Could an Identity Safe Environment Improve Student Achievement?

A common trait found among many of the at-risk students I work with is a reticence to ask questions. In reading Warren Burger’s A More Beautiful Question, I learned that this is common to many students. Berger (2014) shows that children’s questioning peaks at around age three then drops precipitously through the completion of high school (p. 44). The author points to a few possible causes of this downturn in questioning including the fact that students are now able to read and access information on their own (p. 44-45). What is concerning, is that the change in questioning frequency correlates with an overall disengagement in school (p. 45). At a certain point, the teacher begins asking more questions than the students. And the teacher’s questions are often not open-ended launching points for exploration but are rather tools for formative assessment. Since students’ answers serve as a sorting mechanism, from the students perspective it is better to not answer than to be wrong.  If there is that much anxiety in giving the right answer, image the anxiety in asking the right question. One aspect of question anxiety that Burger (2014) brought up in chapter two was stereotype threat. 

Stereotype threat refers to the risk of confirming negative stereotypes about an individual’s racial, ethnic, gender, or cultural group (Glossary of Education Reform, 2013).  As Berger asks, “would students who are battling against stereotypes be less inclined to interrupt lessons by asking questions, revealing to the rest of the class that they don’t know something (p. 58)?” I would add that the students are potentially more anxious about what their teachers think. Especially, if the teacher does not share the student background.

For more on stereotype threat watch this video with Stanford University School of Education Dean, Dr. Claude Steele.

In my experience teaching in a charter school that is predominantly black while the staff is majority white, I believe I have seen the impact that stereotype threat has on students questioning. Common to most of the at-risk students I work with is a fear of being exposed as being not smart or not understanding. In the lower grades, this manifests as a sort of copasetic detachment. “Yeah, yeah, I understand.” Many students when pressed students will respond angrily, occasionally directing their rage at being exposed toward the instructor, but more often themselves. In middle school, this turns into aggressive aloofness and an insatiable appetite for diversion and distraction.

Most of the students I have worked with do not ask penetrating questions–at least in the classroom. If you catch them outside at recess or on field-trip bus ride, it is nothing but penetrating questions. It is as if there is a wall that has been created between the students and “school”. While in low-income schools we typically associate the words “safe learning environment” with physical safety and consistent routines, I think it is important to also create what Dr. Steele terms “identity safety”.

Doing this requires culture building. A few things I have tried with varying levels of success are: allowing students to pick the names of persons in story problems and encouraging students to write their own story problems, this hopefully thaws the icy wall between school and home. Of course, the most important thing is relationship building with the students. I am also interested in the work that Emdin does in considering how teaching style can influence engagement. In this video, Dr. Emdin explains how teachers can bridge the gap between the classroom and the community.

I also think that it is important for teachers to rethink how we ask questions. It is easy to write a couple of “one right answer” questions into a lesson plan as an assessment tool. But when we do this, we could easily be increasing the stereotype threat and simultaneously making the asking of questions seem more daunting to students.

What role does stereotype threat play in diminished questioning? Could an identity safe environment promote questioning and engagement? As a white teacher who works with students of color, how do I create a learning environment that is identity safe for students? How can I, in one year, thaw the icy wall of aloofness that has been built over many years of schooling? At this point, I have more questions than answers, but I guess that’s a good thing.


Berger, W. (2014). A more beautiful question: the power of inquiry to spark breakthrough ideas. New York: Bloomsbury.

Emdin, C. TED Talk. (2014, Apr 8). Teach teachers how to create magic. Retrieved from

Glossary of Education Reform (2013) Stereotype Threat Definition retrieved from

Steel, C. Not In Our School (2013, June 18). “Stereotype Threat: A Conversation with Claude Steele” retrieved from

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