Seven types of bias teachers are vulnerable to

Stephen Lockyer
Oct 20, 2015 · 6 min read

We all succumb to bias in one way or another, and many times this can ground us in ways that make us feel comfortable and secure. Within each bias however is the danger that whomever our bias goes against can be misrepresented, misaligned or in the worst cases, treated unfairly.

For teachers, this can make a huge impact on how we deal with, teat and work alongside students. These biases can be seen in our schools every day; like most aspect of human frailty, they are often easier to spot in others than ourselves. How many do you recognise in your School?

Status Quo Bias

Known as keeping things as they should be or have always been, at best this provides familiarity, at worst, complacency against any form of change. Where any change is seen as a loss, the emotive state of status quo bias can affect decision-making on a grand scale.

Any teacher who has suggested some new initiative in a new setting to a response of, “but we’ve always done it this way” is experiencing this bias. Does this sound familiar?

This is different to status quo ante, where there is a perception of superiority over a commonly-held viewpoint over a new systemic change. In Education this can pervade even the selection of reading material for a class.

Confirmation Bias

This is the tendency to favour, recall or interpret information in a manner which confirms our own beliefs. This can become more extreme and entrenched if someone is defending their opinion, even when greeted with the same information as another party. That troublesome lower group are being taught again, and when one student calls out, it can psychologically reinforce the opinion one might have of that group, rather than factoring in a multitude of environmental issues which might have caused this behaviour. Confirmation bias is pervasive in schools, and its impact cannot be underestimated.

The biggest danger with confirmation bias is seeking out information which proves an in-built hypothesis, ignoring any evidence to the contrary. I am guilty of this, having in the past set up hypotheses about people and letting them (unintentionally) lose against my game rules. I also recognise that without these rules, I was also setting people up to fail. Is this something we do as teachers?

Parents too are guilty of this bias, and experience from Parent Consultations where a student will gain high marks in all subjects but one, which becomes the focus of the meeting, were common. This is from the viewpoint of a parent as well as a teacher.

Macabre Constant

This is a relatively new term, explored by André Antibi, which suggested that teachers and lecturers unconsciously assumed three groups of ability within any group — high, medium and low, no matter what the actual ability of the group themselves. This creates an artificial failure of students, carried out by the adjustment of tests to filter to these groups rather than testing knowledge and skills.

Reflect on your own practice; have you ever included trickier questions in a test paper to cater for the higher ability, rather than seeing what knowledge/skills you had taught had been effectively retained? If you have, than the Macabre Constant is a bias you really should be familiar with in a more intimate manner.

Publication Bias

We are largely hungry animals for new information, ideas and practices as teachers, but would be wise to view our diet of literature using the lens of publication bias. There is a certain diet which publishers and course providers feed, and this is based on interest as well as need, thus perpetuating publication bias. Take as an example the term Outstanding. Introduced by OFSTED in 2009 as the highest of its four Inspection categories in England, this word quickly grew in popularity.

Indeed, research into its prevalence in the United Kingdom showed strong growth roughly two years after its introduction, where the use of Outstanding in other English-speaking country searches showed static use. This extended to Publishing houses and Educational suppliers, where using ‘Outstanding’ has almost come to represent ‘this will get you through a successful inspection.” For the sake of disclosure, I should admit to doing this myself.

Cognitive Bias

This is perhaps the most commonly-known types of bias, demonstrated in patterns of illogical judgement, based around an perception of social reality. In reality, it is the brain’s way of using rules of thumb to make decisions and inform our life. In the book Freakonomics for example, it was shown that swimming pools killed more children in the US than handguns. This is at odds with our available information, assumptions (pools are good, guns are bad), and even the lack of statistical data to support this argument available to us. The statement has an impact precisely due to our cognitive biases toward both pools and guns. Cognitive Bias covers a much wider area, taking into account many of the areas covered in this section, but can be seen as the umbrella term for irrationality. It is also notoriously difficult to correct, especially in view of the range of addictions supported by irrational thoughts. One area of exploration in cognitive psychology has had the most success when those with a cognitive bias are held fully accountable for their attributions.

Cognitive bias can be seen within an Education setting in a macro or micro environment — from Education Ministers pushing forward proposals on the basis of their own schooling experiences rather than grounded research, to teachers refusing to use more appropriate means to deliver lessons.

To blame everything on cognitive bias however is to stand by a fire rather than trying to put it out or discover what caused the fire in the first place. It is easy to rally against what could be simply described as human nature, but genuine impact is made when someone stands and says, “so what can we do about it?”

Observer Bias

No overview of bias in education would be complete without examination of the observer bias, and this is included as an important bias to be aware of in our surroundings rather than a politicised rant against observation of teachers or students in the classroom (where, interestingly, one seems legitimate and the other morally wrong).

Although this dovetails with confirmation bias, observer bias technically is better described as the observer-expectancy effect, where the observer directly or indirectly influences those being observed to confirm their own hypotheses, sometimes ignoring adverse information.

A similar bias can be seen in the Hawthorne Effect, where participants behave differently due the very act of being observed. How often do we change when teaching and a visitor walks in? We in effect start delivering the type of teaching we believe they would expect to see. Even aware of this, I have noticed that I tend to ‘liven up’ with another adult in the classroom, speaking louder, clearer and with more enunciation. I am effectively presenting a better me, when of course my students should be getting a better me as a matter of course.

Attribution Bias

This is a common bias within Education, and is essentially a judgement made around someone based our own beliefs or assumptions. Those situations where we are frustrated by someone’s behaviour because we wouldn’t do it that way is a classic example of attribution bias.

These judgements can impede collegiality, damage working relationships and also encourage the silo-like nature of teaching both within a setting and in a wider nature. This bias even threads back to biblical misattribution; “treat others as you would like to be treated,” should logically read, “treat others as they would like to be treated.”

Before doom and gloom sets in, there is hope! It has been found that attributional retraining can have a positive academic impact among students, especially where there is a recognition that internal factors have more effect than external factors (or excuses). Put simply, this correlates well with the recent growth in interest surrounding Mindset, and acknowledges that taking responsibility for self-influence rather than investing in a blame culture creates a more sustainable student outlook.

There is an awful lot to contend with when considering all the bias we may experience, or even demonstrate ourselves through our teaching. Some teachers are more aware of these habits than others, but awareness that they even exist is important.

Consider for the moment the last three important decisions you made. What or who had a bias on those decisions; were they genuinely down to free will or independent thought, or were you influenced by other means?

This is an extract from the book“Thinking about Thinking: Learning Habits Explored,” by Stephen Lockyer, published in October 2015.

Stephen Lockyer

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