Tips from teachers: How to approach bias in the classroom

Everyone’s biased. It’s just part of being a human with unique experiences and limited knowledge sets, all of which can consciously—or in most cases, unconsciously—shape the way we think. But just because everyone has implicit biases, doesn’t mean we should let them go unchecked.

For students who are learning how to navigate a complicated world, the classroom is a vital place to learn how to recognize and overcome bias. So, we spoke with teachers from all around the country to learn how they approach the topic of bias with their students. Read what we learned below.

Acknowledge that bias exists

It seems simple enough, but you can’t start a conversation about bias without recognizing that it exists. As Corina C., a language teacher from Ohio, says, “We all have implicit biases. Admitting to the fact that you have them isn’t saying you’re a bad human being. It’s saying you are a human being. We need to accept that we have them and learn from them—that’s how we make ourselves better humans.”

While Corina’s statement is true, it can still be difficult for students (and adults) to self-reflect and acknowledge how their biases might shape their actions. To help, language teacher Darlene H. from California encourages her students to reframe their bias as a lens. “A lens is what we see the world through,” she explains. Your lens only allows you to perceive a limited amount—and in order to see and understand more, you need to find ways to expand your lens.

Present multiple sides to every story

To Darlene’s point, the only way to expand your lens on the world is to expand the information you take in. However, you also need to make sure to gather information that represents multiple perspectives. As Brady R., a social studies teacher from Indiana, puts it, “I fear that, as a society, we’re creating echo chambers where people can go and find whatever opinion they want to hear, and only consume that side of an issue.”

That’s why it’s even more important to discuss controversial topics in a classroom setting, where teachers can thoughtfully present multiple sides of an issue. They can point students toward several different sources. And teachers can help student think critically about the information they consume by encouraging them to consider the biases prevalent in each source.

There are multiple ways to do this. English teacher Kate W., for example, has her students study an article’s diction. “We look to see if the author uses words that are more negative or more positive, and then talk about how their word choice reveals their bias.”

When Corina’s students read articles, she has them look up other pieces by the same author. This way, they can get a better understanding of the author’s overall views. And when Darlene’s students bring in an article written in English that relates to their studies, she encourages them to look for the same story in Spanish. “Often, they find the same exact story, but realize it comes across with a completely different tone when it’s written in Spanish.”

Consider how your presence as a teacher impacts the narrative

Every teacher we spoke with acknowledged that they have their own biases. However, they were divided on whether or not to share those biases—or personal views—with their students. Some feel they absolutely have to stay neutral, like South Carolina social studies teacher Jason B. “We discuss controversial topics,” he says. “At the end of the year, I hope my students do not know where I stand on any of my biases, because I just want to present everything in the fairest manner possible.”

On the other hand, some teachers feel sharing their opinions is critical to their job. “My bias has changed through traveling and learning about different cultures,” Darlene says. “If I didn’t feel like I could share the views I’m passionate about, my class would be boring. I would feel afraid to talk about culture, and only be able to talk about Spanish grammar and vocab.”

Whether or not they choose to express their personal views to their students, every single teacher agreed that their job is to give students as many viewpoints as possible—and the resources they need to form their own opinions. As Brady explains, “I always give my students alternative perspectives. My goal isn’t to get them to think what I think. My goal is to teach them how to think critically.”

Be prepared to navigate emotions

One of the most important lessons students can learn is how to have respectful conversations with people whose views differ from their own. But discussing issues that have multiple sides can lead to some pretty heated emotions. To help, teachers like Brady set expectations early on so students know what topics they’ll cover, as well as how they are expected to behave.

Brady says, “I send a letter home to parents and students where I explain that all political, economic, and government viewpoints are welcome in my classroom, but what isn’t welcome is treating other people poorly.”

To make sure everyone feels heard, Darlene tries to make sure that every student gets the chance to speak. This approach also helps students learn from one another. “Often, people get so emotional about issues that they only listen to people who share their same views,” says Darlene. “We need to use the classroom to teach students how to use their voice and listen to people who have a different perspective.”

The teachers remind their students to stay open-minded and treat everyone else’s opinions with respect. “Whenever we’re discussing a difficult topic, I just tell my students to be accepting and empathetic,” says Corina. “I tell them to try to understand where everyone else is coming from.” Elizabeth C., an English teacher from Texas, says, “I tell my students they can have any perspective, as long as their perspective isn’t saying that somebody else’s doesn’t belong.”

And if something is said that’s in any way offensive, the teachers know how to handle the situation. “I preface the class by saying, ‘We’re not going to say anything that offends anyone here,’” says Jason. “But if that does happen, I think it’s the teacher’s responsibility to stop the class and talk about how and why that statement could offend someone.”

Encourage students to seek out ways to expand their understanding

There are so many different ways for students to broaden their perspectives. “The fastest, cheapest way to do it is to read,” says Kate, “and more specifically, to read books written by authors of color, queer authors, female authors—basically anyone who isn’t on your typical high school reading list.”

Elizabeth encourages her students to mix up their routines. “It sounds trite, but it’s important to do things that are outside of your norm. That can be as simple as eating dinner in a different neighborhood or with someone you normally wouldn’t eat with.”

And of course, there’s travel. (Yes, this is our bias, but here at EF we truly believe that traveling is essential to helping students gain new perspectives. And luckily, the teachers we spoke with agreed.)

“You only know what you’ve experienced in life,” Darlene says. “And so many students have never gone outside of the bubble of their own communities.” Traveling allows them to try new things, meet new people, and experience new lifestyles firsthand.

“Travel absolutely diminishes bias,” says Brady. “It’s very, very difficult to hold notions of superiority when you go to other places and actually get to see how people there live. Travel just has a way of bridging divides and bringing people closer together.”

 


Want more on this topic?

We spoke with Emmy Award-winning journalist Soledad O’Brien. To get her thoughts on approaching bias, watch our video or read our cover story in the latest issue of the EF Journal.


 

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Sarah Bennett

Sarah is a copywriter at EF Education First. When she isn’t writing, you can find her browsing through bookshops, trying to cook, or going to improv class (which is basically just an excuse for adults to play make-believe).

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