Earlier this summer, a study published in the Proceedings of...

Earlier this summer, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences demonstrated the power of positive thinking at school. Credit: Getty Images / iStock

If it’s true that perception is reality, then perceptions can be both advantageous and burdensome when applied to education.

This occurred to me as I played a “Flocabulary” video for a group of fourth-grade students who struggle with math. Ostensibly, it was about how easy it is to multiply by ones and by zeroes, but the creators went heavy on the self-esteem aspect.

“I feel smart, I feel good. ... I know my math, man, I know my facts. ... Man, it’s so easy to multiply, ‘cause I can multiply, son, and I can divide,” says the hip-hop inspired song. It plays over an animation of an African-American mathematician who is such an expert at computing that the bling hanging around his neck is a multiplication sign.

This isn’t mere frivolity. Earlier this summer, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences demonstrated the power of positive thinking at school. Researchers found that African-American and Hispanic students who wrote a few sentences about core values that were personally important to them -- such as relationships, creativity or humor -- took more challenging courses, were less likely to be placed in remediation and were more likely to enroll in college seven to nine years later.

More recently, the Society for Research in Child Development published findings from a longitudinal study showing that students’ perceptions about their own capability to succeed on academic tasks in math and reading play an important role in motivating their achievements over time.

I’ve said it a million times, but it’s worth repeating: Parents, please don’t ever tell your kids that when you were in school you were “no good” at math or reading. This information does not help students persist through the challenges of these subjects. Instead insist that you are confident they can master whatever skill they’re working hard to learn.

As powerful as it is to understand the impact of positive self-image on helping students succeed in difficult disciplines, it’s important to note that teacher perceptions become realities as well -- and not always to positive effect.

White teachers make up the vast majority of educators in America, but, on average, they have far lower expectations for black students than they do for similarly situated white students, according to a new article in the journal Education Next. Researchers from American University and Johns Hopkins University calculated that having a teacher who is 20 percentage points more confident that a student will complete college increases a student’s chances of doing so by 3 percentage points.

A few more dismal numbers: Teachers expect 58 percent of white high school students -- but just 37 percent of black high school students -- to obtain at least a four-year college degree. And when evaluating the same black student, white teachers were 9 percentage points less likely than their black colleagues to expect that student to earn a college degree. This bias was more flagrant for black male students than for black female students.

There are no easy answers for how to quickly and easily change mindsets (though a great place to start is Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck’s education-world-shaking book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success”).

And the research on unconscious bias -- social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals hold even though they’re not consciously aware of them -- is still in its infancy. This makes it difficult to say how exactly we can change the codes that help our brains process the world.

Until we can fully understand our own unacknowledged prejudices -- and how to correct for them -- we’ll have to settle for greater awareness. Ralph Waldo Emerson is often quoted as having said, “We are what we think about all day long,” and this is a great opportunity for oneself. But if used thoughtlessly in regards to others, our perceptions can be a very real curse on them.

Esther Cepeda’s email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.


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