Intellectual History

Unconscious Bias and The Attainment Gap


Question: What do your race, gender, weight, height, age and educational background all have in common? Answer: As well as being unique to you, these facets are also subject to unconscious bias. That is, the underlying attitudes and stereotypes that you may unconsciously attribute to another person or group which affect how you perceive, understand and engage with them. Also known as implicit biases, these can manifest in the classroom or the workplace in a number of ways. Here are four of the main types of bias you may be likely to encounter or recognise during studies:

Affinity Bias

Where we identify with fellow students who are most similar to ourselves; for example, in hobbies, age or background.

Confirmation Bias

Our tendency to look for information that supports or confirms beliefs and values we already hold

Conformity Bias

This occurs when our views are swayed or influenced by the views of others, perhaps by the most vocal or outgoing person in a group. It can be prevalent in group settings where peer pressure to perform well is high.

The Halo Effect

An example of this is where you, or a teacher, places someone on a pedestal because of something they’ve achieved. If a student is always achieving top grades for example, you may you think they’re more perfect than they are.

In education, unconscious bias places a major part in the attainment gap, an example being between children with white backgrounds and those with black and ethnic minority backgrounds. And when it comes to making university applications, children of working-class families may avoid applying to prestigious institutions, as they’re not from a privileged background.

How Can Unconscious Bias In The Learning Environment Be Addressed?

Be willing to start open conversations on race, background and culture which allow everyone to be open and participate, offering their feelings and without judgement.

Listen to the stories of others and avoid jumping to any conclusions

Remain open minded and curious about differences

Differentiate between a bias and fact

Question whether your assumption is based on reality or an underlying attitude or stereotype

In terms of the attainment gap and its relation to unconscious bias, some studies show that placing pupils into ‘ability’ groups is often done on an inconsistent and subjective basis. This means that disadvantaged pupils are more likely to be allocated to lower attainment groups, after controlling for prior attainment.

If you feel that you are not achieving your potential in your studies, it could be, in part, due to your own unconscious bias or that of your teachers. If you feel your own unconscious bias is keeping you back from achieving your potential, do research and work on this. If you feel it’s in part due to your teacher, make sure that you voice your feelings, in confidence.

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