As TEFL teachers, we want to make sure our classrooms are welcoming places for all and where no one feels excluded. We want our learners to thrive and succeed. But are we subconsciously holding them back with our own bias in how we teach?
Most of us probably think we are fair and unbiased when it comes to treating our learners equally. But how many of us have a subconscious bias towards certain learners? How can we ensure that we overcome any bias and treat all our students with the level of equality they deserve and expect? This blog, based on material from the Professional TESOL 250-hour Level 5 course, provides case studies and tips on how to overcome our natural and subconscious biases.
Let’s look at some examples, and as we do, know that the author is also taking a good look at in the mirror at his own teaching practice!
You set a piece of writing to be done in class or for homework. Each student puts their name on the top and you collect them in, taking them home or to the staff room to mark. Great, you have just opened the door for your TEFL bias to walk in.
When you read the pieces of work, next to the name, do you automatically say to yourself…
“Ah, here is Marco’s work. He’s a good student. This should be good.”
“Now for Lucy’s. I wonder if she is still making mistakes with the present perfect? Let’s look. Yep, right there, she still doesn’t understand it! Sigh.”
You have just let your past experience colour your opinion of what you are about to mark, and that’s showing bias.
There is a clear temptation for all of us to view students’ work in a positive or negative light before we mark it. This is because we associate their current submission with what we know of them, based on prior work they have done. We are looking for proof or corroboration that our previous experience is true, which is a type of confirmation bias.
Does this ring any bells with you? Well, the good news is that it’s easy to overcome. Here’s how…
When you ask students to identify their compositions, have them do so in a way that doesn’t tell you who has written it. If you can be disciplined about it, simply have them write their name on the reverse of the script. Then don’t look at it until you have finished marking. However, if you really don’t want to tempt your bias back in, follow these steps. Firstly, have each student take a number. Record which number corresponds with each student, but keep that separate. Have them write their number on the piece of work instead. Then you will be able to mark all work equally and avoid any risk of bias.
OK, so we all want our classes to go well with plenty of speaking and learner engagement. We don’t like silent gaps, which we feel compounded to fill. But, after students have been discussing things in their groups when you bring the class back into the plenary session and prepare to ask questions to draw out what each group did, who do you ask first?
You don’t want a long awkward silence while a student tries to form an answer. Others fidget and someone else tried to jump in.
Quite often the temptation is to look around the room and choose one of the better students. You might choose Marco again to answer the first question. But if you do this consistently, then over time, this has the opportunity to lead to preferential bias. Let me explain how.
By asking Marco to answer the first question, which he will probably get right, you are demonstrating to the others that you think he is more capable of answering it than they are. He becomes a better student than them, in their eyes. This confirms to the rest of the class that you think he is more able than they are. The temptation then is for other class members to then feel inferior. Possibly also for Marco to feel superior to the others.
In their eyes, you favour Marco because you think he will get the answer right. Further, they may think that you prefer Marco to them! Hence your simple act of asking the first question to Marco might lead to preferential bias. Over time, this could lead to poorer learner performance across the entire class.
As you can see, this form of bias is also quite subtle, yet even experienced teachers are susceptible. The way to overcome it is to plan your questions, and who you will get to answer them. Perhaps start with an easier question which someone who isn’t quite so able would likely get correct. So instead of Marco, choose Lucy, and set the question at a level she can answer. This will help to affirm her in the eyes of the class.
If you can grade the question you ask to the likely ability of the learner, this will avoid falling into the trap of preferential bias.
Our intention in highlighting these examples is not about making you feel guilty.
It is really about creating awareness. Certainly, for me, it was a bit of an ‘aha’ moment when I recognised these behaviours in my teaching and realised the potential negative impact on my learners.
Once we accept we can be biased, then we can take steps to modify our behaviour to ensure we empower our learners and help them understand their unique value and place in our classroom.
By being aware and making small practical changes, we can be advocates for inclusion and help our learners develop in a fair and equal learning space.
Where next? We delve more into this topic, and on ethics in general, in our Professional Level 5 TESOL course.
Sign up for our newsletter on this page for more on inclusion, individual learning plans, advanced intelligence, professional development and advanced class management in TESOL.
There are currently no user comments for this article. Why not be the first? Simply complete the form below to add your comment to our site.
Which TEFL course is best for me? Read our handy guide now.
Employers - have you got a position to advertise on our website and through our fortnightly newsletter? Click here.
"For the past two years I have worked here in Tuscany teaching all levels. I have already recommended your courses to one of my prospective teachers..."
— Alison Salmon, English World, Italy