Monday, June 15, 2015

Summer Reading: "Whistling Vivaldi"

Inspired by our high school English department, last year I started posted outside my classroom door the book/s I was currently reading. I've always been a voracious reader, and now my entire family gets giddy about books the same way some people anticipate and discuss a new Game of Thrones episode. (Okay, my husband and I are pretty giddy about GOT as well, but mainly because we loved the books first!) So, although I'm constantly reading at least one book at any given time during the school year, summer is when I really kick it into high gear. More free time, combined with hours at the pool and weeks at the lake, gives me ample opportunity to start checking off those titles that have been on my book list all year.

My hope is to share some of those books via this blog this summer. Whistling Vivaldi by Claude M. Steele is what will hopefully be the first of many that I write about.

I'm pretty sure I came across this book in a Twitter chat at some point this past year, but that's all I can remember, so I apologize for not being able to give the recommender credit. The full title is, Whistling Vivaldi And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us. Here's the first line from the jacket cover:
"In Whistling Vivaldi, renowned social psychologist Claude M. Steele addresses one of the most perplexing social issues of our time: the trend of minority underperformance in higher education."
Although this is no "light" summer read, I appreciate that Steele uses a combination of personal narrative and solid research to take the reader through the relevant discoveries on this topic. Personally, it was the most evidence-based and actionable book I've read regarding minority cultures in education. Now, I haven't read extensively on this topic, but never did an assigned reading in my licensure program so clearly and rationally outline the potential causes of the achievement gap or such realistic ways to start closing that gap. Having now been immersed in Steele's research, I see connections to his observations in my everyday life: the television we watch, the trip to the grocery store, and of course, my classroom.

The basis of Steele's book is understanding a phenomenon called "stereotype threat," and he spends a few chapters developing this idea for the reader. To truly understand stereotype threat, I strongly recommend you read the book, as Steele takes you through many experiments and experiences to build his theory. However, in a nutshell, stereotype threat says that any minority group tends to perform more poorly on a given task in an environment that reminds them of or reinforces their minority status. For example, Steele recruited male and female college students who were at the top in their math classes. He gave them challenging, GRE-level assessments in English and Math. The students scored similarly on the English test, but women scored significantly lower on the Math test. Steele had a theory that this was a result of the stereotype that women aren't as "smart" at math. Simply having this stereotype hanging over them puts more pressure and anxiety on women, interfering with their cognitive processing. There is no stereotype threat for English for women, and therefore there was no significant difference in scores.

To test his theory, Steele removed then removed the stereotype threat before administering the Math test by simply telling the women, "You may have heard that women don't do as well as men on difficult standardized math tests, but that's not true for this particular standardized math test; on this particular test, women always do as well as men." When this simple statement introduced the test for women, they "performed at the same high level as equally skilled men." Steele gives examples of similar experiments with similar results for black college students (revealing a stereotype threat for any test of intelligence), white male college students when compared to Asian students on a math test, lower class French students when compared to upper class French students on a language test, older individuals compared to younger individuals on a memory test, and on and on. Stereotype threat affects performance of a multitude of skills in an entire spectrum of groups of people.

On a personal note,  just this week I came across recent news stories about Michelle Obama using a commencement speech to acknowledge stereotypes she dealt with growing up and the #DistractinglySexy social media campaign. It's clear that stereotype threat is alive and well, pervading every aspect of society.

Once Steele establishes the existence of stereotype threat, he then describes the multiple ways it affects people's lives, once again based on evidence-supported research. Not only does it interfere with concentration and cognitive processing, but the often unnoticed stress it causes dramatically impacts health. The high incidence of high blood pressure in African American populations is given as an example of this and experimentally validated, according to Steele.

Steele ends Whistling Vivaldi by outlining a handful of tested methods schools and other organizations can employ to reduce stereotype threat for their populations. He goes through the research on this subject just as thoroughly as he treated the earlier research on the establishment of stereotype threat. As a science teacher, I appreciate this book's combination of personal narrative, stories of real people, and evidence-based research. And the topic of stereotype threat, I would suggest, is essential for every person - not just every teacher - to better understand.


  1. I'm reading this book right now.

  2. Let me know your thoughts as you work your way through it.