“WHERE’S your brain?” a frustrated teacher asked a cheeky student who had asked the same question for the fourth time. Other students laughed at the obvious sarcasm in the question. The child to whom the question was addressed did not react, neither did he think twice about it. Communication loaded with bias is so deeply ingrained in some of our educational institutes, students have not only become desensitised to it, but also talk to each other like that. Many teachers voice their emotional stress without filtering out the negative ring in the message; sometimes the impact is strong enough to stay with the child for life.
Inclusiveness in classrooms is not just about teaching a localised curriculum, with representation of different ethnicities nor is it only about catering to special needs. Inclusiveness is often embedded in the very culture of an institution where kindness towards each other and regard for the other’s cultural and emotional sensitivity teaches students life skills that equip them to become global citizens.
Unfortunately, bias in a society operates at multiple levels in the education sector. From those who usurp another’s rightful seat due to nepotism, to those who can jump the queue for an appointment with the head of department, bias operates with its multiple invisible faces. Most of it may not be intentional — we are all simply part of a system that inculcates a code of behaviour that sweeps us along. So when we hear ‘where’s your brain?’ from those in authority, we learn to shrug it off as part of a system we have learnt to accept. If we can’t beat them join them. Next time we are faced with frustration when dealing with a subordinate, we might be guilty of repeating that exact phrase.
The cycle of bias, lack of inclusivity or lack of kindness — as it wouldn’t be unfair to call it that — starts in the classrooms. The child’s mind is programmed, in the early years, to receive information and respond to it. How they receive information and how they choose to respond to it is determined by those in authority who the child will most often mirror, and this creates a domino effect. Research shows that if the teacher’s care and compassion doesn’t get communicated effectively, students suffer from low motivation and under performance.
Sometimes what it takes to create a star is to treat people like stars.
Most of us are aware of the negative impact of bias, so what does it take to bias-proof our classrooms? As a start, we might want to stop pointing fingers at parents for our students’ mediocre performance. Next, we might want to consider that it is not enough to care — expressing care and affection through words and action is perhaps even more important now as students have had a fair bit of time away from their teachers during the pandemic. To become contributing members of a class, a household, or society, individuals need to feel valued and cared for.
Children come to school with much more baggage than their backpacks. Classroom disruptions and behavioural problems are mere symptoms of that baggage. Understanding the emotions that underlie the disruption may be a good start. Encouraging student motivation isn’t an easy task — it requires sustained effort at recognising ability and potential, maintaining an open and fair learning environment and withholding judgement when students cannot meet the teacher’s expectations.
In the 1960s, a Harvard professor Robert Rosenthal conducted an experiment where he proved that students performed well if teachers expected them to. He tested students’ IQ at the start of the year, and then at the end and told elementary schoolteachers which students were likely to experience high growth in IQ during the year. It wasn’t a coincidence that those randomly selected students performed better at the end of the year.
Implicit bias is a real thing and it affects students at every level as it often operates in subtle ways. For example, teachers tend to make eye contact more often with the more motivated, or eager students, acquire a more positive tone in conversation with them, give them greater responsibility in class and kinder feedback on assessments. Much of it may be unconscious bias, but it is equally damaging as the message relayed to the student may be that the teacher has comparatively lower expectations of them — a belief that they will most likely mirror.
Sometimes what it takes to create a star is to treat people like stars — they often rise to expectations quicker than we can imagine. With belief, care and equitable treatment in class and outside, we can boost our students’ self-motivation. And teachers, with their inherent altruistic tendencies, do have a magic wand with the power to change lives.
The writer is senior manager, professional development, at Oxford University Press Pakistan.