Is unconscious bias holding your pupils back?

19th February 2016 at 00:00
Despite a raft of new laws aimed at preventing discrimination, experts say that the problem of bias in this country is worse than it was 10 years ago. Simon Creasey asks whether prejudice is an issue in the British education system, and what schools can do to guard against it

On the morning of 14 September last year, US high-school student Ahmed Mohamed could barely contain his excitement. The 14-year-old had spent hours working on a homemade clock that he was finally ready to show to his engineering teacher. However, when Mohamed arrived at MacArthur High School in Irving, Texas, he was in for a nasty surprise. Fearing his clock was actually an explosive device, another teacher confiscated it and the school principal called the local police department. Mohamed found himself led away from the school in handcuffs and interrogated by police.

The “clock boy” incident, as it became known around the world, is a clear example of bias in an educational setting. And it is not an isolated one. Bias is a problem that continues to trouble all education systems – be it related to race, gender, class or in its many other forms. And the UK is not immune; far from it: despite the growth in legal frameworks and support systems to guard against discrimination, some UK education experts believe that the problem in this country is worse today than it was a decade ago and that both the government and education bodies have consistently failed to tackle it properly.

How big an issue is bias in UK schools? Estimates vary, but there is broad agreement that the problem is significant enough to demand attention. Is there anything we can do about it? Well, that’s where things get tricky: the vast majority of the instances of bias that occur in schools are unconscious – teachers don’t even know that they are doing it.

Bias comes in numerous forms. The most common are race, gender, religion, class and disability. But then there are also potential prejudices around sexual orientation, and even body shape. As a result, experts argue that it’s virtually impossible to accurately define bias.

“To have some kind of definitive definition that can stand across contexts, time and culture would make it so broad that it would be unhelpful,” explains Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley. “It’s probably better to focus on what kind of bias is at work.”

Psychologists say that all people have biases – they are considered a normal part of human functioning. Mostly, they are implicit, which means that they can influence people’s choices or actions without conscious thinking (rather than being explicit, which is a conscious choice).

As such, you may not be aware of when you are being biased, and Professor David Gillborn, director of the Centre for Research in Race and Education at the University of Birmingham, argues that it can be so unconscious that many people refuse to believe they are being biased, even when it is pointed out to them.

“[For example] Black Caribbean students are over-represented in permanent exclusions from school,” says Gillborn. “This has been true for the whole period that such data has been gathered – right back to the 1990s and beyond [see box, page 30]. I believe this demonstrates institutional racism in the system, but others argue that it simply means that black kids behave less well.

“I can point to international studies that show white teachers tend to hold disproportionately negative views about black students – for example, that black kids tend to be seen as a likely source of trouble, not as a likely source of five A* GCSEs.

“I can point to interview-based studies with parents, students and teachers that testify to these processes. I can show statistically how the over-representation has grown and reduced but never disappeared, regardless of what policymakers say they’re doing, and I can point to how these issues relate to wider racist processes across society.

“But I can’t prove any of this to people, usually white people, who refuse to understand that racism is something that saturates society and is usually not obvious or crude.”

The ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ of bias

Gillborn adds that different forms of bias receive different amounts of attention at any one point in time. Currently, much of the focus is on gender bias.

“Girls far outweigh boys in subjects like English literature, psychology and sociology, and boys are more likely to opt for subjects like chemistry and physics,” says Marc Smith, a psychologist, teacher and writer. “That kind of bias is held by pupils as well as teachers, but it also exists in society generally.

“Research has also found that constantly telling boys that they are underachieving – in comparison with girls – can lead to an implicit bias in boys directed inwards at themselves. Racial bias operates in the same way. Black boys are expected to underachieve, but some Asian cultures – eg, Chinese and Indian – are associated with higher achievement levels and this positive bias also creeps in.”

Gillborn says that in the wake of the inquiry into the murder of teenager Stephen Lawrence, there was a lot of concentration on race, but this has since waned.

