Why I Love Biases

Brain Based Learning

There are thousands of articles posted online for just one purpose. They want you to have fewer biases. However, you likely ignored those. This month, you will widen your understanding of biases and move forward in life instead of feeling “less than.”

PRIOR KNOWLEDGE:

Let’s begin with a simple statement-question. Linda is 31 years old, single, bright, and very outspoken. She majored in philosophy. In college, she was deeply concerned with discrimination and social justice issues. Which is more probable? Is it a) Linda is a bank teller, or b) Linda is a bank teller and is active in women’s rights? Stay with this next segment; the answer to this question is at the end of this newsletter.

What is a bias?

A bias is a preconceived inclination of the mind or heart. A bias can go either way; it can be favorable or unfavorable. It influences choices. In other words, biases can be a good thing, neutral, or a terrible thing. There are over 188 labeled and documented biases.

Next, why do we have biases? To survive in today’s world, your brain must navigate and solve multiple issues, take on formidable barriers, and do it under time limits with internal, social, or leadership pressure. A bias takes you from a thought to a conclusion in a split second. That’s a great strategy when chased by a hungry predator a millennium ago. However, today, we need better quality thinking when people’s lives are at stake.

What types of factors increase biases? There are four (4) major bias generators:

  1. too much information coming at us daily with too little processing time
  2. lack of context, clear meaning, and coherence
  3. social influences from family, peers, and media
  4. the need for quick decisions with an overloaded error-bound memory

What’s an example of negative bias? A very common one is the blind spot bias. This is the inability to notice and reveal your own weaknesses because you feel you would already know about them (Pronin, Lin, & Ross, 2002). Any time you catch yourself denying that you have a bias, pause. That defense just might be your worst bias of all.

What’s an example of a positive bias? You might favor one type of teaching, learning, or memory tool over all others. But if your choice is one the most reliable, highest impact, and inclusive, it’s an excellent bias to have. My early career focused on accelerated learning. My bias was/is that kids can all become much more competent, savvy, and confident learners. It might not be true, but I choose to stay with that bias.

What are examples of bias at school?

When students are different from the teacher, the risk for bias increases. Different may mean skin color, ethnicity, religion, or physical attributes. As you might guess, a common bias is the “stereotype bias.” Teachers are more likely to perceive that their class is too difficult for students of color compared to white students (Cherng, 2017). As a result, they dumb it down, and then students get bored with easy material. Finally, students end up with lower scores from an easy curriculum. That’s a problem.

Bandwagon bias: We join what many others are doing. (“Ten other schools are doing this in our state; let’s do it!”)

Confirmation bias: This is the tendency to see anything that confirms what you already believe in. (“Yes! This example confirms exactly what I was saying earlier.”)

Familiarity bias: If you have already heard of an idea before, it is easier to choose or dismiss it quickly.

Stereotype bias: This is judging others by the gender, social, or ethnic group they are in (“That kid’s like the rest of those ________________. Not a drop of motivation.”)

How do I recognize a negative bias?

Our brain is often guilty of the following: 1) generalizations, 2) a ‘lack of time’ bias, 3) fatigue bias, “I’m too tired to do the work to get better. I’d rather conserve energy.”

You might hear comments like these at school:

“Yeah, nobody will get those kids to grade level.” “It’s pretty much impossible to discipline those kids with all their issues at home.” “It’s all changed; the kids don’t come from around here. The parents don’t believe in their kids. None of them even care about graduating.”

Practical Applications

We all have biases; there are countless types of them. Biases usually happen because of a perceived lack of time. This is more about your awareness. Nobody is trying to ‘fix you’. We are all broken in one way or another. The core message is that, first, all biases are not bad. And second, our biases can be shifted. Shifting biases shows maturity, caring about doing the right thing, and taking a personal path to thrive. High school students need teachers to have higher expectations about their future success. Once that happens, they are far more likely to graduate from college. Here is the two-step process.

Part 1: The first step is a 30-day goal to raise awareness. Remember, we are all biased, just in different ways. Notice biases shared by others on TV, on the Internet, or in conversations. Notice your own biases. By tracking your biases, you will notice them more easily and raise your awareness. Mark on a calendar or notepad when you notice a bias. Each time you catch a bias, make a mark. More marks are better. Tally up your weekly total and share it with the team.

Part 2: Next step is for day 31-60, shifting biases to a positive action. You can do this in many ways. 1) Recognize your stereotypic response and replace it with a better, fresh response. 2) Briefly adopt the perspective of another; try it out; maybe it fits you, too. 3) Contact the person you had the stereotypical response with and learn a new perspective. 4) Retrieve counterexamples from different sources or experiences to learn from. Once you have started this process, here’s what you can do in your class.

Notice that Part 2 (above) can only work if your new habit includes noticing, shifting, and rewarding yourself for gaining awareness of biases.

3 Ways Your Upbeat Biases Can Help Student Success

  • Role model high expectations. Raise the bar on your own life (new habits, new roles, expertise started). Share your weekly ups, downs, and successes w/ your kids. They will cheer for you!
  • Be explicit. Say to your students, “Yes, you can absolutely become anyone or do anything you want in life. I believe in you 100%.” Hope is critical.
  • Engage more challenging coursework with a) grade level or above curriculum and b) college-prep programs that support higher expectations.

How to Maintain Positive Biases

It is simple: add hope to the process. Hope is positive expectancy. It improves brain chemicals and increases mood and persistence, boosting results (Wexler, 2020). Hope studies predict increases in adolescent well-being (Murphy, 2023). Even if you do everything else right, if the student doesn’t think you believe in him/her, you’ll lose ground. Most of our kids have had enough negatives. They need real hope; be the one who shows it.

Benefits of Positive Biases

Shifting to a positive bias makes your job more fun; you’ll enjoy work more. Students appreciate getting hope built and encouragement from you. The school culture begins to take on a more positive feel; everyone loves it more. Over the long haul, student scores go up, and attendance and graduation increase.

READY FOR RESULTS? That’s it for this month; it’s closing time. Now for my biggest fear. Maybe you still use the ‘time bias.’ Many will read this newsletter and then respond, “I’m just too busy; I’ve got no time for those changes to help me and my students soar like eagles.” If you feel that way, I am sorry; I have failed you. Biases are shortcuts to save time. Now, take time to research other perspectives.

You see, life goes by so fast that many would say, “Live in the moment, smell the roses, life is short.” And they’re right. Life is about savoring the smell of the flowers, eating a great meal, and enjoying hugs from friends and family.

But most everything in life worth having over a lifetime also requires the ‘the long game.’ At school, it includes building relationships and fostering cognitive capacity. At home, the list includes maintaining relationships, appreciating the daily blessings, and saving for retirement. Choose right now; what have you decided on – long or short? Then begin, right now…

Eric Jensen
CEO, Jensen Learning
Brain-Based Education

Eric Jensen is a former teacher with a real love of learning. He grew up in San Diego and attended public schools. While his academic background is in English and human development, he has a real love of educational neuroscience. For over 20 years, he has been connecting the research with practical classroom applications.