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From unconscious to conscious

In this article, find out how an interaction with a parent can lead to unconscious bias presenting itself in a real life example.
© University of Reading

There’s still debate about the reliability of the Implicit Association Tests mentioned in Step 1.7, but as one of the researcher’s argues – just because there’s debate about the subject – it doesn’t imply the phenomenon isn’t real. With this in mind, consider this real-life example of a primary school secretary at work:

A secretary of a large primary school was accused by some parents of showing a dislike towards families from a lower income background. When asked by the headteacher what the secretary was doing to be accused of this, the parents weren’t able to explain but described it as a feeling they got when speaking to the secretary.
The headteacher wasn’t sure what to do as they didn’t want to upset the secretary but equally had to respond to the concerns raised. The headteacher decided to work on reception in the mornings for the next few days, to observe any unusual behaviour. The headteacher explained to the secretary that they wanted to understand the different staff roles in the school, so was going to try each one in turn. The secretary was given other tasks in the staff room while the headteacher was on reception.
During their time at the reception, the headteacher kept a record of who came in and what they wanted. Alongside these notes, the headteacher wrote what action they took and how they behaved and felt. One of the things that struck them was how differently everyone acted from one another. Some parents encroached on personal space; some wanted their issues dealt with instantly; some were nervous; some were calm; some came in large groups all talking and some as a single person. The headteacher felt many emotions while working on reception such as overwhelmed, happy, annoyed, pleased, frustrated etc.
Another thing the headteacher noticed was the large group of parents that formed around the reception area, which included the parents who had complained. After a few days, the headteacher fed back to the secretary about how they hadn’t realised how stressful the job was and described their feelings with the situations they faced.
The secretary discussed their experiences, and one was about a large group of parents who occasionally come into the reception. The secretary explained how intimidated and overwhelmed they felt when faced with the large group of parents, so became defensive in their approach and tone. The headteacher realised the secretary was not being biased towards the parents but was reacting to being uncomfortable around a large group of people. As a resolution to the situation, the headteacher and secretary decided to limit how many people visited the reception to two adults at any one time.

It’s difficult to change behaviour if you’re not aware of how you’re behaving. Hopefully, as you worked through the last few Steps, you’re now aware of something called the unconscious bias where you can look at yourself more closely. You can decide to watch yourself in different situations and reflect on how you behave, the gestures you make, what you say or how you stand.

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 children 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.

What do you think you’re going to do differently? Is there a particular area you need to improve or be more aware of?

Our course tip

Keep an eye at the bottom of each Step for any further reading under the heading ‘See also’, or resources under the heading ‘Downloads’.

© University of Reading
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Supporting Successful Learning in Primary School

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