GUEST POST: Ignorance Isn't Bliss -- It's Bias
By Blake Harvard
Blake Harvard is a high school AP Psychology teacher at James Clemens High School in Madison, AL. He earned his B. S. and M. Ed. from the University of Montevallo. Blake has a particular passion for cognitive psychology and its application in his classroom. You can find him on Twitter @effortfuleduktr. Blake previously contributed a guest post on problem solving, and recently started his own blog, The Effortful Educator.
As schools begin another term, some teachers will have new classes with new students; a fresh start and a blank canvas to create a masterpiece...or not. The first few days of class are key to establishing rapport with students and creating an environment conducive to learning. Listed below are common biases that we all have a tendency to experience. For the most part, these predispositions don’t lead to favorable outcomes. There are any number of biases one can experience, consciously or unconsciously. Through learning about or experiencing biases, we might become less ignorant to their effects and can try to work towards the goal of alleviating them from our interactions (although, it’s important to note that debiasing interventions are not always successful, (1).
In this post, I highlight 5 biases: bias blind spot, misfearing, outcome bias, intergroup bias, and stereotyping. I’m highlighting these specific biases because of their prevalence and their potential to affect a single student, group of students, or whole class. Also, I’ve chosen to discuss these biases from the lens of the teacher and tailored each bias’s definition to better fit teaching and the classroom. Surely, a lot of the mentioned biases could also be applied to the student in the classroom as well.
Bias Blind Spot - People are less likely to detect bias in themselves than in others (2).
A line of research spearheaded by Emily Pronin (2) shows that we are quite likely to see ourselves as less biased than others. In one study, participants believed they rated themselves accurately and objectively, even after they were made aware of particular biases. Bias blind spot is a particularly dangerous bias in the classroom. Teachers need to be aware of their own ability to hold various biases. The last thing a teacher wants to do is alienate a single student or group of students. This alienation can be especially harmful if the teacher is blind to his or her own bias, and if students’ perceptions are that the teacher’s bias is intentional. Trust can be lost and, oftentimes, trust in a classroom equals intellectual safety. Once that is lost, it can be difficult to regain beliefs of equality and trust (3).
Misfearing - Sometimes people are fearful in the absence of danger, and sometimes we neglect real risks or danger (4).
Although most studies involving misfearing pertain to the medical field and fearing the wrong disease or malady, the meaning can certainly be applied to the education field. Teachers seem to love certainty even if it isn’t what is necessarily best for the student. We have our favorite lessons and strategies that we are comfortable applying to our classes. Using the same tried-and-true methods appears to lower risk and uncertainty in the classroom, but constantly using the same strategies can lead to stagnation. Don’t neglect this risk, in fear of uncertainty! Check out this blog post to see why classrooms actually need uncertainty. Trying new techniques can breathe life back into a class, re-energize students and teacher alike, and completely transform the environment of a class for the better. Although this appears to be more risky for a teacher, my experience has been that students will generally recognize and appreciate a teacher who is growing and trying new things. Students usually reply in kind, mimicking the aforementioned effort of the teachers with a renewed sense of effort themselves. The potential reward of trying something new in the classroom is worth the risk.
Outcome Bias - judging a decision on the outcome, rather than on how the decision was made in the moment (5).
Oftentimes, we judge the success of a particular test or class by a given grade. As an Advanced Placement teacher, I find that there is certainly pressure on my students and on myself to generate qualifying scores on the AP exam. It is very easy for the students – and teachers – to feel like the entire class was a failure if the final grade is a failing grade. What we actually fail to see is the unwritten curriculum that has been acquired during the class. I am a big proponent of teaching key study skills that can be necessary for success in college courses. There is a constant thread of learning how to learn in my class (see this post from the Learning Scientists for explanations of six great learning strategies). Also, I pride myself on being an educator whose classroom environment is inviting and intellectually safe. Even if the student may not be happy with his or her grade in the class, they can leave knowing how to ask a question, what questions to ask, and how to solve problems better because they felt comfortable asking questions in the class. A last bit of unwritten curriculum that I attempt to impart on my students is my love and care for my family. So many students do not see proper family modeled at home or only have a mass media understanding of what love or a family unit should look like. I allow my students to see me caring for my wife and three children, even if it goes against the cultural norm for a male. I really appreciate every time a student makes positive comments about my family or my role as a father and husband. Do not get caught up with only looking at grades to determine the success of a class. More often than not, the student will respect the example you are setting and the relationship formed over a semester or year much more than the grade they earn.
