A couple of weeks ago, a colleague asked a great question during the Shanker Institute’s Good Schools Seminar on “Creating Safe and Supportive Schools.” His question was motivated by a presentation on implicit bias by Kirwan Institute director Sharon Davies. The question was: Wouldn’t you expect more conscious, systematic decision-making (and fewer automatic, snap judgments) from teachers who, after all, see their students everyday and get to know them well? (See here, minute 50:55.)

As I related in the previous post, individuating (or learning about the particulars of a person, his/her interests, skills, family, etc.) can be a very effective “de-biasing” tool.* So, how might we leverage and support teachers’ natural inclination to get to know students well? How might a potential de-biasing intervention build on this feature of teachers’ work?

The reason I ask this question is that cognitive biases come in all sizes and shapes – stereotypes are just one source. For example, we tend to remember and pay more attention to information that confirms our preexisting beliefs – a.k.a. “confirmation bias.” We also tend to give more weigh to information that is presented to us earlier rather than later – a.k.a. “primacy effect.” Very important too is the “fundamental attribution error”: the belief that, while our own actions can be explained by circumstances (i.e., I yelled at a colleague because I had a stressful day), others’ behaviors are explained by their personalities and dispositions (i.e., he yelled at a colleague because he is a bully). The list goes on and on – for an overview of heuristics and biases see Thinking and Deciding and Thinking, Fast and Slow). My point is that tools and strategies that can guide and scaffold the way we gather and weigh information are essential if we hope to arrive at decisions that are more objective and less biased — think of structured analytic techniques as “reins for the (often unruly) mind.”

A teacher might be in a better place to get to know his/her students but this process is still very complex; all kinds of biases such as those mentioned above could get in the way. For example, the primacy effect suggests that something a student does on the first day of class may have more influence on the teacher than subsequent student behavior. But if the teacher has a good way of documenting behavior throughout the year, then he/she might be less prone to more vividly remembering (thus, of disproportionately considering) what the student did or didn’t do that first day. So, the question becomes: What kinds of tools might help teachers collect, record, and evaluate information about their students in a way that is more systematic and less prone to error or bias?  

This is not a trivial question and I don’t have all the answers, but let me just offer a couple of thoughts. I was curious about ClassDojo, an app designed to help teachers collect and share data on student behavior. It made me wonder if teachers could use this or similar tools to collect information about students’ particular strengths, talents, and interests. I personally like apps because they can facilitate processes that can be labor intensive such as data gathering, aggregating and sharing data or even tasks that require additional knowledge such as data analysis. But let’s face it; low-tech approaches could be just as effective. For example, Getting To Know My Child is a (paper and pencil) mechanism that enables parents to share information with their child’s kindergarten teacher, including questions about the child’s background, health, abilities, preferences and so forth.  

Individuating is an important strategy because it sets the stage for a second, more complex but even more powerful type of intervention: Assigning competence to low status students, a strategy that takes advantage of the power of the teacher as an evaluator. “Assigning competence is a public statement that specifically recognizes the intellectual contribution a student has made to the group task” – more here. Students tend to believe and respect the evaluations that teachers make of them. Thus, if the teacher publicly commends a low status student for being strong on a particular (and real) ability, that student will tend to believe the evaluation. At the same time, the other students in the classroom are likely to accept the evaluation as valid. Once this happens, the expectations for the student’s competence – as well as his/her relative status in the classroom – can rise dramatically, which is likely to result in increased activity and influence of the low status student as well as increased success in future classroom tasks.

In Designing Groupwork (3rd edition, in press), Cohen and Lotan specified that an effective assignment of competence has three critical features: 1) evaluations must be public, 2) evaluations must be specific, referring to particular intellectual abilities and skills and 3) the abilities/skills of the low status student must be made relevant to the rest of his/her classmates. Thus, learning about students’ particular strengths and skills (as well as detecting when these abilities are being demonstrated) is a very important feature of effective status treatments.**