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Unconscious bias

There’s an aspect of your values, beliefs and attitudes system that helps you make decisions which is called the unconscious bias. Bias is a tendency to either lean towards or against someone or something. These tendencies are influenced by your background, cultural environment and personal experience and can either be something you’re conscious (explicit) or unconscious (implicit) of.

An example of unconscious thinking you might do is driving, where you’re constantly making decisions in order to stay safe – from judging how close to get to the car in front, where to position the wheel, when to change gear, deciding if you’re too close to something and so on. However, somehow at the same time you can carry on a conversation with your passenger. The decisions you make when driving are automatic and are unconscious choices for the most part.

This automatic thinking combined with your biases can cause you to typecast specific groups of people or an individual, even if it’s not factually correct and goes against your conscious views. This social categorisation is a quick automatic response our brains do to make sense of things quickly. Sometimes, without realising, certain situations can trigger your unconscious biases which can appear, for example, when you’re stressed, tired or losing control in the classroom.

By making quick judgements that you’re unaware of, you unconsciously make decisions that influence your behaviour such as who you sit next to, who you pay more attention to, who you help more etc. Even people who don’t think they are being discriminatory will have an unconscious bias because this has been formed throughout their lifetime. Examples of these biases in the classroom could be staff helping girls out more than boys, staff believing boys are more aggressive than girls, staff letting certain children answer questions while ignoring others etc.

Teachers and school staff make hundreds of decisions on a daily basis, the majority of which are unplanned and unpredictable. Many of those decisions are made in milliseconds, without any conscious thought. To help overcome any unconscious biases, here are some tips you may find useful:

  • Being honest and aware of your own biases will help keep the negative ones in check, and ensure your decision making is based on actual knowledge.
  • Question your motivation for everything you do.
  • Without knowing the circumstances of the individual or group, try and remain impartial and empathetic to them.
  • When you feel very strongly about something, check why you feel this way.
  • Take tally charts of your contact with the students and check whether you’re giving equal attention to all or a lot to some and little to others.
  • Take a tally chart of your contact with girls and boys and check as above.
  • If you’re more exposed to other groups of people this will help challenge and reduce bias views.
  • Pay attention to the decisions you make when you’re in a challenging situation.

Project Implicit is a research project conducted by a number of social scientists who are interested in implicit social cognition. The team have created a series of tests to enable individuals to check their bias.

Each test takes approximately five minutes to complete and you don’t have to give any personal details. However, it’s worth spending some time at the beginning to fully understand how to carry out the test effectively. These tests are optional, but if you can, try and take at least one and share what you found out about yourself in the comments area below.

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This article is from the free online course:

Supporting Successful Learning in Secondary School

University of Reading