The year is 1995. I walk into a classroom for an observation of a history lesson. The students are listening with great interest to a story the teacher is narrating about Aurangzeb’s reign and the manner in which he inadvertently created the conditions for the fall of the dynasty. I am startled by the teacher’s almost defiant extolling of Aurangzeb’s greatness as a deeply religious man who did what he thought was the right thing. The teacher had undertaken research on Aurangzeb while pursuing her academics and seemed to empathize with him. She told the students what she was saying was in contradiction to the textbook and that she was convinced that the textbook writers were biased against him.
I wondered then whether the teacher realized that she was responding to a perceived bias in the textbook by communicating her own bias, and where this would leave the students. Neither the teacher nor the textbook talked of the documents they had based their opinions on. Rather than enable the students to exercise their judgements both the teacher and textbook asked the students to believe in what they read and heard.
As humans who use language to think and communicate, it is startling how unaware we are of the manner in which our own biases operate, though we may be far more conscious of those expressed by others with whom we interact. There are, of course, times when it becomes more obvious, for instance, in the varied response to the government’s implementation of the COVID vaccine. Or when elections are announced and the differences in opinions become obvious. In those times we may be deeply conscious of our own choice and that of others. We may even accept that our conviction that we have the ‘right’ reasons underlying the choice is our bias.
However, my experience of working closely with teachers for over 30 years suggests that implicit bias in lesson plans and preparation is not a matter of awareness and concern for most teachers. They rarely get feedback from their line managers on the approach to the content in their lesson plans. Further, teachers rarely analyze the content created by a panel of textbook writers about whom they do not know much other than their professional qualifications. They rarely examine textbooks for biases. A textbook critique is typically limited to content related errors.
Now that machine learning and AI are becoming a very large part of our lives, it may be an imperative to understand our biases – not just because student work is going to depend on the implicit and explicit biases on the internet that will form their answers. It is also an imperative because we ourselves may not realize how our instruction is flavoured by and adds to the shaping of the perspectives of our students. And, of course, what all this may lead to.
AI merely collates the collective thinking on the internet contributed by all of us that use the Internet of Things (IoT). This naturally includes all our prejudices, bigotry, favoritism, inclinations, intolerances, leanings, preconceived ideas, notions, opinions, preferences, unfairness, chauvinism, discrimination, partiality, partisanship, penchants, and proclivities. If teachers are not aware that critical thinking is actually a metacognitive action that enables a human being to become aware of the bias, then indoctrination may become synonymous with teaching, whether it is the teachers’ own implicit prejudices or those written into a textbook.
To be able to discern these biases in all that we read, we need the lens of critical thinking. This lens develops when we learn to read “against the grain” and locate the content as an opinion or thought arising in a context. Teachers who promote critical thinking present content as the beginning of an enquiry and encourage students to investigate and present their own perceptions and beliefs as well. The answers of the students are expected to have references, attributions, and a well-formed individual perspective. Students with practice in critical thinking are able to identify the beliefs that lead to their actions and relationships. They can also appreciate why others would have different beliefs.
Teachers’ approaches towards developing critical thinking shape their delivery to and expectations of students. Those who believe students must develop a ‘voice’, expect students to think for themselves and develop their own arguments. On the other hand, teachers who simply expect students to present the line of thinking that is already stated in the textbook, discourage what they call ‘extra reading’. These approaches to learning are implicit biases that most teachers may not be aware of within themselves. Research by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson1 in which a random cohort of students was introduced to the teacher as a class of high performers and another as a class of low performers brought this to the fore. The manner in which the teacher dealt with the students made the labels into a self-fulfilling prophecy that they called the ‘Pygmalion effect’. While the study was later criticized for ethical reasons, it did call to our attention possible reasons why teachers are quick to identify children on the “normal curve”. They identify top performers, mid performers and low performers as a convenient categorization.
Such categories are not useful for teachers who like to understand the motivation of each student, encourage every student to express themselves in multiple ways and view each student’s learning journey as unique. They are interested in when a student is in a ‘learning sprint’ and when there seems to be a ‘learning crawl’, to understand what enables each student to experience the “aha” moment. They create a learning environment in which students ask questions and bring information to the class.
