Dealing with Unconscious Bias in Schools

Here’s an accessible article about implicit bias in schools, with a quick overview of the state of the research on how to combat it. The article appeared earlier this week on The Brown Center Chalkboard, a blog of the Brookings Institution. We promise it’s an easy read that won’t make you feel bad or hopeless.  It touches on the following key points:

What is unconscious bias (UB)?

UB is the phenomenon in which stereotypes, positive or negative, influence decisions and behaviors without the individual consciously acting on the stereotype or being aware that he or she is doing so. Moreover, UB can occur even when individuals know or believe the stereotype to be false.

There’s an evidence base indicating it exists.

There is ample evidence of UB in educational settings, both in experimental labs and “in the field” with real individuals who were unaware of their participation in an experiment.

Students who are used to being on the losing end of a stereotype are highly primed to see bias.

Additionally, individuals from stereotyped out-groups themselves react negatively to seemingly innocuous environmental factors, such as the demographic composition of a classroom, the race or sex of an instructor or proctor, and even the design and decoration of the classroom.

There’s research on what to do to counteract UB. “Teacher-facing” interventions hold the most promise, though more study is needed. Key suggestions include:

  • Nurture employees’ motivation to reduce UB by building an awareness of one’s own biases without shaming or blaming
  • Develop an awareness of the shared psychological basis for UB and of the fact that UB is a naturally occurring, physiological phenomenon
  • Evaluate individuals based on their own unique attributes and not through their group membership (social, demographic, or otherwise)
  • Reduce the anxiety created by cross-group interactions by increasing the frequency of such interactions, particularly in low-stakes settings
  • Encourage empathy and perspective-taking
  • Build partnerships and teams that reduce out-group status

The blog post links to many additional resources and reports on unconscious bias and ways to reduce it. Highly recommended as an entry point!

(Image copied from the above-referenced Brookings Chalkboard post)

About the Rage You May Feel

Fridays are good days to cut yourself some slack and enjoy the approach of the weekend. In that spirit, we thought you might enjoy this easy read, “Embrace Authenticity: How to Break Free from the Tyranny of Positivity.

The article is a conversation between psychologist Susan David and Maria Shriver. We urge you not to get hung up on the participants or the jargony language of “authenticity” and “resilience”. Just be reminded that feelings can’t be wrong.

Instead of struggling with whether we should or shouldn’t feel something, it’s important for us to say, “What is the function of this emotion? What is the value [it represents]? What is this emotion trying to tell me?”

Within that, it’s important for us to recognize that our emotions are data, not directions. Because you feel guilty doesn’t mean you need to feel guilty. Because you feel angry doesn’t mean you need to attack the people that you’re angry with.

What are we saying this? One of us was in Pittsburgh this week, staying with friends who have two little ones in a JCC preschool. The friends happen to be secular Christians who enrolled at the J because it’s comparatively flexible and affordable. This J hasn’t been targeted by threatening phone calls, but it felt ominous to be there twice a day, dropping off and picking up two beautiful babies of 33 months and 9 months, even as a nephew’s Jewish school in Philadelphia was evacuated. Meanwhile, another nephew’s JCC daycare was evacuated a few weeks ago in St. Louis, as were friends’ kids’ in Syracuse and Minneapolis.

What to do with the feelings of dread and anger?  The article gives a non-answer that somehow helps a little:

Many people are feeling really troubled at the moment, and when we think about being fearful or angry, people tell us to control our fear, our anger, and do away with it… [But] These emotions are normal, and help us to position ourselves effectively in the world. Courage is not an absence of fear. Courage is fear walking. It’s not about doing away with your fear, but recognizing your fear, your anger, and still choosing to walk in the direction of your values.

Surely we’re all feeling a version of this emotion on whichever current event cuts closest. It seems important to admit we feel unpleasant emotions, even as we maintain normalcy as an act of resistance.

(Image by Mike Lehmann/Mike Switzerland (March 2007) via Wikimedia Commons, used under CC-BY-SA-3.0.)