Saturday, January 28, 2017

Geoffrey Cohen's talk at Rice on Inclusive Teaching

Inclusive Teaching

I went to an "Inclusive Teaching" workshop by Geoffrey Cohen, who works with Carol Dweck at Stanford. The workshop was sponsored by Rice's Center for Teaching Excellence and was well attended by Rice faculty and staff. If you don't know Carol Dweck, she pioneered a branch of research on the effects of mindset on performance in a wide variety of settings, concentrating on academic achievement. In this model mindsets fall into two camps. A 'fixed mindset' is a belief that a particular trait, like intelligence for instance, is fixed at birth and basically cannot be changed, versus a 'growth mindset' which is a belief that a particular trait is malleable and improves with practice and effort. There are many, many different experiments that show that regardless of initial measured ability, a growth mindset is associated with higher performance academically over time, and this appears to be due to increased tenacity in the face of challenge, because failure is not seen as a measure of ability. Furthermore, particular interventions can shift a person's mindset and shifting that mindset results in increased performance. When these interventions work, the results are significant and can be long lasting, on the order of years.

Given the potential, I have been interested in how we might incorporate growth-mindset inducing features into OpenStax products, and whenever someone with good ideas and research is around I try to learn what I can from them. These are my notes from this talk.

Social belonging / Stereotype threat / White men can't jump

The talk concentrated on social belonging. You may have seen some of the research on what is called 'stereotype threat'. It seems counterintuitive, but it appears that if you think that people believe your group isn't good at something, and your performance could confirm that negative stereotype, your performance suffers. That is a very causal way of explaining it, and, of course, these are really just correlations, but now I will just tell you some of the weird and wooly experiments that have been done. All of these divide subjects as evenly as possible into two groups, one of which gets the 'treatment' (in this case a negative treatment) and the other of which doesn't, and then average scores are compared.
Things that decrease performance:
  • If you ask people to list their gender before taking a math test, female scores drop significantly.
  • If you ask people to list their race before taking an academic test, black student scores drop significantly. (There is such a thing as 'stereotype lift' also. White scores increase a little if asked to list their race, but the increase is much less than the decrease for groups where a negative stereotype is part of the culture).
  • If you tell people a test is a measure of intelligence, certain minorities and females do worse than giving the same test and characterizing it differently (skills …)
  • If a black researcher asks white men to jump as high as they can, they jump less high than if they are asked by a white researcher.

Digression: Unconscious bias in hiring

Cohen went in to a significant digression about experiments that show unconscious bias in hiring. I think this was mainly to give examples of how interventions can fix things that are unconscious and hard to just 'goodwill' away.

Research demonstrating bias

Specifically, there are a set of experiments that show that when comparing two candidates, people adjust their expectations to favor candidates that fit their stereotypes. For example, when presenting two candidates for a police promotion, one of which is male and one of which is female, and giving these candidates either more 'on-the-job' experience or more 'book-learning' experience, if you first show the candidates and then ask which is more important 'on-the-job' or 'book-learning', the hiring manager picks whichever criteria the male has.

Techniques that can decrease bias

But just like with mindset, there are interventions that can eliminate or improve these biases.
  • If you ask people to come up with the criteria for the best candidate before they see the candidates, they stick with those criteria and, in the case of the police promotion will (on average) pick a female candidate matching the stated criteria, over a male candidate that does not.
  • When people hire a group into a position, for instance hiring three managers at once, or three developers etc. - they are more likely to select a diverse group, than if they hire three people in successive rounds.

Social Belonging interventions that increase student performance

Then he came back to listing a set of 'interventions' that have been shown to have positive effects for females in male dominated fields, minorities in white dominated achievement areas, first generations college students, etc. These particular interventions did not show positive or negative effects for other groups, but studies that measure attitudes first do show benefits for all students coming in with particular mindsets and attitudes.
  • Having students read about 'real' students who felt they were not smart enough, or did not belong, but then found that they did. Or attend a panel of students discussing these feelings, especially if the audience identifies with the students (gender, race, economics, etc).  
  • Having students choose three sentences from among a long list that are important to them and then write a paragraph about each. Cohen called this 'value affirmation'. The values listed have a wide variety of things, and include non-academic values like 'sense of humor', 'relationship with family' (This intervention reduced F's in a course by 50%, from 20% to 9%).
  • For K-12 students, having a teacher write 'I am giving you these comments because I have high standards and I know that you can meet them.' to accompany corrections and comments on an assignment. Teachers pre-wrote these and research assistants attached them to student work. Teachers and researchers were blind to who got these and who didn't.
  • For K-12 students, having a teacher initiate an exercise where students write the end of this sentence 'I wish that my teacher knew that …'

This summary from Carol Dweck's website, Academic Tenacity: Mindsets and Skills that Promote Long-Term Learning, has more about a lot of the research that Cohen described.

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