The Right to Education Act, 2009 (RTE) demanded that all private schools must give free-seats to students from low socio-economic classes. Very little research has been done to check if and how the students from low socio-economic classes are able to integrate with the other students in their class. And, more importantly, what steps their teachers are taking to help make this possible and how much are the biases of teachers affecting the students. A study by Gopalkrishnan Iyer2 in 2018 on the effectiveness of the RTE in unrecognized schools in Delhi found that teacher training, SMC formation and training, and hands-on experiential pedagogy had a positive impact on student learning outcomes. However, another by Meera Nath Sarin3 identified poor learning outcomes as a result of teacher bias toward the no detention policy. No study was found in the public domain on teachers’ reflection on their relationship to fee paying or higher performing students or students whose parents demand accountability.
The National Education Policy, 2020 (NEP) in clause 6.19 states: ‘All participants in the school education system, including teachers, principals, administrators, counsellors, and students, will be sensitized to the requirements of all students, the notions of inclusion and equity, and the respect, dignity, and privacy of all persons. Such an educational culture will provide the best pathway to help students become empowered individuals who, in turn, will enable society to transform into one that is responsible towards its most vulnerable citizens.’ In clause 6.20 it goes on to state: ‘Any biases and stereotypes in school curriculum will be removed, and more material will be included that is relevant and relatable to all communities’.
Biases come in all shapes and sizes
In addition to socio-economic class, NEP refers to biases towards gender, race, language, special needs, culture, deportment, responsiveness of the student and performance in the assessments. Nita Luthria Row, educator and former school leader has noticed teachers exhibit a gender bias such as ‘boys are better at mathematics and science’, ‘girls are better at language and arts’ and a bias towards ‘smart’ children vs ‘slow’ learners including equating children’s appearance with intelligence. She says, “Children get labeled and then begin to believe in those labels.” This can often last for life. We all know adults who feel they are not good at drawing or mathematics because their teacher said it to them as children.
According to Viveki Pasta, teacher for 23 years, “Other students may sense the teachers’ bias and display the same behaviour towards the child.” The power dynamic of the classroom is often such that attention from a teacher immediately makes a child visible. The reverse is also true. Soniya Mawani who is developing a programme for embedding standards in her school network feels that “Children who can sense this bias will act out either to seek attention or simply give up. Either way they will be impacted negatively.” Seeking attention is a sign of wanting to be visible to the teacher and peers.
Looking at the interaction from the teachers’ perspective, Dr. Bhawna Shivan, a teaching leader, has noticed that, “If teachers feel a concept is complex and difficult to explain they portray the concept to students as one that is difficult to understand!” When their students demonstrate their understanding easily, the teacher is forced to examine her perception of the concept. This bias may seem unusual until we view it in the light of teachers authoritatively asking students to refrain from doing the exercises at the end of the chapter as it has not yet been taught. The assertion by a teacher to a student that, “You don’t need to know this – it is not in your syllabus,” could mask the fear that a student’s eagerness and curiosity to learn may take the teacher into unknown (to the teacher) territory. This would be a loss of face if the internal belief is that the teacher must at all times be the font of all knowledge.
Implicit biases can manifest in various ways in the classroom. They can influence a teacher’s instructional strategies, feedback, disciplinary practices, and even the allocation of resources. For instance, a teacher may unintentionally call on certain students more frequently, or provide more detailed feedback to some students while overlooking others.
Much of teachers’ practice depends on the pedagogical culture of the school that is set by its leadership and governance. In Rhiannon Moore’s research4 on teacher effectiveness, key findings indicated that “teachers in state government schools prioritize ‘productivity’ aspects of teaching, such as rote learning and completing tests, while teachers in tribal social welfare schools place more value on student-centered learning and equity in the classroom. However, linking teacher responses to student data suggests that what teachers report about ‘best practices’ does not necessarily align with their actual classroom practices.”
Teachers’ use of what they learn in their preservice and in-service training depends almost entirely on their line managers – the departmental leaders and the school leadership. If the leadership team does not go into classrooms to check teacher bias, it is unlikely that teachers will be aware of whether their relationship with students is unequal and supportive of a small minority in their classes.
To address these biases, a combination of self-reflection by the teacher, supportive monitoring by the line manager, and continuous professional development by the school or education department. It also requires nurturing collective teacher efficacy in staff rooms, that enables teachers to share their practice to the students they teach. Researcher John Hattie5 has found that collective teacher efficacy has the highest effect size on student achievement.
