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Addressing Racism Means Educating Our Children Differently
Racism is the acting out of biases learned as early as preschool, research shows. If racism starts at three years old, so should science-backed strategies to reduce it.
Lori Markson is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences and the director of the Cognition & Development Lab at Washington University in St. Louis. Her research explores the cognitive mechanisms that allow children to successfully navigate the social world, with a focus on social exclusion, preferences, learning, and trust.
Lori Markson: As I mentioned, I’m at Washington University which is in St. Louis. It’s actually quite a beautiful city. I moved there from Oakland, California—that was the place I had lived before that. And moving there—having only lived on both sides of the country and never in the middle, and I guess moving in particular to this city—really opened my eyes to some of the systemic racism that was apparent in the city. It’s a great place and it also has a big divide.
In fact, locally—and I’m not sure if this goes on outside the city as well—it’s often referred to as the divided city, and there’s even a line that demarcates where that divide takes place. I live one block from that line and I was seeing, regularly, all kinds of things happen that were really eye-opening to me. I think that the country’s eyes got opened even wider after Ferguson and many other events that continue to happen around the country. But as a developmental psychologist I really took a lot of this to heart because I was thinking about my kids and the kids that I was seeing in my lab, and those kids that weren’t coming into my lab and that I know lived across that line.
And what should we and could we potentially be doing, both for the kids but also looking at kids with some hope for the future? Now what we do know, sadly, in children is that there already are implicit biases that you can pick up and observe in kids at five to six years of age. This is one example of a study that my colleague Melanie Killen did. She is at University of Maryland, so close to Baltimore, and what she found is that different children will interpret these scenes very differently. And what she discovered in this particular study is that black kids actually are much more optimistic about race than white kids. Already by first grade, which is the kids she tested in this study, the white kids were having much more negative or pessimistic kinds of interpretations than the black children who were trying to have much more positive interpretations. An interpretation that’s positive, for example, would be like, “Oh, it looks like he fell off the swing and the other kid was waiting to see if he needed help.” A not so positive interpretation would be something like, “I think he pushed him off the swing so that he could use it.”
So what we were thinking about is how might we go ahead and take action and be looking at the kids? What could we do earlier? Are we already seeing that these biases are developing already in the preschool years? What might we be doing, are there ways that we can step in and intervene on this?
So we know that babies notice differences between people of all kinds, whether people speak different languages, have different color skin, act differently. We also know that by three years of age children are already noticing power and status differences, and that by five or six years of age, as I said, we’re already seeing implicit biases about these. What is happening in the preschool years? We wanted to ask a few questions. I’m only going to show you two things that we’ve been looking at in this.
Now our participants, our kids that are in these studies, are at preschools all over the city of St. Louis. I’m going to report today data that’s coming from kids that are in racially homogenous schools so they’re schools that are mostly all black kids and black teachers or mostly all white kids and white teachers. But we’re also testing at a number of mixed schools that are in the city. Most of the kids in homogenous schools also come from pretty homogenous neighborhoods of both races.And we put them in these two tasks: Accuracy task, which is just having somebody name those three objects and either saying them accurately—it’s a cup, it’s a ball, and it’s a book—or naming them wrong, inaccurately—it’s a pencil, it’s a fork, and it’s a shoe.
And what we see in lots and lots of studies previously, by many colleagues of mine and myself, is that children prefer the person who is accurate, and they also prefer to learn from that person. So what we wanted to ask them here is—all we did was change out the race of one of these speakers and ask them which one of these people would you like to have as your teacher?
And we did that in the accuracy task. So one of these was always accurate and one wasn’t. Then we also put them into a simple teacher preference task. We didn’t give them any background information. We just asked which of these would you like to have as your teacher. And these were always different people. I think I may have put the same faces up, but they’re always different.
And what we found in these racially homogenous schools is that both white and black children wanted an accurate person to teach them stuff and to be their teacher. So it didn’t matter: black, white, they wanted the accurate person. That’s who they wanted to be their teacher. However, when we simply asked them, “Which one of these people do you prefer to be your teacher?” both races of kids preferred the white teacher.
I’ll leave that there for a minute just to sink. These are three- to six-year-old kids.
Now we also put them in a marshmallow task, which has long been used to look at how kids delay gratification that has all kinds of successful outcomes. But we wanted to look at something else. More recently some findings have suggested that you might get different effects in this marshmallow test depending on how much you trust that the speaker is going to come back. So we wanted to use this as sort of a measure of trust in the speaker. And what we did is present kids—again, black or white kids—and the only difference between them was whether they got a black experimenter or a white experimenter to do the marshmallow task with them. And this is all they are. They’re sat down at a table in a room, you’re given a big enticing marshmallow and they’re told, “Just wait. I’m going to be back and if you don’t eat that before I get back I’m going to actually give you another marshmallow so you’ll have two. Bye!” And they leave the room.
