As a member of the UW School of Public Health’s Diversity Committee, I try not to become too overwhelmed about these questions on a regular basis. Today, I had the honor of attending a talk by Dr. Stephanie Fryberg, a Tulalip tribal member and professor at the University of Arizona, that inspired my thinking about these topics once again. Her talk was titled “Culturally grounded intervention to enhance academic performance,” and addressed the issues of identity, culture, and expectations of success at both the primary school and college levels.
Dr. Fryberg’s talk laid out a theory of culture change, including intersecting components of how culture works in society. These components are individuals, interactions, institutions and ideas. She raised the concern that teachers, and administrators often cue students that they either do or do not belong, based on how we enact the culture of educational institutions. This includes prioritizing independence of thought over collaboration and interdependence, and making individual choices over taking direction from one’s family and community. These priorities are often seen as a highly positive, supportive and valued aspects of learning. In doing so, we reinforce certain Western, middle-class values that might not apply to all students, and as such, overlook the need to provide space for, as Fryberg suggests, “multiple viable ways of being” that are culturally grounded.
In all aspects of an institution, we need to reflect on which core cultural values are driving the system that we are perpetuating. Fryberg’s theory suggests that “academic performance will be enhanced when understandings of self are congruent with those that are normatively appropriate in the setting” (from Fryberg, Covarrubias, and Burack 2013). She and her colleagues conducted several studies in a university setting to examine this idea. First, she drew from two different models of self: independent, and interdependent. The independent model emphasizes separation from others and individual self-expression, which is promoted in the U.S. and higher education. The interdependent model, on the other hand, emphasizes interdependence with and connection to others and others’ needs, which is common throughout the world. The educational emphasis on the individual model is reflected in language that universities use to communicate their expectations to students. Fryberg and colleagues’ study with university administrators demonstrated that the vast majority preferred independent expectations over interdependent expectations within the university, and characterized their own institutions as favoring independence attitudes.
Their study with college first-year students showed that those who were the first in their families to attend college were more interdependently motivated to get their education (e.g. to “give back to my community”); those who had a least one parent attend college before them were more independently motivated (for primarily personal gains). Interestingly, those students who were more interdependently minded had lower academic success 2 years later. The researchers then conducted an experiment to see what might be going on there. They altered the welcome letter sent to incoming first-year students at Stanford University to include language about welcoming the family (and not just the student), and attributed the student’s choice to attend to both the student and their family, and mentioned opportunities to learn from peers and interact with the Stanford community. The letter primed students to expect acceptance of interdependence at the university. Next, they were asked to complete a puzzle task. The first-generation students who read this version of the letter did better on the puzzle performance measures, and reported more ease than did the first-generation students who read the original, independence-focused letter. The continuing-generation students demonstrated no effect of the letters. The researchers suggested that the interdependence-focused letter cued a sense of belonging for the students who are interdependently motivated, which led to improved success in the task they were asked to do. This finding supported the researchers’ idea as described above, that when students see themselves as fitting into the institutional expectations and norms, they have greater academic success.
Another compelling study that Fryberg reported was with school teachers, who were surveyed about their mindset and beliefs about diversity, as well as responsibility for student success. There are two theories of mindset that they explored: that traits such as intelligence, athletic ability and personality are fixed in a person (fixed mindset), or those traits are changeable qualities that can be developed in a person (growth mindset). The two models of diversity she described were color blindness (which claims that a person—usually white— does not see race or color, but in doing so, they can make invisible or marginalize people who are not like them), versus multiculturalism (which recognizes and appreciates differences among people). They found that teachers who had a growth mindset tended to feel more control and thus responsibility for helping all students, and then held more multicultural views on diversity, as they believed they could teach diverse classes. Finally, the researchers then had the teachers read two different mission statements for the school district: one that emphasized features of the growth mindset, and the other that emphasized the fixed mindset. They were both acceptable to the teachers. However, the next step was to ask teachers to make budget recommendations for the school district. Those who were primed with the fixed mindset statement were more likely to cut funding for diversity efforts than those who were primed with the growth mindset statement.
There are big potential implications for this work. If teachers’ mindsets were influenced by something as simple as the school district’s mission statement wording, thus leading to differences in how they made budget allocations (and they were none the wiser about the factors at work during the study), then we can see how powerful images and structures at the institutional level can be without our realizing that they even exist. This can be interpreted as a scary thing—that is, we need to be aware of everything around us that is manipulating our decisions without our conscious awareness. But, on the other hand, we could think about using this advantageously: it could be relatively simple to affect a change in many different areas by priming ourselves to hold the mindset and values that we want to instill in our institutions. An example of this is found at the Seattle King County Public Health Department, where they have been priming employees to think about their own assumptions and stereotypes they hold of others before engaging in a hiring process, leading to more equitable hiring practices. After seeing a talk last week on the immovability of unconscious bias, I am relieved to have this idea that with appropriate priming on the subconscious level, we might be able to make decisions that support diversity, that change our cultural climate within an institution.
I don’t mean to make light of the task of diversifying our institutions-- we have a steep uphill journey ahead. I just wanted to think and write about a glimmer of hope on a topic that is otherwise mired in discouraging doubt.
*Stained glass image was borrowed from: http://thesituationist.wordpress.com/2010/08/