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Are you unknowingly treating your students differently?

dp-stock-09optimizedIB World investigates what unconscious bias means in a classroom setting and if it’s possible to mitigate its impact

“We all automatically stereotype, and these biases can affect how we see ourselves and how we discriminate against others,” says Liz Redford from the University of Florida. “Many people are surprised by their own biases, especially those who have goals to be fair and global-minded – they are often surprised that their implicit associations are different from their values, and this can be especially important to reveal.”

Only two per cent of our emotional cognition is conscious; for the remainder, our behaviour is unconscious and this is where implicit biases reside. These reactions are influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences, and contribute to quick judgments and assessments of people and situations, according to research.

“Being unconscious or unaware of a bias, is only one feature of that automatic gut reaction you can have towards something or someone – you can certainly have an implicit or automatic bias or reaction you’re aware of but you can’t control it or whether it affects your behaviour.”

“Automatic processing can be hard to control, unintentional, and unavailable to introspection as we might not know that we have it,” adds Redford.

myp-stock-01optimizedInequality in education

On a global level, automatic biases may be contributing factors to the 64 million girls and 28 million boys that are currently missing out on an education, and why there is disproportionately smaller number of girls taking STEM-related subjects in higher education.

Last year, a study found that gender stereotypes are negatively affecting girls’ mathematics grades. Girls often score higher than boys on name-blind mathematics tests, according to researchers, but once presented with recognizable boy and girl names on the same tests, teachers award higher scores to boys.

“Implicit and automatic thinking can create disparities between groups,” says Redford. “We tend to find that the disparities go along with cultural and societal disparities – if there is already a stereotype that a certain group is lower performing, that may be recreated in the classroom.”

Biases based on race are evident in classrooms in the US. Recent data revealed racial bias starts as early as preschool. From the age of four, black students, particularly boys, are nearly four times more likely to be suspended than their white peers. This is largely because teachers spend more time focused on black students, expecting bad behavior, according to Walter Gilliam, lead researcher at Yale University, US.

In a study to measure implicit bias among preschool teachers, 135 educators were asked to watch a video to detect “challenging behaviour”. Each video included four children: a black boy and girl, and a white boy and girl.

There was no challenging behavior in any of the videos but as the teachers watched, eye-scan technology measured the trajectory of their gaze.

“What we found was exactly what we expected based on the rates at which children are expelled from preschool programs,” says Gilliam. “Teachers looked more at the black children than the white children, and they looked specifically more at the African-American boy.”

If left unaddressed, teacher bias can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy for students – the Pygmalion Effect experiment proved that teacher expectations influence student performance.

Students also feel pressured to break stereotypes, inducing anxiety and causing lower performance, says Redford. “For example, when girls take a high stakes mathematics test, they might be so anxious about confirming the stereotype that ‘women are bad at mathematics’ that the anxiety actually causes them to perform poorly.”

dp-stock-80optimizedBreaking habits

The IB aims to develop internationally minded individuals who will help create a better and more peaceful world. But, how can IB teachers lead by example, and identify and overcome their implicit and automatic behaviour to ensure they are fair and unbiased?

It’s hard to change bias – as we build up these habits, expectations and stereotypes over our lifetime – but it’s not impossible, says Redford. It’s more effective to limit its ability to impact our behaviours, she says. Removing students’ names from test papers as you grade them could be a good place to start.

But it’s important to identify the less obvious opportunities for implicit bias. For example, when DP students are considering their options after high school, it may seem harmless talking to particular students about their options, but this can highlight deep-seated biases.

Redford explains: “If students are informed of opportunities, or invited for an informal coffee with the teacher to talk about college, for example, and that benevolence is selectively targeted at certain types of students, then that’s bias. ‘Favours’ are really harder to see and track – it can feel like you’re being nice, but it can actually give an advantage to certain groups. Explicitly deciding criteria for giving out those ‘favours’ can be really important. Inviting students for coffee who have, for example, explicitly mentioned going to college can help even the playing field.”

As well as teacher training, Redford recommends restructuring the classroom environment. “A lot of the strategies we suggest have to be implemented as policy changes and that has to come from the top down. Measurable goals are important but we don’t mean asking teachers outright ‘are you biased?’ as this is ineffective.”

Explicit leadership commitment and measurable goals should also be supported by school data, recommends Redford, as this will help discover if teachers are treating all students fairly. “Schools can look at lots of research, but to know how it’s working in a classroom or school, you have to get your own data, and that doesn’t exist in many schools,” she says.

It’s important not to turn a ‘blind eye’ says Redford: “Being aware that bias could be operating in your classroom is important. It’s easy to look around and say ‘I don’t see this happening in my school, it’s not a problem here’, but we know from research that confirming your own objectivity can actually increase biased behaviours because you don’t feel the need to find or examine your own decisions for objectivity.”

Whether the bias is wrong or not, is a question for the person who has the bias. But it’s important to understand that these behaviours can conflict with your goals.

Redford adds: “Biases predict behaviour in a million different ways – some of which can be life-threatening, including how doctors make medical decisions or when police in the US decide to shoot an individual based on race.”

Maureen Costello, director of Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center working toward equity in schools, encourages teachers to develop a sense of reflectiveness.

She recommends teachers ask themselves “Is the way I’m approaching this student affecting outcomes?” and consider:

  • Who do you call on, and how often?
  • Do I need to switch to a randomized technique, like pulling lollipop sticks?
  • How do I seat students, or group them?
  • Am I treating everybody the same when it comes to homework?