They’re being filmed in there so we see what’s going on and we know how long they waited. And what we found, again, is that black kids waited exactly the same amount of time. It didn’t matter if the experimenter was white or black. The white kids waited significantly longer if the experimenter was white. Both of these things suggest to us that there is already something going on starting at three years of age and up, and that there is a lot of work that needs to be done to nip these in the bud while we still have these kids before other things can be happening. Now we are testing at mixed-race schools. I’m hoping that some of this will come out a little bit differently, but we will learn from that and see what exposure and interaction can do. We do know that cross-race friendship is one of the best predictors of lessened bias across races and other social groups.
Quickly, because I know I need to wrap up, I just want to present this idea of what it must be like in a world, for a kid, when you are a minority and everything isn’t presented to look like you. This is what a black child typically feels like when they go to the store to pick a doll or when they go to the bookstore to look at books. Looking for examples of things that represent me, that are like me, that I can relate with, that I can learn from and relate to. And so what if white kids had that same kind of understanding and it gave them a better way or a more clear view of what the world was like.
Now there is one such organization that I’ve been really lucky to partner with in St. Louis. It’s called We Stories, and We Stories is introducing white families and mixed race families to more diverse books and helping parents have conversations about race in their home.
Black families tend to have much more conversation about race, because they need to, than white families that tend to have difficultly talking about these issues with their kids. Even if they’re well-intended and want to, its challenging.
So they’re giving them the books and the resources with which to do this. And this has already really taken fire and there’s a huge wait list. They’ve already worked with I think 500-and-something families in the St. Louis area and there’s 400 or so families at least on the wait list. They can’t move along as fast as the demand.
So I’ve partnered with them, both as member in the program but also doing some of the research to see the effect of exposure of diversity through books and if that can have any kind of impact and change. One important thing about this program is that not only is it supposed to impact the kids, but it already has and we see the effects of it impacting the parents. So the parents caring about this, it’s making them much more committed to seeing change in the region and making sure that their kids grow up thinking differently.
I’ll leave you soon with a quote from Baldwin who said that, “I can’t be a pessimist because I’m alive. To be a pessimist means that you have agreed that human life is an academic matter. So I’m forced to be an optimist. I’m forced to believe that we can survive. Whatever it is we must survive.” But we don’t have to survive everything. Some of the things we need to figure out and we can change them.
I really have the audacity of hope for racial equity to keep moving forward, and I want to leave with this quote, which is when I was struggling—not only with the things that were going on in my city around me—but then the campaigns and elections last year. Sometimes I say, “Why should we do anything? There’s no hope.”
And this gave me some hope actually, some optimism; and if you can’t read it there’s one of these little creatures that’s saying, “Why so optimistic about 2017? What do you think it will bring?” The other one says, “I think it will bring flowers.” “Yes? How come?” “Because I am planting flowers.”
And what optimism can do is give us the faith that eventually takes us to seeing some improvement, to seeing some achievement. Nothing is going to be able to be done without the ability for us to be able to imagine what isn’t there, how things could be changed or imagine the ways in which things aren’t already, and that requires hope. So for hope and optimism, this is my view of how these come together, and I ask that you plant lots of flowers.
There's no getting around it: we're all a little bit biased. But when do harmful implicit biases, like racial judgements, form? Developmental psychologist Lori Markson and her colleagues have identified racial bias in preschool children aged three to six years old. Despite learning that kids this age—both black and white—prefer white teachers, or that white kids trust black adults less, Markson is not pessimistic about the future of race relations—in fact she's the opposite. The more data we can collect on racial bias, the more information we have to develop strategies to close social divides. Based on the research she presents here, Markson outlines three strategies—diversity exposure, bias intervention, and cross-race friendships—that can help to end racist behavior in the next generation, and hopefully in the current one. This video was filmed at the Los Angeles Hope Festival, a collaboration between Big Think and Hope & Optimism.
Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?
- Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
- It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
- COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
What conditions of the new normal were already appreciated widely?<p>First, we understand that higher education is unique among industries. Some industries are governed by markets. Others are run by governments. Most operate under the influence of both markets and governments. And then there's higher education. Higher education as an "industry" involves public, private, and for-profit universities operating at small, medium, large, and now massive scales. Some higher education industry actors are intense specialists; others are adept generalists. Some are fantastically wealthy; others are tragically poor. Some are embedded in large cities; others are carefully situated near farms and frontiers.</p> <p>These differences demonstrate just some of the complexities that shape higher education. Still, we understand that change in the industry is underway, and we must be active in directing it. Yet because of higher education's unique (and sometimes vexing) operational and structural conditions, many of the lessons from change management and the science of industrial transformation are only applicable in limited or highly modified ways. For evidence of this, one can look at various perspectives, including those that we have offered, on such topics as <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/blogs/rethinking-higher-education/lessons-disruption" target="_blank">disruption</a>, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/20/education/learning/education-technology.html" target="_blank">technology management</a>, and so-called "<a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/sites/default/server_files/media/Excerpt_IHESpecialReport_Growing-Role-of-Mergers-in-Higher-Ed.pdf" target="_blank">mergers and acquisitions</a>" in higher education. In each of these spaces, the "market forces" and "market rules" for higher education are different than they are in business, or even in government. This has always been the case and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p> <p>Second, with so much excitement about innovation in higher education, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that students are—and should remain—the core cause for innovation. Higher education's capacity to absorb new ideas is strong. But the ideas that endure are those designed to benefit students, and therefore society. This is important to remember because not all innovations are designed with students in mind. The recent history of innovation in higher education includes several cautionary tales of what can happen when institutional interests—or worse, <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/02/09/apollos-new-owners-seek-fresh-start-beleaguered-company" target="_blank">shareholder</a> interests—are placed above student well-being.</p>
Photo: Getty Images<p>Third, it is abundantly apparent that universities must leverage technology to increase educational quality and access. The rapid shift to delivering an education that complies with social distancing guidelines speaks volumes about the adaptability of higher education institutions, but this transition has also posed unique difficulties for colleges and universities that had been slow to adopt digital education. The last decade has shown that online education, implemented effectively, can meet or even surpass the quality of in-person <a href="https://link-springer-com.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/article/10.1007/s10639-019-10027-z" target="_blank">instruction</a>.</p><p>Digital instruction, broadly defined, leverages online capabilities and integrates adaptive learning methodologies, predictive analytics, and innovations in instructional design to enable increased student engagement, personalized learning experiences, and improved learning outcomes. The ability of these technologies to transcend geographic barriers and to shrink the marginal cost of educating additional students makes them essential for delivering education at scale.</p><p>As a bonus, and it is no small thing given that they are the core cause for innovation, students embrace and enjoy digital instruction. It is their preference to learn in a format that leverages technology. This should not be a surprise; it is now how we live in all facets of life.</p><p>Still, we have only barely begun to conceive of the impact digital education will have. For example, emerging virtual and augmented reality technologies that facilitate interactive, hands-on learning will transform the way that learners acquire and apply new knowledge. Technology-enabled learning cannot replace the traditional college experience or ensure the survival of any specific college, but it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale. This has always been the case, and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p>
What conditions of the new normal were emerging suspicions?<p>Our collective thinking about the role of institutional or university-to-university collaboration and networking has benefitted from a new clarity in light of COVID-19. We now recognize more than ever that colleges and universities must work together to ensure that the American higher education system is resilient and sufficiently robust to meet the needs of students and their families.</p> <p>In recent weeks, various commentators have suggested that higher education will face a wave of institutional <a href="https://www.businessinsider.com/scott-galloway-predicts-colleges-will-close-due-to-pandemic-2020-5" target="_blank">closures</a> and consolidations and that large institutions with significant online instruction capacity will become dominant.</p> <p>While ASU is the largest public university in the United States by enrollment and among the most well-equipped in online education, we strongly oppose "let them fail" mindsets. The strength of American higher education relies on its institutional diversity, and on the ability of colleges and universities to meet the needs of their local communities and educate local students. The needs of learners are highly individualized, demanding a wide range of options to accommodate the aspirations and learning styles of every kind of student. Education will become less relevant and meaningful to students, and less responsive to local needs, if institutions of higher learning are allowed to fail. </p> <p>Preventing this outcome demands that colleges and universities work together to establish greater capacity for remote, distributed education. This will help institutions with fewer resources adapt to our new normal and continue to fulfill their mission of serving students, their families, and their communities. Many had suspected that collaboration and networking were preferable over letting vulnerable colleges fail. COVID-19's new normal seems to be confirming this.</p>
President Barack Obama delivers the commencement address during the Arizona State University graduation ceremony at Sun Devil Stadium May 13, 2009 in Tempe, Arizona. Over 65,000 people attended the graduation.
Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images<p>A second condition of the new normal that many had suspected to be true in recent years is the limited role that any one university or type of university can play as an exemplar to universities more broadly. For decades, the evolution of higher education has been shaped by the widespread imitation of a small number of elite universities. Most public research universities could benefit from replicating Berkeley or Michigan. Most small private colleges did well by replicating Williams or Swarthmore. And all universities paid close attention to Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Stanford, and Yale. It is not an exaggeration to say that the logic of replication has guided the evolution of higher education for centuries, both in the US and abroad.</p><p>Only recently have we been able to move beyond replication to new strategies of change, and COVID-19 has confirmed the legitimacy of doing so. For example, cases such as <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2020/03/10/harvard-moves-classes-online-advises-students-stay-home-after-spring-break-response-covid-19/" target="_blank">Harvard's</a> eviction of students over the course of less than one week or <a href="https://www.nhregister.com/news/coronavirus/article/Mayor-New-Haven-asks-for-coronavirus-help-Yale-15162606.php" target="_blank">Yale's apparent reluctance</a> to work with the city of New Haven, highlight that even higher education's legacy gold standards have limits and weaknesses. We are hopeful that the new normal will include a more active and earnest recognition that we need many types of universities. We think the new normal invites us to rethink the very nature of "gold standards" for higher education.</p>
A graduate student protests MIT's rejection of some evacuation exemption requests.
Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images<p>Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we had started to suspect and now understand that America's colleges and universities are among the many institutions of democracy and civil society that are, by their very design, incapable of being sufficiently responsive to the full spectrum of modern challenges and opportunities they face. Far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted. And without new designs, we can expect postsecondary success for these same students to be as elusive in the new normal, as it was in the <a href="http://pellinstitute.org/indicators/reports_2019.shtml" target="_blank">old normal</a>. This is not just because some universities fail to sufficiently recognize and engage the promise of diversity, this is because few universities have been designed from the outset to effectively serve the unique needs of lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color.</p>
Where can the new normal take us?<p>As colleges and universities face the difficult realities of adapting to COVID-19, they also face an opportunity to rethink their operations and designs in order to respond to social needs with greater agility, adopt technology that enables education to be delivered at scale, and collaborate with each other in order to maintain the dynamism and resilience of the American higher education system.</p> <p>COVID-19 raises questions about the relevance, the quality, and the accessibility of higher education—and these are the same challenges higher education has been grappling with for years. </p> <p>ASU has been able to rapidly adapt to the present circumstances because we have spent nearly two decades not just anticipating but <em>driving</em> innovation in higher education. We have adopted a <a href="https://www.asu.edu/about/charter-mission-and-values" target="_blank">charter</a> that formalizes our definition of success in terms of "who we include and how they succeed" rather than "<a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/10/17/forget-varsity-blues-madness-lets-talk-about-students-who-cant-afford-college/" target="_blank">who we exclude</a>." We adopted an entrepreneurial <a href="https://president.asu.edu/read/higher-logic" target="_blank">operating model</a> that moves at the speed of technological and social change. We have launched initiatives such as <a href="https://www.instride.com/how-it-works/" target="_blank">InStride</a>, a platform for delivering continuing education to learners already in the workforce. We developed our own robust technological capabilities in ASU <a href="https://edplus.asu.edu/" target="_blank">EdPlus</a>, a hub for research and development in digital learning that, even before the current crisis, allowed us to serve more than 45,000 fully online students. We have also created partnerships with other forward-thinking institutions in order to mutually strengthen our capabilities for educational accessibility and quality; this includes our role in co-founding the <a href="https://theuia.org/" target="_blank">University Innovation Alliance</a>, a consortium of 11 public research universities that share data and resources to serve students at scale. </p> <p>For ASU, and universities like ASU, the "new normal" of a post-COVID world looks surprisingly like the world we already knew was necessary. Our record breaking summer 2020 <a href="https://asunow.asu.edu/20200519-sun-devil-life-summer-enrollment-sets-asu-record" target="_blank">enrollment</a> speaks to this. What COVID demonstrates is that we were already headed in the right direction and necessitates that we continue forward with new intensity and, we hope, with more partners. In fact, rather than "new normal" we might just say, it's "go time." </p>
Hollywood has created an idea of aliens that doesn't match the science.
- Ask someone what they think aliens look like and you'll probably get a description heavily informed by films and pop culture. The existence of life beyond our planet has yet to be confirmed, but there are clues as to the biology of extraterrestrials in science.
- "Don't give them claws," says biologist E.O. Wilson. "Claws are for carnivores and you've got to be an omnivore to be an E.T. There just isn't enough energy available in the next trophic level down to maintain big populations and stable populations that can evolve civilization."
- In this compilation, Wilson, theoretical physicist Michio Kaku, Bill Nye, and evolutionary biologist Jonathan B. Losos explain why aliens don't look like us and why Hollywood depictions are mostly inaccurate.
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- The company donates a portion of profits to charity every month.
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