4 Ways Educators Can Avoid Unconscious Bias

Lawrence Wagner explores unconscious bias

By Lawrence Wagner, Founder and CEO of Spark Mindset

Unconscious bias (or implicit bias) is often defined as a prejudice or unsupported judgment in favor of or against a thing, individual, or group as compared to another in a way that is typically considered unfair. Many researchers suggest that unconscious bias occurs automatically as the brain makes quick judgments based on past experiences, stereotypes, and personal background. Specifically, UB likely perpetuates socio-economic, gender, and racial gaps in educational outcomes such as academic performance, engagement with school, course and major choice, and persistence in higher education, particularly among historically disadvantaged and underrepresented groups such as low-income and racial-minority students. These gaps in educational outcomes then manifest in corresponding workplace disparities in pay, promotions, and employment.


Listen to a short Ted Talk about unconscious bias in school: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rspZv2a0Pp8


The good news is that teachers can learn to combat their prejudice, even the implicit kind, if they become more aware of it and take steps to actively fight it in themselves. Here are some of the ways that might help educators treat all of their students with dignity and care.

  1. Cultivate awareness of their biases – Many researchers believe that becoming more aware of our biases can help us improve our interactions with others, decrease our sense of unease in interracial contexts, and make better decisions.


  1. Work to increase empathy and empathic communication – teachers may want to take note of the ways that they have learned to increase their empathy through a combination of stress reduction, learning how to manage difficult emotions, and practicing empathic communication. Treating students with kindness and consideration is a sure way to bring out kindness in them, too.


  1. Practice mindfulness and loving-kindness – Mindfulness practices, such as paying attention in a nonjudgmental way to one’s breath or other sensations, has been shown to decrease stress in teachers, which can indirectly have an effect on reducing bias. But according to some research, mindfulness may also have a direct effect on bias reduction as well.


  1. Develop cross-group friendships in their own lives – Cross-group friendships have been shown in several studies to decrease stress in intergroup situations, to decrease prejudice toward outgroup members, and to decrease one’s preference for social hierarchy or domination over lower-status groups.

In education, the real-life implications of unconscious bias can create invisible barriers to opportunity and achievement for some students—a stark contrast to the values and intentions of educators and administrators who dedicate their professional lives to their students’ success. Thus, it is critical for educators to identify any discrepancies that may exist between their conscious ideals and unconscious associations so that they can mitigate the effects of those implicit biases, thereby improving student outcomes and allowing students to reach their full potential.


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