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Unconscious Biases in the Classroom

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

The article: “Yes, You Have Implicit Biases, Too” by David Gooblar in The Chronicle of Higher Education, December 8, 2017 (Vol. LXIV, #15, p. A25),; Gooblar can be reached at
“Implicit biases persist and are powerful determinants of behavior precisely because people lack personal awareness of them,” says David Gooblar (University of Iowa) in this Chronicle of Higher Education article. People know that behavior can be affected by unconscious attitudes and stereotypes; they just don’t think the problem applies to them. “But we do have implicit biases,” says Gooblar, “ – every one of us – and as faculty members, it’s imperative we try to take them into account.”
Gooblar describes the unconscious way biases can be formed. In a hypothetical world in which 80 percent of national political leaders are men, 95 percent of prominent business leaders are men, 70 percent of recognized scientists and engineers are men, and 85 percent of police officers are men, wouldn’t it be natural for people to associate the masculine with authority? “Under these circumstances,” asks Gooblar, “wouldn’t you, all else being equal, see a man as more qualified than a woman?... [T]he repeated exposure to stereotypes is precisely how implicit bias is formed – and may hold the key to how it can be erased.”
That hypothetical world, of course, is the one in which we live. And there are other patterns in our world that can shape unconscious biases – for example, the observation that many students from certain demographic groups struggle academically compared with white and Asian students. Without being aware of it, and perhaps contradicting our professed values, we may make assumptions about the future performance of each group.
As teachers, says Gooblar, “we function as institutionally backed authority figures. We evaluate students, make judgments, create rules, and often decide who gets to speak and when. If we are serious about our responsibility to create a classroom environment in which every student has an equal opportunity to excel, we need to take a hard look at our own behavior… We may never be completely aware of our own implicit biases. But by assuming that we hold at least some of the pernicious stereotypes that our cultures have handed down to us, we can take steps to counteract them.”
Patricia Devine at the University of Wisconsin/Madison has developed a workshop in which she helps instructors come to grips with unconscious biases and then use three techniques to address them:
• Stereotype replacement – You recognize and label a biased behavior or thought and replace it with non-prejudicial responses.
• Counter-stereotypic imaging – You imagine examples of people who defy the stereotypes of their group.
• Perspective taking – You try to adopt the world view – walk in the shoes – of a person in a marginalized group.
One very simple classroom change is what Gooblar calls the “progressive stack” – during class discussions in which a number of students raise their hands to participate, make a point of calling on students from marginalized groups first. “Without that conscious intervention,” he says, “what you think of as a fair distribution of speakers may just be the furtherance of an unhealthy social dynamic: the privileged kids feel free to speak, while the marginalized students stay silent.”

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