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03 Jul 2020

Unconscious bias in teaching

Penny Rabiger on behalf of the BAMEed Network
Unconscious bias in teaching

Schools have long been places where declarations against discrimination in all its forms are written into policy and legal duty. As far as racism goes, this seems to have been focused more on bureaucratic processes of logging and meting out consequences for racist incidents, than any meaningful engagement with concepts such as structural or systemic racism. At the BAMEed Network, we have witnessed a surge of interest from schools, multi academy trusts and individual teachers seeking to tackle racism, and this seems to include an acknowledgement that racism isn’t just situated in name-calling or focused attacks on individuals, but is more likely to take place in subtle and insidious ways that are the result of our implicit, inherent, learned, or as it is most commonly known, ‘unconscious’ bias.

What is unconscious bias?

To understand unconscious bias, we need to engage with two other terms: stereotypes and prejudice. The ability to distinguish between safe or unsafe, friend or enemy, has helped us humans to survive, and the swift categorisation of people is central to the workings of the human mind. So while we need to categorise to survive, and group people into social and other categories to navigate the world, these are also where the foundations of stereotypes, prejudice, and ultimately discrimination, lie.

Children begin to gather prejudices and stereotypes as toddlers. Many studies have shown that as early as age 3, children pick up terms of racial prejudice without understanding their significance. They begin to form attachments to their own ‘in-group’ and develop negative attitudes about other racial or ethnic groups, or the ‘out-group’. Early in life, most children acquire a full set of biases that can be observed in verbal slurs, ethnic jokes and acts of discrimination. Once learned, stereotypes and prejudices resist change, even when evidence fails to support them or points to the contrary.

Bias is perpetuated by conformity with in-group attitudes and socialisation by the dominant culture. The fact that white culture is dominant in our society and school system may explain why people of colour often do not show a strong bias favouring their own ethnic group. You only have to watch experiments like The Doll Test, carried out first in the 1940s and repeated many times since, to see how strongly formed these beliefs are. Mass media routinely takes advantage of stereotypes as shorthand to paint a mood, scene or character. And this is prevalent in schools too in many ways, with certain ethnic groups seen as more likely to succeed in different disciplines than others, or more prone to poor behaviour in class, for example. We only have to look at the evidence around predicted grades and ethnic groups to see how the cancellation of exams may impact negatively on British children from Black Caribbean, Pakistani or Bangladeshi heritage this summer.

Stereotypes can also be conveyed by omission in popular culture, as when TV shows present an all-white world - and this plays out in our curriculum, our staffing, the images children see in their text books and reading books, on the walls of the school and more. The movement to decolonise the curriculum is a call to include all of the relevant stories, texts, experts and leading thinkers in the material we use to teach, rather than a skewed and ‘whitewashed’ limited range. Research shows that media bias helps to explain why children can adopt hidden prejudices even when their family environments explicitly oppose them, and schools may well be adding oil to the fire here not only through their curriculum choices, but also through their choices in staffing and leadership. Nearly 93% of headteachers in England are white, and this includes areas where the student population is not predominantly white. Children and adults of all backgrounds will benefit from seeing competent and successful people of colour in positions of power and authority, but it is often the bias inherent in the performance management, promotion and recruitment practices which mean that these same people are shut out despite their qualifications and experience.

What can be done?

Studies show a direct link between inherent biases and enacted behaviour, which can be as subtle as language used, eye contact and other body language indicators. In the USA, studies have gone so far as to show that teachers clearly enact these prejudices to such an extent that children of colour and white children ostensibly receive different educations while in the same classroom. As teachers, we make hundreds of decisions, judgements and evaluations throughout the day. Being more deliberate and slowing down our processes is worthwhile, if we are to have any hope of bringing our unconscious biases to the surface and ensuring that we don’t act on them to the detriment of our students’ and colleagues’ wellbeing and life chances.

The good news is that teachers can learn to address their bias, but there is no roadmap to how this can be undone. For many schools, the first port of call towards tackling the possibility that their own good intentions to be inclusive will be scuppered by unconscious bias, is to turn to such training. While training is useful as a component part of any strategy to dismantle systemic racism in an organisation such as a school, it cannot on its own, correct the issue. One essential component to the success or failure of such training is whether teachers can get over their own need to further bury their bias, acknowledge their learned prejudices, without retreating into a defensive and fragile state of resistance. Counterintuitively perhaps, the most useful thing to do on the road to being an anti-racist educator and school, is to acknowledge, examine and openly discuss one’s automatic response towards stereotype or prejudice and find ways to consciously correct it. Another essential component will be the strategy within which any training sits. Schools should be thinking about how they seek out and dismantle systemic racism wherever it exists, and that includes HR practices around hiring, performance management, promotions and working conditions, behaviour, hair and uniform policies, the curriculum - including extra-curricular opportunities, engagement with parents and carers, optics such as websites, posters around the school and much more.

The BAMEed Network is a grassroots movement dedicated to providing information, resources and support to education organisations and educators from all backgrounds to tackle the barriers which face Black, Asian and minority ethnic educators. 

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