Children at a school picnic.

Children at a school picnic.

How do we break destructive stereotypes? Start early.

The key to challenging them may lie in early education, argues Claude Steele, the provost and executive vice chancellor at the University of California, Berkeley. He's also the author of "Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do," and he studies stereotypes and the psychology behind them.

Steele recalls one study that had a group of adults watch a video of two children playing. The video stopped at different points, and observers had to record what they thought was happening: Were the boys were just horsing around? Were they being aggressive? Or violent?

“In the last frame, one boy shoves another boy, and the critical question is: How do you rate that behavior? When the boy who shoves is white, raters tend to rate that action as just fooling around. When the boy is African-American, they tend to rate that behavior as violent," Steele says.

He points out that African-American raters are almost as likely to stereotype the boys as violent.

Steele’s research also touches on the huge role of stereotypes in education. Take feedback that a teacher might give to a student.

Steele says a white professor can give critical evaluations of an African-American student in way that doesn't make the student think the critique is based on race — but the feedback must be offered in the right way. A study by Geoffrey Cohen of Stanford shows professors shouldn’t just deliver the criticism straight, nor should they simply give a positive bromide before launching into the feedback.

What works better, Steele argues, is a professor saying '"I’ve looked at your work, we really have high standards here. And though you need to improve those things, I really think you can meet those standards.’ That combination of using high standards signals you’re not just seeing them stereotypically.”

Because America has an extremely diverse student body, schools are melting pots where these sorts of issues have to be dealt with. But Steele actually sees this obligation as a source of hope.

“In this era of No Child Left Behind, which there’s a lot of things to complain about, underlying it all is an American faith, which we should be proud of, that our schools can be a site where these issues can be addressed, and that they should be addressed," he says.

This story was adapted from an interview on the PRI radio show Innovation Hub.

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