Understanding Stereotypes

What You Need


Understanding Stereotypes Photo credit: Clipart.com


To help lead students to an understanding that assumptions can lead to stereotypes and unfair judgments about individuals and groups, and that stereotypes and biases affect our lives.


This lesson is part of a group of lessons that focus on the social, behavioral, and economic sciences. These lessons are developed by AAAS and funded by the National Science Foundation Grant No. SES-0549096. For more lessons and activities that take a closer look at the social, behavioral, and economic sciences, be sure to check out the SBE Project page.

Group membership implies some sense of commonality for members and thereby some sense of difference from nonmembers. Often members of a group tend to stereotype outsiders and nonmembers tend to stereotype the group’s members. Group membership does reveal something useful about individuals, but it is a mistake to attribute all of a group’s real and imagined properties to every individual who belongs to it. The task for science education is to alert students to the prevalence and error of stereotyping, without disparaging the value of group membership. (Benchmarks for Science Literacy, p.157.)

As children try to understand biological and social phenomena, they often over generalize information about racial and cultural differences. One must be cautious, however, not to assume that children are prejudiced or deliberately using stereotypes when they over generalize. They simply may be thinking typically for young children trying to make sense out of their limited experiences with other groups (Ramsey, 1986). Research indicates that children in the United States come to understand race and ethnicity concepts between the ages of 3 and 4. At around age 6, children become accurate at sorting people by ethnicity. At around age 7 or 8, children understand that race and ethnicity do not change. By the second or third grade, then, children have an adult-like idea of what race and ethnicity are (McKown & Weinstein, 2003). According to Margo Monteith, Ph.D., many children have definite and entrenched stereotypes about blacks, women, and other social groups by five years of age. (“Where bias begins: The truth about stereotypes,” Psychology Today, May/June 98.)

In this lesson, students will confront age-related stereotypes, explore how stereotyping impacts their lives, and discuss how they can make changes to reduce overgeneralizations, unfair assumptions, and uncritical judgments about groups.


The purpose of this section of the lesson is to get students thinking about common stereotypes; in this case, stereotypes associated with “teenagers” and the “elderly.”

Ask students to brainstorm adjectives/phrases associated with being “elderly” and being a “teenager,” based on how they feel the two groups are perceived in society. Depending on the size of the class, you could facilitate a whole-group discussion, or break the class into two or more smaller groups, having them discuss and record responses associated with each category of people. (For example, elderly are out of touch, are irritable, slow moving, and forgetful; teenagers are hooligans, are self-centered, and narcissistic.)

Tell students that categorizing/grouping people is a common, natural thing to do; people have a fundamental need to belong to a group because it gives a sense of order, direction, and connection to others. But this tendency means that human beings are naturally prone to divide the world into us-and-them categories. It’s easy to make assumptions that the people in other groups—“them”—are both more alike than they actually are, and more different than they are from “us.” We thoughtlessly and effortlessly assign shared characteristics to people based on their belonging to a group, without really getting to know them.

Ask students to think about what “assumptions” they made during this brainstorming activity. Facilitate a class discussion that enhances the students’ understanding of this term (an assumption is an idea that is taken for granted, but not necessarily true; it’s an idea for which there isn’t sufficient data or evidence).

Ask questions such as:

  • Do the things you said belong to all people in each group? How do you know?
  • Do you think most people hold the same assumptions about teenagers? The elderly? Why or why not?
  • Have you met anyone who is in that group but doesn’t fit that description?
  • Have you ever had anyone make those assumptions about you? How did that make you feel?

Briefly introduce the term, “stereotype,” and ask students to define it. (A stereotype can be defined as an overly simple picture/description/opinion of a group. When we make assumptions about a particular group, our assumptions are often influenced by these simple “pictures” in our heads— stereotypes.)

Note that stereotypes can be either positive or negative but that in a sense, stereotypes are always problematic. Even if stereotypes lead us to assume a person has a positive trait, that presumption by itself robs the person of being seen and treated as an individual. For example, Asian American students sometimes feel pressure to live up to the stereotype that they are gifted at mathematics, a pressure that can reduce their enjoyment and performance in math (Cherman & Bodenhausen, 2001).

Ask these questions about stereotypes to get students thinking about their use:

  • Why do you think people use stereotypes? What’s in it for them?
  • When do you think people use stereotypes?

Wrap up the discussion and transition to the next section of the lesson, letting students know that it will focus on stereotypes associated with age (specifically, teenagers and elderly).


In this section of the lesson, students will hold a debate on common age-related stereotypes. Before students are assigned to a particular side in this debate, they should first do some research on stereotyping in general. To do this, have students use their Understanding Stereotypes student esheet to go to and read Where Bias Begins: The Truth about Stereotypes. Encourage students to take notes on what they read so that they can answer these questions:

