Does Unconscious Bias impact our ability to safeguard learners?

You’ve probably heard that addressing your unconscious biases is the first step towards building more inclusive spaces. Events like George Floyd’s murder propelled the conversation of race equality back to the forefront of discussion on diversity and inclusion, and as a result of this and other discussions on injustice, unconscious bias is once again a buzz word socially, in the corporate world and across the education sector. 

The resurgence of the BLM (Black Lives Matter) movement, the re-ignition of conversation on gender based violence, and a big increase in discussion on mental health has pushed us all to understand our own biases, and on a global scale we were all challenged to assess how bias has an impact on the work we do.

Further Education providers and teams within them are taught to be respectful and inclusive of all students, and to remove barriers to learning and education, not to create them. However the nature of unconscious bias is that it can impact our decision making without our conscious consideration.

This blog will explore how we can address unconscious bias in Further Education, and specifically when safeguarding students from harm.

Firstly, what is unconscious bias, and why do we need to address it?

Unconscious biases are either prejudices or tendencies towards certain groups or individuals. These perceptions of people can cause you to act either preferentially or unfairly towards them. 

Contrary to what you might think, unconscious biases aren’t inherently a bad thing. In fact, they’re a result of our brain’s inability to consciously process all of the information that it’s exposed to. The estimate is that we process 11 million bits of information every second, but our conscious mind can only process 40 to 50 bits. 

That leaves our brains to do a lot of the work without us being explicitly aware of it. In order to do this, we rely on our brain's understanding and remembering of different experiences through a number of ways; through first hand experience, through what we witness, or through what we’re taught.

These past experiences then help us respond more efficiently to future encounters with anything, including people or groups of people. That within itself isn’t necessarily harmful; a previous food poisoning incident may leave us with a preference for Chinese food over Italian food.

The challenge appears when our biases begin to impact our decision making in a way that negatively, and unfairly impacts others.

Take for example a preference for working with boys over girls; this could result in selecting male learners for development programmes, or focusing your teaching towards half of the classroom, not based on ability or need.

An additional dimension of complexity is added here when we’re not aware that we have these biases, when we have unconscious biases. This is when our prejudices are outside of our conscious control, and impact our decision making resulting in unfair outcomes.

But the question is, in what circumstances may this impact our ability to safeguard learners?

How can unconscious bias impact my ability to safeguard students?

Safeguarding students requires the ability to recognise and identify abuse, neglect, learning disorders and less visible disabilities. In order to do this effectively teachers need to be incredibly astute, and to have a sophisticated knowledge of learner behaviour and how to recognise changes or variances in these behaviours.

Again, this requires our brains to do a lot of processing, and knowledge of how students have behaved in the past will likely inform how you understand the behaviours of learners you go on to encounter. 

Research in the USA showed that "teachers are probably more well-intentioned than the general population, but they still have the same bias levels" 

Take for example a teacher who has had very limited contact with learners from the Muslim community. In their regular life their impression of the Muslim community is based upon public conversation and not direct interactions. As a result, the teacher has internalised a misogynistic understanding that women within this community are often oppressed. 

The teacher encounters a Muslim learner that is quiet and withdrawn in class. Their belief is that this learner is naturally quiet, naturally quite timid and doesn’t like speaking up or being challenged.

The signs of domestic abuse may be being missed due to biases held by the teacher that they may not even be aware of. 

Multiple biases have the ability to impact the way in which we feel, think or respond to others. Confirmation bias is when we have a prejudice towards a group of people or an individual, and therefore we look out for behaviours that confirm that belief. 

For example, the continual narrative around the link between race and knife crime in London may create biases, particularly amongst young Black boys in education. Any behavioural difficulties in education can easily confirm biases we have either consciously, or unconsciously, which in turn has the power to impact our decision making concerning these students. 

This could be at any level too, common biases include a belief that boys are unruly in the classroom, that girls aren’t good at STEM subjects, and that introverted students are less intelligent. All of these biases can override the ability to recognise and identify abuse, neglect, learning disorders and less visible disabilities.

The challenge for educators is to understand and accept that biases exist, that they likely have unconscious biases, and to understand how to ensure that these biases do not impact their decision making.

How can I prevent unconscious bias from impacting my decision making when safeguarding Further Education learners?

Be aware

Challenging your unconscious biases requires you to first be aware of them. The Harvard implicit bias tests are a natural starting point for this, but be aware of the critiques  of this type of testing. What this can do however, is get you thinking about the different characteristics that you may have bias towards.

Question yourself

More directly, with the students you interact with, question yourself when you’re assessing or making decisions concerning students. Why are you drawing certain conclusions? What have your previous experiences been with those students and other similar students? Are past interactions impacting your perceptions of the situation in front of you? Is this fair?

Learn and develop

Unconscious bias training alone isn’t enough to begin to tackle biases. If learning and development is in your plan, be critical of how this sits within your entire strategy for addressing student wellbeing. Expand your understanding of how safeguarding concerns can impact different groups of students. Understand how signs may manifest between different student groups so that your knowledge isn’t based solely on students you have encountered before, or were yourself.

Unconscious biases are unavoidable. Remember, we all have them. This means that we all have the responsibility to ensure that our unconscious biases don’t impact our decision making and prevent us from being able to effectively safeguard students.

Another way to prevent unconscious biases hindering your ability to safeguard learners is to empower them to speak up, rather than taking this sole responsibility on yourself. Find out how our partners; Further Education provider NESCOL, are doing this in this short video.

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