Confronting Our Assumptions and Biases

By: Rick Wormeli


When my wife and I were thinking of names for our children, and yes, our dogs, they were difficult conversations. As you probably understand, some of the students I've taught through the years were particularly rough to teach. I don't want to be reminded of those stresses every time I see my child or dog. As a result, we will never name a child or pet of ours "Megan," and neither will we use "Rufus," "Rebecca," nor "Taylor." Apologies to readers with those names.

Every teacher with whom I speak has names that make them shiver just a bit, yet we all know it's completely irrational. Emotions win, though, and intellect has little to say. The only way to overcome the name bias is to have a positive experience with a student of the same name in later years, invoke a Philip K. Dick memory wipe, or forget to wear protective sunglasses as we watch the flash of bright light in Men in Black.

If we've grown up eating certain types of food, we feel lonely and out of sorts in countries where we can't find it. We think our particular church's interpretation of God and religion is the only correct one. Because we want to be soothed, we visit websites that reflect our own beliefs back to us rather than taking the time to explore opposing points of view.

Phonics is more important than a whole language approach, intelligent design is preferred over the theory of evolution, K–8 schools are better than 6–8 middle schools, or vice-versa on all three of these. We turn the familiar into inviolate truth, regardless of other perspectives and evidence that come knocking at our doors.

Honest scrutiny creates painful revelations, and the positives that come from making changes to long traditions are too far down the road. It's easier not to talk about them and just forgive ourselves.

If we've used Singapore Math, the McGraw-Hill, or Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt textbook for years, we find new textbook adoptions troubling. Some of us sabotage the adoption, consciously or unconsciously, using it only sparingly and providing photocopies from the old series as much as possible.

To accept a new idea or perspective, we have to first admit what we are thinking and doing is less effective than our ego thinks it is. Teachers' egos bruise easily because as we teach, we make ourselves vulnerable to colleagues, students, and their parents; it would be safer to keep quiet and do our tasks in separate silos.

Almost 20 years into the 21st century, we still see teachers as knowledge-bearers, certain of the facts, skills, and ideas they impart to the next generation. This conceit limits candor, however, so we don't critique honestly what we do and what knowledge is worthy of this year's students. Candor can be threatening—our carefully carved status quo is in danger.

A whole lot is at stake here, so it's worth taking steps to reveal assumptions that may or may not be true . It's worth looking at our inadvertent acts of racism, sexism, and ageism, as well as the altars of education "correctness" we've built unknowingly. Each year we teach, are we willing to unlearn something we've held educationally sacred?

Confronting Bias

Our education biases abound:

  • If we have one person of a particular race in our classroom, some of us ask him to express the views of that entire race regarding a controversial topic.
  • When we create the evaluative criteria for our rubrics, we automatically bias our students to our generation's interpretation of success.
  • We often associate lack of English language proficiency with lack of intellect because speaking and writing are the usual methods we use to perceive students' intellect in our classes.

So how do we recognize and confront hidden biases that keep us from being effective? Books, articles, and videos offer great wisdom on how to confront bias and false assumptions, but some small things we can do right away will help:

Consider new perspectives. "Used to Think, But Now I Think" is a wonderful information-processing technique that we can use to open minds to revising thinking in light of new evidence or perspective:

  • I used to think Twitter was a big waste of time and not worth the effort, but now I think it may be among the best ongoing professional development resources I've ever experienced.
  • I used to think allowing re-dos in my class didn't teach students responsibility and respect for deadlines, but now I think the re-do experience teaches students more about responsibility and deadlines than recording a zero does.

Get up to speed on logical fallacies. Each of these has serious issues in logic:

  • If you're for using Macs instead of PCs in the classroom, you're against good teaching.
  • I did my lessons on the Promethean board, and my students did much better on their tests on Friday as a result.
  • Her ideas aren't going to work because she's only been teaching for two years.

When we learn logical fallacies, we begin to see them in political rhetoric, conversations with colleagues, students' essays, and our own thinking. If we study and name the fallacies, however, we're less likely to mistake them for logical truth and make false assumptions as a result. For the tools to recognize and dismantle false assumptions and biases, check out Stephen's Guide to Logical Fallacies (http://onegoodmove.org/fallacy/welcome.htm), and Thou Shalt Not Commit Logical Fallacies (https://yourlogicalfallacyis.com).

Spend time in the company of those not like yourself. Sense how they share the human experience just as you do. We volunteer at a local mental health center or soup kitchen. We invite friends from different faiths and races to dinner. We hike a local mountain with gay/lesbian/transgender colleagues and work on large community projects with individuals whose political views differ from ours.

It's much harder to dismiss someone's ideas or to hold tightly to biases/prejudices when we've spent considerable time in their company. They are no longer two-dimensional caricatures stored in some mental category and easily dismissed. Suddenly, they're individuals, our biases weaken and thoughtfulness grows.

Become a reflective practitioner. The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards declares that the capacity to analyze teaching and reflect on what works and doesn't work and making changes accordingly is one of the five major pillars of highly accomplished practice. This is an overt skill set that must be taught to teachers, however, not assumed in them. We need to be able to connect the dots between decisions we make instructionally and the subsequent effect on students' learning. In close scrutiny such as this, we uncover hidden assumptions and biases that kept us from forming new insights.

Taking First Steps

Let's reinvigorate civics classes in middle schools, and let's carry teaching civil discourse into all subject areas. Realize that African-American parents in some communities have to caution their children about how to act in a non-threatening manner when they are around police officers. Muslim families in America live in fear that someone will associate them with terrorism.

Let's prove that we are open to revision in thinking and practice. Some of us look back at our own bias journeys and think, "If I knew back then what I know now…" Let's switch that, and do the thinking right now: What will we be saying about today's teaching biases and false assumptions 10 or 20 years from now? Let's grab that better version of ourselves and figure out what we can shed right now as wasteful or hurtful, then take the first steps to something more helpful to us and our students.


Rick Wormeli is a long-time classroom teacher turned writer and education consultant. He is the author of several books, including The Collected Writings (So Far) of Rick Wormeli: Crazy Good Stuff I Learned about Teaching Along the Way (AMLE). He lives in Herndon, Virginia, and is working on a new book on homework.
rwormeli@cox.net
@rickwormeli2
www.rickwormeli.net

Published in AMLE Magazine, March 2016.

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