Intergroup Bias - the tendency to favor our own group (6).
Intergroup bias can be experienced across many categories: ethnically, racially, and with respect to gender. In the classroom, however, teachers may favor the group of students who participate or are more likely to act favorably towards the teacher and material. It is comfortable for the teacher and much more immediately satisfying to experience a student caring about your lesson, asking appropriate questions, and providing correct answers. However, a portion of a teacher’s time and energy should be spent on the students who are mentally absent or unenthused by the material. As mentioned above with outcome bias, either consciously or possibly unconsciously, the student may appreciate an adult taking the time to care enough to push them cognitively. While there may be a larger emotional risk in spotlighting those students, the outcome acquired from success can be much more rewarding.
Stereotyping - to expect a group or person to have certain qualities without having supporting information about that person or group (5).
Stereotyping is quite dangerous in the classroom. There are cultural expectations for someone who is “the jock or cheerleader”, “the band or theater geek”, or “the emo or goth” student. Our preconceptions can be misconceptions. Stereotypes are not inherently bad; however, whether conscious or unconscious, stereotypes can lead to discrimination, or unjust treatment of someone based on how we categorize them. Even scarier, discrimination can be conscious or unconscious, meaning it is possible for teachers to discriminate against students without even consciously realizing they are doing it.
Once the stereotype is established, the problem can get even worse. Often, we begin to only see actions or words that confirm our beliefs (confirmation bias) of how that person should act. If there’s one thing adolescents do not like, it is to feel judged. This pigeonholing of a student and all of the beliefs and actions that surround it will only diminish the student/teacher relationship and detract from the classroom. In my class I like to point out certain false stereotypes that are representative of myself: I’m a coach, so I must not care much about being a good teacher; I’m male, so I can’t be an emotional person. Students quickly understand those stereotypes to be untrue. A class-wide conversation usually follows discussing the dangers of stereotyping and, I believe, a mutual understanding is reached between the class and myself.
Teachers should be open-minded and free of bias as much as possible. While a completely bias-free mind is seemingly impossible, the awareness of the possibility of conscious and unconscious biases can help to alleviate some of the negative effects they can have on a classroom. Ignorance isn’t bliss – it’s bias. I hope you take the knowledge of these five biases into your new semester. Discuss them with your classes. Discuss experiences where bias has injured or ended relationships and how these negative encounters could be avoided. Relate to your students through common experiences of bias and a foundation of trust and understanding may begin to develop and flourish that will make this semester the best of your teaching career.
(1) Sassenrath, C., Hodges, S. D., & Pfattheicher, S. (2016). It’s all about the self: When perspective taking backfires. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 25, 405-410.
(2) Pronin, E., Lin, D. Y., & Ross, L. (2002). The bias blind spot: Perceptions of bias in self versus others. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28, 369-381.
(3) Schrader, D. E. (2004). Intellectual safety, moral atmosphere, and epistemology in college classrooms. Journal of Adult Development, 11, 87-101.
(4) Katz, M., & Wajngarten, M. (2014). Misperception, misfearing, missed treatment, missed opportunities. IJC Metabolic & Endocrine, 5, 1-2.
(5) Baron, J., & Hershey, J. C. (1988). Outcome bias in decision evaluation. Journal of personality and social psychology, 54, 569.
(6) Hewstone, M., Rubin, M., & Willis, H. (2002). Intergroup bias. Annual review of psychology, 53, 575-604.
(7) Wolfe, C. T., & Spencer, S. J. (1996). Stereotypes and prejudice: Their overt and subtle influence in the classroom. The American Behavioral Scientist, 40, 176.