Stereotypes and prejudices are natural processes of the human mind but can negatively affect our individual and social lives.
After focusing on the concepts of stereotype and prejudice, we will reflect on how we can protect children from their negative impact and how we can break them down within STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering And Maths).
Stereotypes and prejudices
Stereotypes are mental patterns that organise our expectations about a group of individuals, objects, events… Often they do not change even with direct experience. They can make us lose sight of some characteristics of certain phenomena. Actually, there are both positive and negative stereotypes. An example of a positive stereotype is that Italians are all good in the kitchen, warm, creative...! But often it is the negative ones that spread more easily.
Prejudice is an opinion developed even before making direct acquaintance with a fact or a person, based on stereotypes, so it is unjustified! Prejudices, like stereotypes, also guide us in everyday life, so we have to be careful to recognise them!
Stereotypes and prejudices are dangerous because they can influence actions and reality. Let’s take an example: if a teacher believes, on the basis of a stereotype, that female students do not have the predisposition for scientific and technological disciplines unlike their male companions, they will tend to develop, perhaps unconsciously, a prejudice of incompetence towards each female student, and will encourage them to engage in the humanities, perhaps rewarding them for their efforts and communicating with their families. The same teacher, on the contrary, will do with their male students. Consequently, while males and females are passionate and develop skills in distinct areas, “the prophecy is self-fulfilling” and ends up reinforcing the gender stereotypes from which it originates.
Stereotypes and prejudices in the developmental age
Children build their ideas through the experiences made in their growth environment: the family unit, the school, the peer group and the community; information from outside sources, such as the Internet and TV need to be added to this. Stereotypes and prejudices which they come into contact with have repercussions on their growth path.
As adults, we can counteract the most damaging portrayals in different ways. For example:
- we can provide children with positive models, both in dialogue and in behaviour, first of all by working on our own stereotypes and prejudices (have you ever wondered which ones are yours?);
- we should intervene immediately in response to any discriminatory attitudes of the child towards other peers originating from stereotypes and prejudices;
- we can stimulate the motivation and curiosity to open up to diversity through the discovery of the surrounding world, and the message that diversity is natural and necessary;
- we can encourage them to take the perspective of a weaker individual;
- if we are teachers, we can trigger a debate in which the children in turn express their opinion on the chosen topic.
Stereotypes and Prejudices in STEAM
Not even the world of STEAM is free from stereotypes and prejudices. We can list a few of them here, which we will immediately try to dismantle.
- STEAM subjects are cold and arid.
This bias arises from a poor understanding of the STEAM approach among adults. To tell the truth, STEAM is an approach that aims to prepare students for the society of the future where competences will become increasingly contaminated. In today's world, technological and scientific innovation practices cannot be separated from design thinking, creativity, communication and artistic skills. By way of example... We could not imagine producing a video game without the integration of computer developers, electronics experts, but also scriptwriters and creative designers! Or, again, no television show could exist without the teamwork of numerous teams composed of technical staff such as cameramen and phonics, and artists such as actors, make-up artists and set designers.
- Investing in STEAM at school impoverishes children on a human, emotional and relational level.
This prejudice also stems from the mistaken idea that children are educated to “think like a computer” in STEAM, to work alone and to be inhibited in their expressive and emotional nature. In a STEAM context, in reality, students are taught how to think critically, solve problems and use their creativity. Students are not only taught the disciplines but also how to learn, how to ask questions, how to experiment and how to create.
- STEAM subjects are for males, not females.
This prejudice attributes males with a natural flair for mathematical, scientific and technological professions, and females with a natural flair for relational and artistic professions. According to the data of the 2019 edition of “Women in Digital Scoreboard”, Italy is fourth to last as regards to the participation of women in the digital economy and still only 30% of girls on average enrol in STEM degree courses. The reasons are varied: family expectations, few successful female role models and the messages conveyed by the media. To reverse this trend, national and international initiatives have been multiplying for some years, aiming to increase the interest of girls and young women in the wide range of STEAM disciplines.
What little contribution can we make?
- If we are parents, we can seek greater in-depth understanding of STEAM, discuss the topic with our children, recognise and support any interests and talents they manifest;
- Recounting examples of great women of the present and the past who have changed the history of science or technology through discoveries, inventions and successes;
- If we are teachers, we can invite “famous women” in STEAM subjects to school for them to recount their success stories: this can motivate girls and young women to follow their interests by resisting the social pressures they may encounter on their way.
The subject is complex and challenging but now we have the tools to defeat the stereotypes... children will surprise us as always!