Tuesday, March 24, 2009

How well do we know our own minds?

Awhile back, while reading Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink, I was introduced to the IAT - the Implicit Association Test. The IAT is a kind of test that measures implicit attitudes or beliefs that people are either unwilling or unable to report. Here is an excerpt about the background:

Psychologists understand that people may not say what's on their minds either because they are unwilling or because they are unable to do so. The unwilling-unable distinction is like the difference between purposely hiding something from others and unconsciously hiding something from yourself. The Implicit Association Test makes it possible to penetrate both of these types of hiding.

Gladwell discusses the IAT in Blink to illustrate some points about "thin slicing" - those split second assumptions or conclusions we come to almost unconsciously. He discusses in particular the "Race IAT" because people who take it and say they do not have a preference for one race over another are often surprised or disturbed to find after taking the test that the data indicate they do in fact have some preference, even if it is on an unconscious level.

There are other IAT tests too, such as the "weight IAT", the "religion IAT", the "gender IAT", the "Native American IAT", and several others - even an "Obama/McCain IAT"!

These sets of IAT's that Gladwell refers to are from the Project Implicit site. You can read more about that at their site.

How can you use this in your classroom? This, to me, is really fascinating - and I think that high school students could definitely benefit from the discussion this would generate. Some carefully structured lessons, debates, or role plays and discussions, along with an IAT test, would really be a rich study for students in exploring not only the attitudes of the particular society and culture in which they live in (American, Alaskan, community, family, affiliations, race, etc), but how that has shaped their own attitudes, whether they think it has or not. In junior high and high school, it is not uncommon for our coursework, somewhere along the way, to come across the issue of stereotypes. This is an opportune time (teachable moment) to use the IAT as a springboard for that discussion.

You can take any IAT as many times as you wish - the results usually don't vary much with re-takes. If you answer too slowly the test will simply say the results are not valid.

CAUTION - although I would really encourage the type of discussion, tied in with some relevant curricular study that this would generate, I would strongly recommend that teachers follow these guidelines;

1. Don't require students to take the IAT, although they can certainly participate in the discussion. They can always take it privately at home if they wish.

2. Don't publicize results of anyone's IAT. I personally think it's best if you tell the students specifically NOT to share their results with anyone - even you.

3. Coach students on how to discuss and respond without being judgmental. This is a good time to reinforce the idea behind the IAT - to bring out attitudes that we sometimes don't know ourselves that we have.

4. Don't dwell on it - the main point is the self-awareness and further thinking this will generate. Know that even though the activity and discussion may be short, those wheels are a-turning!

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