament. In one form or another—be it through the threat of a stereotype about having lost memory capacity or being cold in relations with others—it happens to us all, perhaps several times a day.

This is from Claude Steele’s terrific book, Whistling Vivaldi. (I wrote about it before, in Coaching Letter #118, regarding the relationship between race and health, and I could have written about it, but didn’t, in Coaching Letter #123, because my friend Uri Treisman’s work is also featured in the book. I also wrote about stereotype threat and framing in Coaching Letter #96.) The central idea is that our fear of fulfilling a negative stereotype held about us is so powerful that it can have a significant, measurable, negative effect on our performance in the implicated domain. I know you are unlikely to have time to read the book right now, so here is an 8 minute video of Claude Steele being interviewed about the stereotype threat; and if you have more time, there is this 90 minute video from Cornell—the lecture doesn’t start until 7:20; it also has the benefit of a very useful interactive transcript—reading it is faster than watching, and if you find a useful part you can click to that part of the talk. Magic. Or this short summary from APA. Or this 15 minute podcast, from Harvard.

I think stereotype threat is an important concept, not least because it has far-reaching implications for educators. It is not the fault of schools that we are all socialized with stereotypes, but there is a lot we can do about it: not perpetuate them for a start, by allowing girls to opt out of challenging math classes, or by allowing students of color to be valued more for athletics than academics.

Stereotype threat has a significant and complicated relationship with feedback. I spent a few hours going down that rabbit hole, and I still don’t feel well qualified to explain the interaction—if you want to investigate, you might begin with this 2003 article. For practical purposes, the important idea is that there are all kinds of reasons why we feel the way we do about feedback, and how we feel about feedback has all kinds of implications for whether we seek it, how we make meaning of it, and what we do about it. Given how important feedback is for increasing performance—student and adult—getting better at managing it is very high leverage.

For example, if I think that you believe I am a high performer and you have high expectations of me, I am likely to see your feedback as benevolent, and therefore I am more likely to put it to good use. If I think you think the opposite, then I am likely to interpret your feedback as proof of your low expectations, and less likely to take it on and act on it. How you, the feedback giver, frame feedback for the receiver, is therefore very important. If you haven’t seen it already (I show it every chance I get), you might watch this Dan Pink video, based on this research. The research shows that you can change student performance by prefacing feedback with these words: I am giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them. The researchers call it “wise feedback”, and you can read more about it also in Coaching Letter #96 and chapter 8 of Jennifer Eberhardt’s book Biased. Wise feedback is also a form of encouragement—see several recent Coaching Letters for more on that.

Thanks for all you do. I hope you are taking care of yourself. Let me know if there is anything else I can do for you. Best, Isobel

Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC
Connecticut Center for School Change
istevenson@ctschoolchange.org
860-576-9410
@IsobelTX
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2020-10-21T09:00:56+00:00