“Race inequality hasn’t gone away, but it’s no longer seen as an important issue,” says Gillborn. “No government has seriously addressed racism in education for over a decade. We’re constantly told that white working-class kids are the lowest achievers, but they’re not. No matter how many times the evidence is debunked, the media and policymakers don’t hear this, and every time the slogan is repeated the flames of racism are fanned.”

While race and gender tend to attract a greater share of media attention in the UK , geography and the demographic make-up of local communities can lead to other types of bias.

“Social class bias, for example, might play a bigger role in schools where there are few minority groups but larger differences in socioeconomic status – working-class pupils are implicitly seen as ‘less able’, with the danger that they will be treated in such a way that impacts on how the pupil sees herself or himself, leading to a self-fulfilling prophecy,” .

How prevalent is bias in UK schools? As yet, no one has managed to establish the true extent of the problem, says Dr Sally Palmer, lecturer and department equal opportunities liaison officer in the department of psychology and human development at the UCL Institute of Education.

“It is difficult to know the exact prevalence of bias within primary and secondary schools in the UK, partly as there is no systematic approach to recording it, but also because children and adolescents can be shy or worried about reporting these incidents,” she explains.

The other problem is how to accurately measure something that many teachers aren’t even aware exists. Gillborn frames the problem in the context of the “decades of research” showing that teachers have lower expectations of black Caribbean students in England.

“It works through the everyday routines of schooling – who is encouraged, who is told off, who is placed on the ‘top table’ or in the top set,” says Gillborn. “The teachers doing this are usually completely unaware of their behaviour and are often horrified when it’s pointed out. The cumulative effects on achievement are devastating. But how many teacher education courses cover this at all? Very few. How many schools routinely interrogate the ethnic make-up of their GCSE tiering decisions?”

‘Not enough is being done’

He doesn’t think that enough energy and resources are being allocated to tackle the problem of bias in education. In fact, he argues that in the compulsory schooling system, including teacher education, the measures being put in place to tackle bias today are a fraction of what was done a decade ago, and even that was “wholly inadequate”.

“For example, research on both sides of the Atlantic demonstrates that significant race inequalities occur whenever students are separated into different teaching groups based on any notion of their ability, potential, attitude – this happens regardless of the system,” says Gillborn. “We’ve known this for decades. And yet still, many schools, teachers and policymakers say that setting by ability is good for everyone.”

Kieran Dhunna Halliwell, educational writer and consultant, concurs that not enough is being done to address unconscious bias in the education system, although she points out that this shouldn’t just be an education issue.

“All in society need to be involved in this, not just education, even though because of its position and access to the young of society it is in a prime place to take a lead,” she says.

“Leadership for such a big change needs the support of politicians and government, who in turn can influence media, which in turn influences our environment and minds. Without clear boundaries for media reporting and the line of inciting hate, education has a tricky job to manage this.”

Some measures have already been put in place to tackle unconscious bias in education. For instance, in higher education, Ucas intends to make all university applications “name-blind” by 2017, which it hopes will combat the risk of any bias against students from a black and minority ethnic background.

Education researchers are also increasingly exploring ways of tackling the problem. Palmer says that as bias naturally forms in early childhood, a growing body of research highlights how important it is to “promote positive attitudes towards minority groups at an early age in the hope that these positive attitudes and behaviours extend into adulthood”.

Teaching anti-prejudice attitudes

Another intervention that some claim would help to bring about change is ensuring that as many people as possible – spanning different races, genders and religions – are given appropriate representation throughout all levels of the education system.

“For me it’s all about being more proactive,” says Jules Daulby, a special educational needs and disability advisory teacher for a local authority. “So making sure we are trying to get male teachers into primary school and nurseries, in particular. We have a diverse curriculum and that’s got to reflect female thinkers and influences in all of the curricula, including English, science and history. Government bodies and thinktanks need to have a good representation of males and females and we need to be proactive in showing our children, particularly where there is a higher proportion of BME students, that teachers are like them and they see people in the curriculum who are like them.”

Of course, education is not alone in struggling against unconscious bias. And recently, the more high-profile incidents have occurred not in schools but instead on the streets of US cities: the police forces of America have come under almost constant criticism in the past 18 months for bias against young black men, with the shooting of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the most prominent of several violent police actions that led to mass protests.

