The Impact of Implicit Bias within the Education System

These days many people are questioning whether implicit bias can really be a focus of change. They rightly wonder, with so much training and awareness, how come professionals can walk out of a training and still display behaviours or make decisions that produce outcomes fully illustrative of anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism? I think some partial explanations may help all of us to find some answers.

On closer examination of our school system, we can almost certainly attest to the influence of implicit bias on disciplinary actions and expectations; rooted in public stigma and amplified by racial profiling in the war on drugs. In fact, a recent study conducted at Stanford University highlighted the racial disparities in discipline when two similar subjects, White and Black with no other discernable differences, were placed at the receiving end of disciplinary decisions. The outcomes were biased. In the study, a fictitious student who committed two minor infractions was presented to a sample group of racially diverse middle school teachers. The researchers gave the fictitious student two racially diverse names such that he could have been identified as either White or Black unconsciously. The study tested the teachers’ attitudes towards the infractions and the results clearly indicated that teachers were more likely to escalate the disciplinary response to the second infraction for the student whose name suggested he was of African descent. The immediate lesson: everyone has implicit biases, and educators are not immune. According to Cheryl Staats, a senior researcher at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, the concrete implications of implicit bias is that it can create “invisible barriers to opportunity and achievement” for some students. But what exactly do we mean by implicit bias?

Defined as those unconscious attitudes or stereotypes that influence decision-making, actions and understanding, implicit biases pose major challenges to the most well intended, impartial minded people as it fuels outcomes and decisions that run counter to their declared beliefs. Articulated by Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, mental processing or human cognition occurs in two systems. The first system deals with thoughts and processes that occur outside of conscious awareness and is primarily responsible for implicit bias. This system operates automatically and quickly, like a reflex, and activates the first thoughts that occur when the brain processes information. The second system requires effortful processing of information, which allows people to concentrate on tasks that require logical reasoning and make complex decisions. The question is how implicit bias affects the decisions of rational educators so that they make decisions that draw on stereotypes, judging students based on their physical characteristics.

There are three conditions identified by research evidence. Teachers in certain circumstances tend to rely upon unconscious systems to take actions and decisions:

  1. Situations of ambiguity or lack of information;

  2. Situations with time constraints;

  3. Situations where cognitive control maybe compromised (e.g. in instances of mental fatigue).

The automatic unconscious associations mold interpretations and shape outcomes of quick decision-making, serving to further perpetuate disciplinary disparities based on race and diminished expectations of students. We then see disparities in teachers’ classroom outcomes based on socially perceived race.

What are the possible solutions for reducing racial profiling, unequitable treatment, and unfair practices in the education system? How can teachers align their implicit biases with the explicit intentions? Researchers in this field suggest that there are methods that can be used to essentially “reprogram” mental associations such that unconscious associations can be addressed in the same way we try to shape explicit intentions. The complexity of the problem is that implicit bias is often invisible and undetectable.

Associations can still be uncovered through various types of tests and/or deep reflections on personal generalizations. The easiest option might simply be to take an Implicit Association Test. These tests are designed to assess the relative strength of the associations between concepts (e.g., racial categories) and evaluations (positive and negative) or stereotypes. It measures response latency or the reaction time against a predetermined standard; a shorter timeframe suggests a preference or unconscious attitude. By revealing implicit biases one can then build in checks and balances to ensure that explicit intentions to help students achieve their full potential are not undermined by unconscious attitudes. Educators can thus make constructive amendments to their expectations and practices.

Another evidence-based approach is that of intergroup contact which allows for meaningful interaction. The groups are encouraged to interact and engage in discussions. Meetings are structured such that all parties cooperate, develop joint goals, and agree upon meeting logistics. Engaging, meaningful discussions allows different groups to become familiar with each other on a personal level, tearing down negative implicit associations and forming positive alliances. The social interaction in this activity helps forms bonds and understanding that are most likely to reduce implicit bias than lectures on equality and inclusion.

A strategic counter-stereotypical approach has also been scientifically proven to effectively alter implicit bias. The process re-writes certain preexisting biases by exemplifying scenarios that are taboo or not the norm. Educators can be made aware of their blind spots; prejudices can be softened, and stereotypes hopefully eliminated. A great example of this is the advertising of medical services with a male nurse being featured; by introducing the concept of the male nurse to the historically gendered nursing profession, a non-gendered profession is slowly but surely becoming normalized and the gap between expectation and reality are being narrowed.

I have not met many teachers that are not constantly striving to achieve excellence for their students. Most teachers want their students to succeed. Implicit biases constitute a significant barrier to both teacher and student achievement. It can play a destructive role and the need for resolution is immediate. It goes without saying that unconscious thoughts do not necessarily cast educators as villains; indeed, all people generalize. Problems emerge when deeply held stigma impede the achievement and progress of the racialized. To ensure seamless, unbiased, and fair treatment for diverse student populations however, it is perhaps wise prevention and harms reduction for teachers are supported in ongoing efforts to develop anti-racism competencies. They should be learning constantly how to counteract any biases which may impede learning. The foundational and profound role of the education system should not be diminished by the influence of cultural and stereotypical biases.