by Christopher Paslay
It’s negative, hypocritical, and does nothing to open minds and solve problems.
Earlier this week, Texas high school English teacher Melissa Garcia wrote an article for Education Week headlined, “Why Teachers Must Fight Their Own Implicit Biases.” In it she cautions teachers not to judge a book by its cover when dealing with new pupils, which is good advice; as educators, we should be proactive instead of reactive, and remain fully present with our students by staying in the moment without labeling or judging them.
Only Garcia doesn’t use the words don’t judge a book by its cover, or be proactive rather than reactive, or be fully present without labeling or judging. She chooses the phrase implicit bias, which not only carries a negative connotation (I don’t know a single person who is proud of having a so-called “implicit bias”), but is also inherently political and dualistic, and in my experience tends to make teachers defensive, causing them to close their minds rather than open them.
Still, Garcia seems genuinely interested in helping improve education, and goes on to write about the importance of first impressions at the beginning of a new school year. She states:
In these moments, as students mingle and shyly interact with one another, we the teachers begin to make the very crucial observations that will affect our perceptions, and thus inform our expectations, of each student that school year.
Research has shown that before teachers even have a conversation with a student, they have already formulated a number of opinions based on that student’s race, appearance, and other factors—and begun to form a certain set of expectations. . . .
Regardless of how much we may like to think of ourselves as progressive educators, the reality is that our subconscious is at work. . . . These subconscious thoughts and feelings are known as implicit biases. Whether our perceptions are positive or negative, they have an impact; they determine expectations, and these expectations dictate how we teach. Studies show that teacher expectations are closely linked to student achievement and success.
In a nutshell, Garcia isn’t saying anything we haven’t known for decades: teachers make observations about their new students, which lead to expectations that have an impact on student achievement.
What is relatively new, however, is the term “implicit bias,” and the idea that an educator can filter out these so-called negative subconscious prejudices by learning to be more aware of them. Also new are the implicit bias training sessions that are popping up everywhere—from Starbucks to the Philadelphia School District—which are being run by lawyers, CEO’s, and activists with little to no training in clinical counseling or psychology; amazingly, input on the Starbucks training came solely from lawyers, CEO’s, and activists, including former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.
From a clinical standpoint, the new phenomenon known as “implicit bias” is junk science. Especially the notion that the extraordinarily popular Implicit Association Test (IAT) can measure either real bias or predict human behavior with any accuracy.
Last year, New York magazine published a lengthy article debunking the IAT, stating:
A pile of scholarly work, some of it published in top psychology journals and most of it ignored by the media, suggests that the IAT falls far short of the quality-control standards normally expected of psychological instruments. The IAT, this research suggests, is a noisy, unreliable measure that correlates far too weakly with any real-world outcomes to be used to predict individuals’ behavior — even the test’s creators have now admitted as such.
The notion of “implicit bias” is clearly more about politics than it is about counseling. Ask any psychiatrist if you can suddenly become aware of the complex language of your subconscious simply by deciding to notice your “implicit biases” and they will laugh you out of the building; traditionally, analyzing the subconscious is done through psychotherapy, hypnosis, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), among other approaches.
From a clinical standpoint, an educator’s tendency to make a snap judgement of a student is much more related to that teacher’s conditioning, not the complexities of his or her subconscious. The root of conditioning is something called learning. According to B.F. Skinner, Learning is an adaptive function by which our nervous system changes in relation to stimuli in the environment, thus changing our behavioral responses and permitting us to function in our environment. And those of us who have any clinical training (I’m a certified secondary school counselor in PA and my wife is a licensed clinical social worker in three states) know that there are three main types of learning: classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and observational learning.
So it’s conditioning that causes an educator to make a rash judgement of a new student, not technically “subconscious thoughts and feelings,” but I digress.
The point is this: the whole “implicit bias” theory is oversimplified gobbledygook, and although some educators have adopted it with good intentions, the fact remains it’s inherently political. Specifically, it can be used to set policy and control the narrative on race, among other things.
Take the 2012 study by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights that showed Black students were more than three times as likely as their White peers to be suspended or expelled. Why was this the case? Because America’s teachers, which were 84 percent White, were racist. Were there any documented cases of discrimination in the classroom? No, but the teachers were institutionally racist. Or, according to today’s buzz phrase, they had an “implicit bias”; the fact that Black students were three times as poor as their White peers didn’t seem to factor into the equation.
So President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan chastised American teachers for being racist and implemented a bunch of strangling regulations that made it harder to suspend students of certain races (robbing many children of their right to an education in the process), and guess what happened? Nothing; in 2018, Black students are still more than three times as likely as their White peers to be suspended or expelled.
But at least politically, you can absolve certain races of responsibility and blame others.
Which is why the notion of “implicit bias” has to go. It’s negative, hypocritical, and does nothing to open minds and solve problems. If we as teachers want to remain fully present with our students and stay free of judgements, why don’t we keep things simple and say instead: Be proactive, not reactive. And never judge a book by its cover.