Amisha Modi and Nita Inamati, teachers with more than 10 years of experience have experienced the negative impact of staffroom conversations on students. Siblings have had the experience vicariously – “Oh you are just not like your sister at all!” and students who are not academically inclined have been told that they cannot expect “special treatment”. These biases seem completely uncalled for, as do situations in which teachers favour one gender over the other, often being punitive with one student while the other gets away with the same misdemeanour. Teachers have been known to invest more energy and interest with the child who attains higher performance scores. These students get a lot more useful feedback as their performance reflects well on the image of the successful teacher. Some students who do well academically are axiomatically asked to take on leadership roles even if they have shown no evidence of social influence.
Can teachers rid themselves of negative bias?
Teachers may well be mortified if they realized and recognized how inadvertently they provide more attention, opportunities, or resources to certain students while neglecting or undervaluing others. How can we all, teachers and other adults, recognize the impact we unknowingly have that decreases or increases the engagement, motivation, and wellbeing of our students?
To examine one’s own beliefs, attitudes, and stereotypes requires honest introspection and the acknowledgement that it takes enormous amounts of practice to be truly aware of how the mind categorises and puts people into boxes at lightning speed. According to J. Krishnamurti, “There can be freedom only when the mind is immediately aware of its conditioning, which brings about the cessation of that conditioning.”6
It takes courageous introspection and a real interest in feedback from colleagues, administrators, and most importantly, from our students themselves, to identify one’s blind spots. “Students are best to know their teachers’ biases,” says Geeta Varshneya, a school leader in Delhi with 41 years of experience. Geeta’s hint suggests that if a teacher believes they are unbiased, they may want to check this myth with the students.
The language a teacher uses has to have strong filters to ensure stereotypes are minimized and all students feel safe, respected and their contribution is valued. In the words of Nitin Padte, teacher and school leader for 30 years, “An approach of tentativeness will support an atmosphere of inquiry.” Teachers who present theoretical knowledge by situating it in a context are more able to invite students to analyse it. Not being too quick with ‘the right answer’ could well be the first step towards enabling students to suggest other ways of approaching the question.
The careful examination of the textbook and other content used should be undertaken to highlight and enable students to notice mono perspectives and misrepresentations. To support students to challenge all stereotypes in the content. Encourage them to identify what they notice about the manner in which the content is presented.
Collective teacher efficacy suggests that all teachers should work together to identify and use teaching strategies that provide equitable opportunities for all students. Equitable is different from equal. Equitable enables every student to stretch their thinking further, which may mean it is different for different students, and no student is left out. Increasing the portfolio of instructional delivery, requiring student engagement in order to create a classroom environment that values diverse voices and abilities are additional strategies that teachers deploy.
It is extremely important for a teacher to understand the home environment of every child and to build a trusting relationship with the parents of their students. Students must have the trust and respect of their teachers and teachers must have the trust and respect of their students and parents. Knowing what makes students excited helps teachers to know their aspirations or “foreground” – where they want to go, what they wish to be good at. This is expressed as a positive bias by teachers like Amisha, Bhawna and Viveki who are sure that they can reach the most disengaged students. Seema Amalnerkar who has facilitated teacher professional development for years, suggests the positive thing about a bias is that, “it encourages debates.” Had the history teacher held a debate instead of merely expressing her beliefs, she would be able to ask students to present both possibilities with supporting evidence.
We may ask ourselves as educators, whether our bias towards students’ memorizing teachers’ notes or textbook content and presenting it as their own answer in an assessment, is in effect enabling students in every subject and every assessment to practice plagiarism! Let us instead be aware and deliberate in our biases as did Gijubhai Badheka7, that all students need to and can have a voice and find learning enjoyable, meaningful and empowering.
Teachers who claim to be unbiased are simply unaware of their biases. Teachers’ biases are possibly evident to their students and colleagues more easily than they are to themselves. It is contingent on every educator to be aware of how their biases could be impacting on their students and how pro-student biases could support the grit and determination of the teacher to engage their students in learning, whatever be the circumstances.
- Rosenthal, R., Jacobson, L. Pygmalion in the classroom. Urban Rev 3, 16-20 (1968). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02322211
- accessed on https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/334997395.pdf on 26th June 2023
- accessed on https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/10071758/8/Sarin_10071758_thesis_id_redacted.pdf
- Rhiannon Moore (2023) Teacher effectiveness in the Indian context: A mixed methods study investigating the relationship between teacher motivation, professional knowledge, classroom environment and student learning. Doctoral Thesis [unpublished]. University of Bristol, UK.
- as described in his book ‘Divaswapna’
The author is the founder director of Adhyayan Quality Education Foundation and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.