Just Sharing…

This isn’t my blog post, but I got this in an email and thought I would share. 🙂

Five Steps to Addressing Implicit Bias in Schools

(Originally titled “Unconscious Bias”)

In this article in Educational Leadership, Sarah Fiarman remembers an epiphany she had as a teacher. Between classes, she expressed annoyance that a few students were frequently having side conversations while she was teaching. A colleague said she might be noticing this behavior among black students but not among whites. “Sure enough,” says Fiarman, “when I observed more carefully in my next class, white students were doing the same thing. Without realizing it, I had selectively noticed the misbehavior of just one subset of students.” As a white teacher who prided herself on racial sensitivity, she was chagrinned that she, like so many others, had absorbed an unconscious bias “in the same way we breathe in smog – involuntarily and usually without any awareness of it.”

Implicit biases are present in people of all backgrounds – unconscious preferences based on gender, race, sexual orientation, and other aspects of identity, usually favoring one’s own group, but sometimes, among stigmatized populations, favoring the dominant group. Researchers have found that black students are often punished more harshly than white students for the same infractions, and there are differences in who gets called on in class, the level of questions, praise and correction, how educators communicate with families, and whether a parent’s assertive advocacy is seen as pushy or appropriate. Fiarman’s suggestions:

  • Increase awareness. “School leaders need to help their staffs understand that unconscious bias is not deliberate,” she says; “it doesn’t reflect our goals or intentions. Normalizing talking about it allows educators to examine and discuss their biases more freely and productively.” Two free online tools are https://rework.withgoogle.com/subjects/unbiasing andhttps://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html. Leaders can also suggest articles or books and give staff time to read, reflect, and discuss. This can lead to the kind of realization Fiarman had about her chatty students.
  • Name it. The teacher who helped Fiarman see her blind spot wasn’t trying to make her feel bad; she was being helpful and her words were received in that spirit. How does a school facilitate such interactions? Singleton and Linton (2006) suggest four agreements for courageous conversations about specific incidents:

–    Speak your truth.

–    Expect to experience discomfort.

–    Stay engaged.

–    Expect and accept a lack of closure.

Colleagues can work on being non-defensive and deal with questions like: What leads you to that conclusion? Would this decision be different if the family or child were of a different race or background? How would you make this decision if this were your own child?

Fiarman describes a tense meeting with an African-American family. As principal, she took a risk and said, “If I were in your shoes, I might worry that the school was treating my son differently because he’s black. I want you to know that we’re thinking about that too. We don’t want to be the school that disproportionately disciplines black boys.” This helped create a climate that produced a positive plan.

  • Anticipate bias and create systems to reduce it. Forty years ago, symphony orchestras began auditioning musicians behind a screen, and the percent of female players increased from 6 percent in 1970 to 21 percent in 1993. In classrooms, calling on students using popsicle sticks eliminates the possibility of bias. It’s also helpful for leaders to make decisions collaboratively, not in isolation or in anger, so there’s time to slow down and hear from others.
  • Build empathy. One study showed that when teachers administer a simple questionnaire to students and learn about common interests and experiences, grades and behavior among minority students improve and gaps close. Another study found that intentionally building positive relationships with students can cut the suspension rate in half. “When teachers simply had opportunities to relate to or consider the perspectives of their students – and to be reminded of the value of this perspective-taking – they were more likely to change their behavior,” says Fiarman.
  • Hold ourselves accountable. “Numbers keep us honest,” she says. Tracking discipline referrals, the rigor of classroom questions, the quality of student work, and other data by race, gender, and other variables is a useful check on what’s really happening.

“Deconstructing our unconscious bias takes consistent work,” Fiarman concludes. “We can’t address it once and be done. We need to recognize these unwanted, deep-rooted beliefs and limit their influence on us. Then our actions will match our intentions.”


“Unconscious Bias” by Sarah Fiarman in Educational Leadership, November 2016 (Vol. 74, #3, p. 10-15), available for purchase at http://bit.ly/2f5GI9Q; Fiarman can be reached at sarahfiarman@gmail.com.

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