  • What is automatic or implicit stereotyping? (It is an unconscious or hidden bias that a person has.)
  • What type of test is used to find a person’s hidden bias? (It presents the subject with a series of positive or negative adjectives, each paired with a characteristically "white" or "black" name. As the name and word appear together on a computer screen, the person taking the test presses a key, indicating whether the word is good or bad. Meanwhile, the computer records the speed of each response.)
  • What has been the startling phenomenon revealed by this test? (Most people who participate in the experiment—even some African-Americans—respond more quickly when a positive word is paired with a white name or a negative word with a black name.)
  • What has been the contribution of the cognitive approach to our understanding of stereotyping? (It has made the simple but profound point that we all use categories—of people, places, things—to make sense of the world around us. Our ability to categorize and evaluate is an important part of human intelligence.)
  • From what do stereotypes emerge? (They emerge from in-group/out-group dynamics.)
  • Where does bias begin? (According to this article, bias comes from the images that enter our consciousness from the culture around us. Images of women as sex objects, footage of African-American criminals on the six o'clock news—this is knowledge that affects our behavior.)
  • Do you agree with Dr. Dovidio’s assertion that free will does not exist? (Answers will vary.)
  • Where does the solution to automatic stereotyping lie? (Some researchers believe it lies in the process itself. Through practice, they say, people can weaken the mental links that connect minorities to negative stereotypes and strengthen the ones that connect them to positive conscious beliefs.)

Next, break the class into groups of four. Based on the discussion in the Motivation, have half of the groups choose a substantive stereotype of the elderly (e.g., elderly are out of touch), and the other half choose a stereotype of teenagers (e.g., teenagers are self-centered).

Next, break each group of four students into pairs; let one pair know that they will prepare a defense “for” the particular stereotype (e.g., elderly are out of touch, or teenagers are self-centered). They should do research to prove in a debate format that the trait is indeed real. Let the other pair know that they will prepare a defense “against” the stereotype (e.g., elderly aren’t out of touch, or teenagers aren’t self-centered). They should do research to prove in a debate format that the trait is indeed a stereotype, based on assumptions rather than a factual defining characteristic of the group.

Help students create a plan for researching their viewpoints (e.g., real-life observation, library, and Internet research). Provide appropriate time and resources to support this.

Distribute the Debate Rubric and explain the guidelines and criteria to students (explain the Debate Rubric, as well as the debate format suggested below). Have students use their esheet to go to the Persuasion Map on the ReadWriteThink website and provide them with roughly twenty minutes to follow the instructions and prepare for the debate.

After students have utilized the Persuasion Map to organize their thoughts, have them participate in the debate activity. Bring the groups of four back together. Have the “for” side debate the “against” side, following this format:

Opening Arguments (1-3 minutes) During this section, each side presents its opening argument, clearly articulating its position (i.e., either “for” or “against” the stereotype).

Cross Examination (4-6 minutes) During this section, each side gets to question the other. Only one person gets to speak at a time; one person gets to ask a question, and one person on the other side gets to answer. This is the time for the sides to poke holes in each other’s arguments.

Organization Time (1-2 minutes) During this time, teams should prepare their closing statements, attempting to address all questions raised in the cross examination.

Closing Statements (1-3 minutes) At this time, each side presents its closing statement, trying to convince the audience that it “won” the debate.

After each debate, have the rest of the class hold a vote on which side won; have students provide reasons why they think a particular side won, referring to the Debate Rubric for specific rationale.

Depending on time, you could hold another set of debates, having each group prepare for/debate the opposite viewpoint (i.e., the groups arguing “for” a stereotype could argue “against” it, and vice versa).


Assess the debate based on criteria outlined in the Debate Rubric. Additionally, ask questions like these:

  • What did you learn from preparing for and participating in the debate?
  • Did you have enough data/evidence to defend your position? What would you have done with more? How could you have collected more?
  • What role does scientific research (data/evidence) play in critiquing assumptions and breaking down stereotypes?

When discussing these questions, point out that social contact/interaction between groups (particularly positive) can undermine stereotyping by providing evidence contrary to the stereotype. However, in the absence of such contact/interaction, we can challenge assumptions by confronting them with disconfirming evidence, as we did in the debate activity of this lesson.

Assess students’ understanding of terms introduced in this lesson (assumptions, data/evidence, stereotypes), and their understanding of how age stereotypes and biases affect their lives, and what they’ll do differently as a result of this lesson. For example:

  • Describe a situation in which you witnessed an age-related bias/prejudice (either toward an older person or a teenager). What can you do to prevent situations like that in the future?
  • What are some activities that could be done to break down age-related stereotypes? (Examples include community service projects that involve interactions with teenagers and elderly, such as teenagers visiting nursing homes or elderly volunteering in the schools.)

Finally, generalize this discussion and assess students’ ability to act and interact differently based on their knowledge of stereotypes. Ask questions such as:

  • In general, how do assumptions about a group affect your behavior?
  • Do assumptions tell you how a person is really going to be?
  • How can assumptions and stereotypes be unfair and hurtful?
  • Do you think certain groups are more subject to stereotyping than others? If so, why?
  • What will you do (and encourage others to do) to help reduce bias and stereotyping?


In addition to the Motivation activity suggested in this lesson, you could stimulate thinking about stereotypes by having students react to pictures of people (or actual people) dressed in certain ways. For example, you could show pictures of a girl in “goth,” a boy in “punk,” a police officer in uniform, a Muslim in traditional attire, or a person with disabilities (e.g., Stephen Hawking). You could ask questions such as: “What do you know about these people?” and “Would you want to hang out with them? Why or Why not?”

These lessons on the ReadWriteThink website could be used to extend the ideas of this lesson:

Funder Info
National Science Foundation
Science NetLinks is proud to have the National Science Foundation as a funder of this project.

Did you find this resource helpful?

Lesson Details

Grades Themes Project 2061 Benchmarks