US police forces are now attempting to address the issue directly. And it is possible that there are lessons from their attempts to improve in this area that could carry over into education. Lorie Fridell, an associate professor of criminology at the University of South Florida, is an expert in biased policing and is working with several police forces using a “Fair and Impartial Policing” curriculum that she has devised. It includes three modules: understanding human bias; the impact of biased policing on community members and the police department; and skills for fair, impartial and effective policing (see box, page 32).

She’s already discussed the possibility of developing a curriculum to address the issue of bias in schools with a US school district and she believes that the mechanisms would largely be the same.

“The key element of a curriculum to reduce the amount of bias would be first educating people about their own implicit biases, which is the foundation and beginning of all of our various curriculums for police officers,” says Fridell. “Then we’d look at what science tells us about how individuals can reduce and manage their biases.”

She adds that schools should partner with social psychologists to develop a bespoke curriculum for their target audience and to explore different ways of reducing and managing bias.

Would this comprehensive approach have an impact in schools based in the UK? It’s difficult to judge. Unconscious bias is so tricky to pinpoint and track, that evaluating the efforts to tackle it would be equally as problematic. But the scale of the intervention would at least be an acknowledgement that the problem of bias in education is a real and substantial one, and Gillborn says that this is a realisation that schools need to come to as soon as possible.

“I think we’re at a profoundly dangerous point in history when it comes to issues of bias, inclusion, equity and social justice,” he says. “Across Europe and the US, we see a rise in xenophobic rhetoric in mainstream politics and media happy to broadcast sensationalist stories about ‘white underachievement’, migrant crime and the terrorist threat, all in the name of avoiding political correctness. It’s difficult to think of a time in post-war Britain when serious attention to bias has been more important, but what matters more than any single programme or research study or intervention is political willingness to challenge racism, sexism, ableism, etc.

“Unfortunately, at this moment in time, things are getting worse, not better.”

Simon Creasey is a freelance writer based in Kent @simoncreasey2

How US police forces are tackling bias

After high-profile cases such as the shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, police forces in the US have sought to counter perceived bias in how they go about their duties.

Many have turned to University of South Florida academic Lorie Fridell, who has developed a “Fair and Impartial Policing” curriculum. The criminologist devised the scheme to tackle bias among officers in recruit academies or on patrol and first-line supervisors working for law enforcement agencies.

It includes three different modules: understanding human bias; the impact of biased policing on community members and the police department; and skills for fair, impartial and effective policing.

Officers who attend the course are taught to “understand that even well-intentioned people have biases” and to “understand how implicit biases impact on what they perceive/see and can impact on what they do”.

They are then taught how to use tools that will help them to recognise their own conscious and implicit biases, and shown how to reduce and manage these biases. She is in talks with a US school district about adapting the curriculum for teachers.

Black pupils ‘are still much more likely to be excluded’

Professor David Gillborn and his colleagues at the Centre for Research in Race and Education (CRRE) at the University of Birmingham have been undertaking a two-year research project, funded by the Society for Educational Studies (SES), which examines the long-term impacts of the changes in education policy and practice since the murder of teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993.

In an initial analysis, published exclusively in TES, he and his colleagues found the following:

“Overall, there is a significant reduction in the likelihood of permanent exclusion compared with the situation in the late 1990s.

“Much of this can be traced to the explicit drive to reduce numbers (led by central government) between 1998 and 2001.

“Overall, a student in 1997 was almost three times more likely to be permanently excluded than they are in 2014.

“However, in terms of the unequal chances of permanent exclusion for black Caribbean children, the news is not positive:

Compared with their white peers, black Caribbean students’ odds of being permanently excluded have remained relatively stable (around three to four times the white rate over the 18-year period);

Over-representation (relative to the white rate) has not been lower than [a multiple of] three for over a decade (since 2004);

Over-representation (relative to the white rate) has never been less than [a multiple of] 2.9 in the 18 years that national data are available.”

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