How do you counter your biases when you feel them arise?
How do you feel about those who demonstrate bias or even racism?
Do you believe people can “unlearn” their biases?
We can manage our biases.
What we think, we become.
– The Buddha
Brain research is important to the educator. It seems every day we hear of a new discovery about how behavior and emotions are linked to brain chemistry and development. Many traits and behaviors that were once attributed to character or upbringing can now be linked to specific sites and functions of the brain.
As teachers, we are particularly conscious of the advances in brain research as it reveals why some students excel in certain subjects while others struggle and how to differ teaching methods to capitalize on particular periods of brain development.
And what we have gained from brain research in the fields of mental health and education applies to issues of bias as well. We now understand that it “makes sense” for our brains to categorize those who differ from us and to assume that we are better than others.
But just because it is “natural” for our brains to work this way doesn’t mean that we have to accept prejudice and discrimination as a fact. Rather, knowing how our brains work allows us to move our focus from feeling guilt about our own biased thinking and judging our students’ prejudices to learning how to counteract what our brains do naturally and teaching our brains to work in new, egalitarian ways.
Below you’ll find a classroom activity to go deeper into the issue and some ideas and thoughts to help inspire you on the journey. With a little knowledge we can remove some of the “heat” that attends most discussions about racism, stereotypes and prejudice and, instead, focus on solutions.
This brief lesson-starter suggests activities without being overly prescriptive so that you can adapt the activity to your classroom.
CLASSROOM ACTIVITY : LEARNING FROM BIASES
There is evidence that our biases can be altered: we can be “primed” so that we tap into unconscious biases or so that we avoid those biases. For example, a study was done where some subjects were told a positive story about a person from an ethnic group while others were told a negative story. Afterwards, subjects were asked to interview a member of that same ethnic group for a job. The subjects’ attitudes towards the interviewee—who behaved the same with all subjects—corresponded to the story they were told before the interview. This is an easy experiment to try with your own class and then discuss. You can design your own lesson or follow the suggestion below.
BIASES : CLASSROOM ACTIVITY
(1) Choose a bias you would like to address (gender, race, age, even another school).
(2) Create two slips of paper: one slip of paper says “Think of a [name of group] who frightened or angered you” while the other slip says “Think of a [name of group] who is a role model of leadership.”
(3) Give half of your class the “negative” slip of paper; give the other half the “positive” slip of paper. Don’t allow them to look at each others’ papers. Allow them a few minutes to write down their thoughts.
(4) When students are finished, show a picture of an anonymous person from the group you are focused on. Do not use a picture of someone students know; this will skew the results. Ask students to write down 2-4 words to describe the person in the picture. Have a few students share their opinions.
(5) When you have heard a variety of opinions, ask students to speculate about why they see the picture differently. Then ask students who see this person in a positive light to raise their hands; then ask students who see this person in a negative light to raise their hands. Finally, reveal that students were asked to think about the group in different ways before looking at the picture. Ask students if their opinion of the person in the picture corresponded to the slip of paper they were given. Discuss.
(6) Action: Ask students to discuss how they might use this new knowledge to prevent biases from clouding their attitude and behavior in the future. Have students practice this strategy for a week and then report back to class.
Lesson plans for your classroom that address our biases and encourage students to “out think” their own brains.
On this RaceBridges Studio site:
- We All Have A Race: Addressing Race and Racism
- Sticking Together: Sharing our Stories, Our Differences, Our Similarities
- What’s Racism Got To Do With Me?: How Our History and Context Shape Us and Others
- Fine, Cordelia. A Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives. New York: Norton, 2006. Chapter 8 “The Bigoted Brain” is especially helpful..
- Gilbert, Daniel. Stumbling on Happiness. New York: Vintage, 2005. On pages 178-87 and 191-2, Gilbert focuses specifically on bias and how we selectively choose information to support our own world view...
- Van Hecke, Madeleine L. Blind Spots: Why Smart People Do Dumb Things. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2007. The chapters on bias (chapter 6) and categorical thinking (chapter 7) clarify why our brain slants information to fit our biases and prefers to work in simple categories. Each chapter also offers ways to challenge these “blind spots.”
Explore the many lesson plans, resources and short videos on this RaceBridges Studio site.
Many of them deal with biases and stereotypes.
Also see our short video stories : RaceBridges Studio Videos