How do you interrupt bias in the classroom?

Jun 15, 2015

Last October, the Harvard Business Review published an essay on Hacking Tech's Diversity Problem.

In the piece, Joan C. Williams of the University of California - Hastings College of Law said that much of the research into workplace diversity issues is still focused on "admiring the problem" rather than trying to correct it. But, Williams wrote, if companies want to start fixing the problem, companies need to think like startups.

Rather than the big, "sweeping cultural change initiatives" that some companies undertake, Williams argues that institutions need to be more targeted, and more data-oriented when it comes to diversity. They need to use an approach to "interrupt" bias as it arises.

Williams explains: 

First, bias interrupters are based on objective metrics, whereas cultural initiatives tend to rely on earnest conversations. Second, interrupters are iterative, so they allow companies to try small interventions and then scale them up. Last, interrupters build change into the basic business systems that perpetuate bias, so they are less likely to disappear when a new CEO decides that diversity is not an imperative.

The idea makes a lot of sense, except for one thing: bias doesn't start in adulthood.

So I wondered: can the interrupter approach be used in schools?

Williams' essay from last October focuses on the issue of gender bias in the workplace, but gender bias often intersects with racial bias. She and two other researchers documented this in a report published in January on women of color who work in STEM fields

The "bias interrupter" approach detailed in that report has four steps: 

1) ASSESS. Using interviews or focus groups, investigate whether, and how, subtle bias is playing out in your institution in hiring, Rank and Tenure processes, compensation, and elsewhere. Where bias is suspected, identify an objective metric that will measure whether bias exists.

2) IMPLEMENT A BIAS INTERRUPTER. Put in place a Bias Interrupter.

3) MEASURE. Measure to see if the intervention interrupted the bias effectively enough so that the metric improved.

4) RATCHET UP IF NECESSARY. If the metric did not show improvement, strengthen or modify the Interrupters until it does.

Step one here is crucial, and it's the step that I think is most overlooked in classrooms as well as company board rooms.

We spend a lot of time looking at the effects of bias, in companies as well as classrooms. In classrooms, we can talk about the achievement gap, the discipline gap, the gender gap - we are obsessed with gaps. 

We are less obsessed with understanding the subtle ways those gaps can come to be reinforced by the very people working to eliminate them. 

"But the very act of assessing her own teaching methods with bias in mind is a huge step. Correcting bias in education can't happen if we don't actually know where and when the bias occurs."

While trying to understand how the bias interrupter approach might apply in the classroom, I came across a fascinating study from a teacher-in-training at Florida State University. The study is explained in a video posted to TeacherTube.

The teacher, Brittany Anderson, started with a blunt question about her own practices: "Am I gender biased?"

It's a question many teachers probably ask of themselves, but rarely are able to investigate in an empirical way.

Anderson's approach was to videotape her lessons, and analyze how she interacted with students. What she found was a clear difference in how she approached boys compared to girls.

Overall, she spent more time with the boys in the class. She smiled at the boys when she talked to them, and she asked fewer leading questions with her boy students. She also was more likely to call out behavior issues with the boys, while overlooking negative behavior with the girls. 

Her findings were significant especially because the class she was teaching was a science class. By giving more attention to the boys, she was playing a subtle role in the large, society-wide diversity problem in STEM fields. She was doing this even though she herself is a woman interested in graduate science-education programs. 

The very act of assessing her own teaching methods with bias in mind is a huge step. Correcting bias in education can't happen if we don't actually know where and when the bias occurs. 

I think most teachers are aware that bias exists in their classrooms. It peeps into lesson plans, for sure, but it also rears its head in classroom materials, through reading assignments and worksheets that all carry with them certain cultural indicators.

(Side note: I once had a conversation with a principal from a school with mostly low-income black and Hispanic students. She had gone to Lansing to help review statewide exam questions for bias. She told me she had to restrain herself from objecting to nearly every question. Very few of them weren't biased against her students.)

If we don't keep track of when and how these instances of bias enter the classroom, we don't know whether we're actually doing anything to improve the situation. This is a real challenge for teachers, who already spend a significant (if not excessive) amount of time on various assessments that were foisted on them by outside forces. 

But for teachers who want to work to eliminate bias in their classrooms, the interrupter approach seems like a framework that could be useful.

If you suspect bias is operating either in your own teaching methods, or in how your students interact with one another, figure out a way to measure it (step one). Then come up with a way to interrupt the bias (step two). Then measure again (step three). Then alter your approach based on what you discover (step four). 

Have you found any other empirical approaches to eliminating bias in the classroom? Let us know about it in the comments.