Mon. Jul 15th, 2024

As a university student studying psychology, I observed classrooms in a local elementary school to learn more about teacher feedback. On one occasion, an 11-year-old boy named Mark received a six out of 10 on a test he had taken a week earlier. In response to his disappointment, the boy’s teacher said, “It’s okay, Mark—not everyone has to be an Einstein.”

The comment stuck with me. Unlike his classmates, Mark was from a lower socioeconomic background. His parents were struggling financially and were unable to help him with his homework. Mark shared his bedroom with his siblings, so he didn’t have a quiet place to study at home.

Why, I wondered, did the teacher conclude that Mark wasn’t an Einstein? That comment made Mark’s grade entirely a function of his innate ability. Why didn’t the teacher consider the external conditions—such as the lack of a place to study—that prevented Mark from fulfilling his potential?

Even well-intentioned educators may unknowingly send discouraging messages to children from disadvantaged backgrounds. In recent research, my colleague Constantine Sedikides, a social psychologist at the University of Southampton in England, and I have drawn on multiple studies to examine this problem and have shown how these messages can become ingrained in children’s mind. In the process, socioeconomic inequality becomes deeply etched into each child’s perceptions of themselves—with lasting and serious repercussions.

[Read more about inequality in the classroom]

Of course, most teachers want to form accurate, unbiased views of their students’ abilities so that they can optimally tailor their education. But inferring a student’s ability isn’t easy. Often teachers face ambiguity: a student may do well on some tests and poorly on others. In those cases, educators may be guided by stereotypes—generalized beliefs about a social group. A child’s gender, race and ethnicity, for example, may all influence the teacher’s evaluations. Socioeconomic status may do so as well. Years of research find a pervasive negative stereotype about the intellectual abilities of children from a poorer background: irrespective of their actual abilities, they are generally perceived as less smart than other children.

For example, in an experiment published in 2021, teachers in metropolitan Lima, Peru, evaluated a nine-year-old student who performed inconsistently on an oral exam. The student got some difficult questions right and some easy ones wrong. Beforehand, each teacher watched one of two videos introducing this student. The films portrayed the child’s neighborhood and family as either middle class or poor. Even though the teachers were ultimately evaluating the same student, when they believed the nine-year-old was from a lower socioeconomic background, they inferred that the student performed more poorly, was less smart and was less likely to complete college.

That pattern has been observed in many countries, including the U.S. While this socioeconomic bias can intersect with biases against race and ethnicity, it is clearly an additional powerful factor that shapes children’s educational experience. A study in the U.K. found that when teachers evaluate their students’ work, they tend to give lower grades to those from a poorer background, even when these students perform as well as their peers. And another investigation—with data from Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland—determined that teachers tend to disproportionately assign students from a disadvantaged background to lower-level, vocational tracks at the end of elementary school, even when these students have similar test scores and grades as their classmates.

These are examples of blatant bias. But in most cases, teachers express negative stereotypes through seemingly well-intentioned messages and even praise. In research that I published with a colleague earlier this year, we asked 106 Dutch primary school teachers to respond to hypothetical students who obtained a high grade on a test. The children were described in a vignette that offered insight into their socioeconomic background. We then coded the comments that teachers wrote and found that while the students from high and low socioeconomic backgrounds received roughly the same amount of praise, teachers lavished the students from a poorer background with more inflated approval such as “Amazing! You did incredibly well!” They did so because they assumed these students had to work harder to achieve their success.

Yet children readily pick up on the underlying message. In a second experiment with 63 students aged 10 to 13 years, we found that the kids were very attuned to teachers’ language. They inferred that a student who received inflated praise was more hardworking but less smart than others. Thus, even well-intentioned praise can reinforce the belief that children from a disadvantaged background are less competent than their peers.

These inadvertently denigrating messages may, over time, become ingrained in children’s mind. As I and others have found, children from a lower socioeconomic background tend to have more negative views about themselves. They see themselves as less intelligent, less able to grow their intelligence, less deserving and less worthy—even if they are as smart and high-achieving as others. Once these self-views are established, they remain relatively stable across one’s life span, which means that children can carry these negative ideas about their own ability and potential into adulthood.

Self-views are consequential. Children who hold negative self-views may avoid challenges, give up in the face of setbacks and underperform under pressure. Consequently, their academic achievement suffers. Thus, as children from a disadvantaged background develop more negative self-views, they become less able to fulfill their true potential. This represents a tremendous loss—both for these children and for society at large.

Given that educators are trying to help and not harm their pupils, how does this happen? One reason is that in many Western countries, teachers’ thinking is often influenced by meritocracy, the idea that students’ achievements are reflections of their own merit. Schools give all students the same teacher, the same desks and the same tests. The result is the illusion of a level playing field. With that seemingly equal starting point, many schools implicitly encourage the notion that students will then succeed or fail entirely as a function of their own effort and ability—a meritocratic ideal. But in truth, this approach closes teachers’ eyes to the conditions students face outside of the classroom, such as whether they have all the materials, opportunities and support needed to learn and master the material.

In response, societies need to address the entrenched issues—such as the belief in meritocracy—that pervade our educational system. To do so, we can promote socioeconomic desegregation in schools and improve the social integration of children from different backgrounds. Such changes would render inequality of opportunity more visible to children, parents, teachers and policymakers. When people learn that students such as Mark are disadvantaged because of their external conditions, they become more supportive of policies that reduce inequality.

Until then, educators can make a real difference in their own classrooms. They can reframe students’ socioeconomic background as sources of strength rather than weakness. They can convey to students that what matters is not one’s current level of ability but how much one can improve over time. And they can help students embrace failure as an opportunity for learning. Rather than conclude that a pupil isn’t an Einstein, teachers can help that student understand why they got a disappointing grade and how to do better next time.

The author’s research described here was supported in part by a Jacobs Foundation Research Fellowship, a Jacobs Foundation COVID-19 Education Challenge Grant and an NWO Talent Program Vidi Grant. These funders had no role in the writing or publication of this article.

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This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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