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Unconscious bias

5 min read


This month, SmartBlog on Education is exploring classroom design and management — just in time for the new school year. In this blog post, U.K.-based educators Adam Holden and Iain Garner, consider the role of unconscious bias in teaching and learning.

As a school principal, parents would regularly come to my office to share concerns about something a teacher had “done” to negatively impact the educational performance of their child. Invariably, they felt that whatever had transpired was a conscious act on the part of the professional, and would often pressure for the complaint to be anonymously addressed because otherwise the teacher might ‘“take it out on my child!”

This was an easy claim for me to refute, and I was genuinely sincere in letting parents know that in a career spanning more than 20 years, I had rarely, if ever, witnessed a teacher deliberately harm a student’s academic progress due to parent behavior. Teachers’ just aren’t wired that way.

Nevertheless, there was still a nagging doubt in the back of my mind. I truly believe that teachers do not generally teach with a deliberate or conscious bias. But unconscious bias; well, that’s another matter entirely.

“Unconscious bias” is the implicit notion that teachers are in some way being unfair in their practice, and therefore either promote or undermine performance of certain groups or individuals. This seems to sit at odds with the widely held view that teachers actively take an equitable and inclusive approach to engagement and students, and yet there is a raft of recent research studies that indicate that it may be prevalent within many professionals.

In the modern classroom, teachers increasingly are being asked to do more, constantly bombarded with information, tasks, fast-paced decision-making, and in order to cope, naturally tend to automate some of their daily functions. Such automation can be a good thing as it allows us to do complex tasks easily, and it liberates cognitive capacity to do other things. On the whole, it is at the heart of our ability to be able to cope in diverse environments while doing a host of complex tasks. In many ways, it shows the brilliance of our processing capacity. The problem is that automation involves professional instincts and these tend to be based upon teacher experience, assumption and schemas.

The reason that this is problematic is that at the heart of unconscious bias is the recognition that based upon experience, schemas, and learned social assumptions, we make judgement unconsciously, which may be faulty, and we don’t check these potentially faulty judgements as they have occurred without our conscious awareness. This is a subtle and unconscious process and so can be difficult for many teachers to acknowledge and recognize as they can be genuinely unaware of it.

There is a strong and well-researched connection between a teacher’s belief in students and their ultimate performance in the classroom. Given this, the way in which teachers’ make assumptions about students, their work and their performance is of great importance. We all have schemas about the people we know, work with, or chose to have as friends. Such schemas can allow us to more swiftly interact with people and get the best from limited cognitive resources. The problem we face is that much of this process is done unknowingly and this can lead to errors. This can, and does lead to “unconscious bias.”

In the U.S. school system, while formal assessments are often anonymously assessed (state/national tests), rarely is daily work or general course work. One reason for this is so that staff can tailor feedback, link it to general student performance and ensure the feedback is personalized and relevant to each student. Individualized feedback is a critical element of good instruction, but recent studies suggest that this approach brings with it the possibility of an uneven distribution of grades depending upon a complex set of teacher characteristics. In a time where a GPA can, and does, hold significant influence from student car insurance rates to thousands of dollars in college scholarships, unconscious bias must be addressed.

Perhaps the better question for parents to have asked would have been “Do you think that it is possible the teacher’s unconscious bias (without implying any intent) might have negatively impacted our child’s academic performance in this class?”

A much harder question to answer comfortably.

Adam Holden has been a school administrator in both the private and public education systems of Europe and the United States for more than 25 years. Adam is a two-time recipient of the National Blue Ribbon of Excellence, is a qualified IBO Head of School and an authorized Google Education Trainer. Adam is presently the Head of Academic Development for the Department of Education, Childhood & Inclusion, at Sheffield Hallam University, and is a proponent of innovative, creative, culturally diverse, and blended educational experiences.

Iain Garner has been an university academic in the United Kingdom for 22 years. Iain specializes in the study of psychology and has investigated a diverse range of areas including crime, autism, innovative pedagogy in higher education and internationalisation of academic study. All of these research areas have been focused through a personal commitment to social justice and inclusion, and the benefits that are gained when social justice is achieved. As Head of Department for Education, Childhood and Innovation at Sheffield Hallam University, Iain is establishing a reputation for the department as a home for debate and the furtherance of social justice and inclusion.