What biases do we bring into the classroom?


16 May 2023

A sea slug’s purpose in life is very simple, they move toward pleasure or food and away from danger. For us humans, our unconscious mind does something similar – it ensures we stay safe and secure, and as social beings; our sense of belonging is critical to keeping us safe.

The unconscious mind is a compilation of all the beliefs, values, experiences and memories we collect throughout our life. This reservoir of feelings, thoughts, urges and memories is a way we organise our world, but we are often not aware of it.

How we categorise our brains can evolve into unconscious biases – things we have been taught or ‘caught’ along the way to feel safe, familiar, valuable and liked. Unconscious bias is triggered by our brain automatically making quick judgments and assessments, drawing on the information we hold in our mind.

Whether we realise it or not, our unconscious biases influence the way we think, the way we interact with others, including our students, and affect decision making. Despite intent to treat all students equitably, for teachers in the classroom, unconscious biases can lead to skewed judgments and reinforcing stereotypes and projecting these biases onto others.

Taking steps to reduce biases improves inclusivity, trust and productivity within classroom environments and can help teachers improve teaching and learning through building classroom cohesion.

Types of Unconscious Bias

Confirmation bias refers to the tendency for individuals to search for and interpret information that confirms their existing beliefs, even if the evidence is weak or inconclusive. This can hinder critical and objective thinking, leading to distorted interpretations of information and the ignoring of opposing viewpoints. This type of bias is widespread in modern society and is even reinforced by technology algorithms, such as those used in social media. The more we focus on familiar information, the more we are exposed to similar, confirming information, while information that contradicts our beliefs is filtered out. This same process occurs in our unconscious mind. Understanding and addressing confirmation bias is crucial in the classroom and beyond.

Example: Individuals tend to seek out news sources that align with their personal views. News interviews are evaluated based on one’s personal opinions, and political leaders are favoured or disfavoured based on political affiliations.

How does this play out in your classroom?

  • Are you more inclined to dismiss or downplay information that contradicts your preconceived notions in favour of information that supports them, even when presented with contradictory evidence?
  • Do you make quick judgements of your students if they challenge your thinking? Do you judge them as ‘difficult’?
  • Do you prefer some educational sources that suit you over others that may challenge your thinking or beliefs?
  • What makes things ‘right’ or ‘wrong’? How do you unconsciously model this to your students?
  • Do you unconsciously share your own biases with your students and present them as information?

Conformity bias is when our deep-seated need to belong causes us to adapt our thinking or behaviours to feel part of the group. This often results in changing our opinions or behaviours to match that of the bigger group, even if it doesn’t reflect our own opinions. This bias may occur when we encounter peer pressure or are trying to fit into a certain social group or professional environment. Instead of using their own judgement, people will imitate the behaviour of others in a bid to belong. You may see this when friends or colleagues ‘change’ when they join a new social group.

Example: People will agree with the loudest opinion in the room rather than cause conflict.

How does this play out in your classroom?

  • Are you inclined to make judgements of some of your students due to information provided by other educators, rather than making your own judgements?
  • Do you notice students’ behaviours change depending on who they are associating with?
  • Are you aware of how much influence you have over your students’ opinions and the importance to model an unbiased viewpoint?
  • Do you get frustrated with a culture that accepts ‘the way it is’ instead of embracing new ideas and innovation?

Affinity bias is also known as the similarity bias and refers to the tendency to favour people who share similar interests, backgrounds and experiences. We tend to feel more comfortable around people who are like us.

Example: People who migrate from different countries often seek each other out or live in similar locations.

How does this play out in your classroom?

  • Do you unconsciously favour some students over others? (We may not be aware of this; we may need some feedback from a trusted colleague.)
  • Do you judge things, actions, beliefs you don’t understand?
  • Can you see your students’ perspectives? Can you walk in their shoes?
  • Do you lean toward a particular group of colleagues over others and limit your social interactions?

Halo effect bias results in a general favourable impression of a person based on one particular attribute or trait. This can result in idealising the person without fully understanding them, as our perception is influenced by limited information.

Horns effect bias, on the other hand, is the exact opposite of the halo effect and is characterised by a negative impression of someone due to one particular aspect.

Both the halo effect and the horns effect demonstrate the dangers of basing our opinions of someone solely on a single quality or experience. This tendency can lead to unfair and incorrect judgments about a person’s character.

Example: A physically attractive person is often judged as a good person. We make judgement on celebrities without even knowing them.

How does this play out in your classroom?

  • Are there particular attributes or traits in your students that attract you over others?
  • How inclusive is your classroom regarding attributes or traits?
  • When assessing your students, what thoughts are in play? Have you a clear structure for assessment or is it more subjective?

Anchoring bias causes us to rely too heavily on the first piece of information we are given about a topic. This information becomes the reference point for any new information is added and it can skew our judgements.

Example: This anchoring is heavily used in marketing. We are more likely to buy something for $15.99 than $16.00 because we are anchored to the first number presented. We are also drawn to
something with a SALE or BARGAIN sign.

How does this play out in your classroom?

  • Do you make judgement of a student after the first interaction?
  • Have you tunnel vision about a student due to an early experience or interaction?
  • What is the first thing you think about when asked about a student? Where did this thought originate?

Although these biases are quite general, there are many others that may sit within. We often make quick judgement in relation to gender, culture, beauty, name, age or sexual orientation, to mention a few.

How Can Teachers Address Unconscious Bias?

As teachers balance the demands of managing the classroom, maintaining student performance and teaching to standards, it can be challenging to address unconscious bias. However, this is an essential task to create a safe, inclusive and equitable learning environment for all students. Here are seven steps to try:

1 Reflect: Take time to self-reflect and consider the impact of your decisions on each student.

2 Educate Yourself: Increase your awareness of common biases and watch out for them in your everyday situations.

3 Slow Down: Unconscious biases are shortcuts our unconscious mind uses when under pressure. Give yourself time to consider decisions and what biases may be affecting them.

4 Take Time: Get to know your students individually. Spend time finding out about their lives, interests, preferences and anything else that impacts their lives. This will assist you in making a decision to meet each individual’s needs and not depend on biases.

5 Listen: Listen to your students and acknowledge their experiences and perspectives. This will help
replace assumptions with knowledge and understanding of the challenges faced by your students.

6 Interrupt: Be proactive in interrupting bias when you notice it, whether it comes from yourself, your colleagues or among your students. Seek out resources that reflect diversity, equity and inclusion to learn effective strategies for addressing unconscious bias in the classroom.

7 Audit: Regularly audit your classroom resources to ensure inclusion, diversity and equity.

By taking these steps, teachers can actively create a welcoming and inclusive learning environment for all students, and at the same time, challenge your own perspectives too.

Helen Storr

[Helen Storr is VET Development Centre (VDC) facilitator and director and founder at Pivotal Pathways. As a leader in professional development of the VET sector, the VDC prides itself on delivering quality, professional and relevant programs for the vocational education workforce in Victoria and across Australia.]

This article was originally published in The Australian TAFE Teacher, Autumn 2023