| Group identification, whether it's whites and blacks or even boys and girls, fosters a way of looking at the world -- and oneself -- through an "us-and-them" perspective. And that, historically, has had negative implications, says Rebecca S.
Bigler, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Texas.
Bigler's conclusion is based on her research of students and how they respond when teachers reinforce group distinctions, as opposed to addressing all class members the same way.
Bigler conducted an experiment in which 91 elementary-school children were randomly divided into two groups based on the shirt color they had to wear while attending a summer-school program. Half the students wore yellow shirts and half wore blue.
They were then subdivided into three classrooms. Two of the classrooms had posters depicting children and adults with yellow shirts as more successful -- winning more spelling bees, or excelling in sports, for instance. The other classroom had no posters at all.
In one of the classrooms with the posters and the one without posters, the teachers consistently addressed the students according to their shirt color. The teachers also had them, for instance, stand in separate lines, but no mention was made of any group being more successful than the other.
In the third classroom where posters were also on display, the teacher never mentioned shirt colors and all students were addressed in the same manner.
The children were then interviewed following the experiment. The most striking differences were seen between those who had been addressed according to shirt colors and those who had not. The two groups that had been referred to according to shirt color developed prejudices and stereotypes about students wearing particular shirt colors. This even happened in the classroom that didn't have posters depicting yellow-shirted people as more successful.
Interestingly, the group that showed no prejudiced behavior was the one whose teacher made no reference to shirt color, even though their classroom contained posters of successful people in yellow shirts.
This illustrates the profound influence teachers can have on their students' behavior, Bigler says.
"In the classes where teachers ignored [the shirt colors], the children didn't seem to notice them either, despite the presence of the posters," she says. "It didn't impact them at all."
Bigler acknowledges the potential controversy of suggesting that something like 'Good morning, boys and girls' could have a negative impact. But, she adds, her study underscores the notion that group identities plant the first seeds of prejudice.
"Teachers are authority figures, and students are looking to their teachers to help figure out the world. But, if they see a teacher praising one group or another, they can think, 'Gee, we really must be different.' "
Lily Eskelsen, a member of the National Education Association's executive committee, agrees with Bigler's conclusions.
"As a teacher, I understand that subtle cues that I put out are not going unnoticed," she says. "Kids are smart. They pick up on who you think the smart kids are or who you think the good athletes are, sometimes by simply observing who you pick to do certain classroom chores."
If children must be put into groups for one reason or another, the best way to do so is through "cross-grouping," Eskelsen says.
"The message would be avoid things like, 'Boys are over there and girls are here.' It's better to cross-group. And rather than having reading groups based on students' ability, I always like to have the kids who don't read as well in a group so they can hear the kids who do read well. I think it's important for them to be able to say they're all working on the same project."
Adds Eskelsen: "This [Bigler's] research reinforces that we as teachers are such an important part of breaking down stereotypes. And we have to constantly be saying, 'This is an individual child with an unlimited potential. How do I open every door for these kids, regardless of race, religion, gender, size or what their family looks like or their income?' "
Bigler's study was published in a recent issue of the journal
What to Do: Visit the American Federation of Teachers' Parent Page for more information on the influence teachers have on students. And the National Education Association Web site offers this speech on Teachers and Teaching, by civil rights lawyer Thomas Todd.