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Blog Oct 17, 2016

Understanding Implicit Biases

Implicit BiasesBy Sarah Riley, Education Pioneer Fellow and Catherine Good, Ph.D., Senior Research Scientist

In a previous post, we asked you to reflect on your own mindset about intelligence and whether you hold a fixed or growth mindset. We explored how these beliefs affect your perceptions not only of your students’ abilities and potential, but of their character and personality. Our beliefs and attitudes are often deliberate and occur on a conscious level; these are called explicit attitudes. But they can also operate outside of our awareness without intentional control. These are called implicit attitudes. We use the term implicit bias to describe the attitudes we have towards people, or the stereotypes we associate with them, without our conscious knowledge. Even the most well-intentioned teachers can have unconscious thoughts and feelings that influence their behavior in the classroom.

Unpacking these implicit biases is critical to addressing inequity in education. In this two-part blog series, we will first describe how implicit biases can show up in your classroom and key things to understand about them. Next week, we’ll dive deeper and arm you with strategies for better addressing and combating implicit biases.

How does implicit bias play out in the classroom?

Implicit bias plays out in many ways in the classroom, but let’s explore a few examples in the context of school discipline.

The labeling of a student’s behavior as “disruptive” or “defying authority” is largely subjective. Although schools may provide guidelines to identify disruptive or defiant behavior, it is ultimately up to a teacher to decide whether or not a student’s actions qualify as an infraction. The use of school discipline is particularly prone to the effects of implicit bias.

Teachers’ experiences and unconscious beliefs can influence their assessment of a situation. This may lead to discipline disparities based on race and gender. Students of color are suspended and expelled at rates far higher than their white peers. Even when black and white students behave similarly, teachers often judge black students more disruptive and are more willing to impose punitive consequences, perhaps because of the impact of implicit biases.

Gender perceptions are prone to the effect of implicit biases. Think about common stereotypes around girls’ and boys’ mathematics abilities. When girls perform poorly in math, teachers are likely to attribute their performance to a lack of ability. Whereas when boys perform poorly, teachers are likely to attribute their performance to a lack of effort. These findings suggest that innate mathematical ability is something that is more strongly associated with boys than girls. This has profound implications for teachers’ expectations of and interactions with their students.

3 key things to know about implicit bias

Implicit bias is pervasive. Everyone carries implicit biases with them in different forms, towards different groups. On a basic level, they allow us to categorize people and things efficiently, without conscious thought. It’s common to all of us and not a personal defect.

Implicit bias is not the same thing as conscious prejudice. Implicit biases do not necessarily align with our explicitly held beliefs. Thus, implicit bias is distinct from conscious prejudice. Even those who champion justice and equality may have positive or negative implicit biases towards certain groups.

Implicit bias is malleable. We can change. Although no one is immune from making judgments driven by implicit bias, our implicitly held beliefs are malleable and thus can be unlearned. But how?

As the school year gets underway, challenge yourself to reflect on your own identity and implicit biases. How might they impact your behavior in the classroom? Share your thoughts with us by tweeting @Turnaround #The180.  And don’t forget to check back next week when we share strategies for addressing implicit biases.