On Bias: IV. Right Bias?

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Click here to read On Bias: III. Fun With Dialectics

On Bias: IV. Right Bias?

Here’s an idea: let’s eliminate bias!

We’ll all finish breakfast together and head out, everyone trying their very hardest, pitching in with, like, mindfulness and all – and boom, we eliminate bias. Well, except for all the inevitable ripple-effects, what with that ‘cost to everything’ thing and everything that goes with that, but… here’s the thing: we eliminate our bias!

I hear this idea fairly often in Teacher Education: “Eliminate your bias.” Actually, it’s more of a recommendation than an idea, come by honestly, as I see it, from a place to (a) preclude unconscious assumptions, which I gather to be individual, and (b) guard against inherent power structures, which seem bigger than individual, at least as far as their fount if not their flow – which is sort of like saying the heart itself is not quite the circulation that depends on it, or that life is not itself the exactness of living. Basically, the difference between (a) and (b) might be cause-and-effect although, when anyone says “basically,” it’s bound to be an oversimplification, so maybe just forget I said it.

And as I’m about to mention ‘space between’, of course I’ll be speaking metaphorically: for example, the space between teachers and students.

Where the one ends and the next begins …some more than others
Photo Credit: Matheus Bertelli on Pexels

Speaking of metaphorical space… from my own experience, I’ve found where one person ends, as it were, another finds space to begin. In between them is space… sometimes a void or distant divide, or sometimes an inseparable overlapping affinity though, more likely, something less fringe-worthy in between. It is space filled by dialectical influence, by relational back-and-forth, something I’ve elsewhere called a kind of curriculum. And where all this is true for all, even so I suspect it will resonate more with someone who was told at school they were a troublemaker, say, or a top student – at different times, I was told both, so I oughta know.

But as metaphorical space relates to eliminating bias, well… when teachers are told to eliminate bias, or minimize it in their planning and practice, for being superficial the suggestion for me is essentially misleading.

Dusek distinguishes between a generalised teacher bias, “expectations regarding the performance of children who are equivalent on some objective measure,” and what seems to be more individuated teacher expectancy, the “significant effects due to the teacher’s own, self-generated expectations regarding students’ performance” (p. 679). Expectancy, he notes, can beget bias such that a teacher “subjectively [feels that some] students are [less capable than others] of grasping certain material.” Apparently, the difference between teacher bias and teacher expectancy, as in “some objective measure” and “self-generated expectations,” is something like objective-subjective.

When teachers are told to eliminate bias from their planning and practice, the suggestion is superficial and thereby misleading.

Now, one could expound for pages, distinguishing external from internal, collective from solo, or communal from individual, or arguing apparent vs inherent, without vs within, or knowing vs doing, or even exploring remembrance-reaction or learned-instinctual. They all seem nurture-nature in some way or other (which yes, I’ve had to reverse from the more common usage, nature-nurture). I didn’t even bother with hyperlinks because there are just too many options – search for yourself and see, any similar form for any of these pairings.

Instead, I simply note here how I described it (in common order) on the homepage: there’s me and there’s not me. It’s a philosophical difference, definitely epistemological if not also ontological, so take it or leave it but at least please understand it for your own philosophy as well as mine.

As all this pertains to teaching – because I write here most often as a teacher – the difference seems one of perspective, which is probably pretty telling, so educators take note. Where the difference seems one of perspective, with each person left to construe what other people also construe, maybe the most we could expect from a bunch of persons is consensus – seems a shame, then, to demand something instead like conformity.

To those unconscious assumptions that Teacher Ed aims to preclude I relate Dusek’s teacher expectancy – both seem more individuated. But if we’re set on “eliminating bias,” whether that individual is a teacher or anyone else, how exactly do we measure expectations? How do we even identify assumptions that are unconscious? Is there “some objective measure,” maybe some kind of systemic outcome, to help us determine where bias ends and expectancy begins? Because, if there were, bias might almost even seem reliable, maybe have some practical utility – seems a shame, then, to eliminate it, I mean if that were true.

Less formally, I can imagine teachers intentionally mitigating expectancies in order to respect student autonomy – I’m pretty sure I have. Thanks to Dusek, let’s consider an attempt at identifying and mitigating expectancies to be, by extension, an attempt at managing bias, and this much I’ll grant you, Teacher Ed: managing bias. And surely this would affect ensuing outcomes – I’m pretty sure that was my thinking.

“… every ripple, rippling and re-rippling, placid at times though many times not”
Photo Credit: Linus Nylund on Unsplash

Maybe a systemic distinction between bias and expectation could indicate some kind of synthesis… of people, of history, of institutional aims and cultures, and all their back-and-forth influences – every ripple from every pebble tossed, rippling and re-rippling across the gulf, placid at times though many times not. All this is its own continual cause-and-effect-yet-more, in which bias seems as much an unending if curiously dissociated mutual negotiation of each with every other.

Mackenzie – remember Mackenzie? – may have been on to this, too: he finally quells our “deplorable” state of bias as “… not something which should be feared in education… [but rather] the beginning of a process of debate… [ending] either in a discussion of appropriate emphasis, in the accuser coming to see that an allegedly neglected viewpoint has indeed been covered, or in the accused learning something new” (p. 499). Okay, maybe Mackenzie’s still a little polarised, but he’s unquestionably a little more flexible, too: therein the patient, and all. And maybe there really is something to all that ‘mindfulness’ crap, aside from being so popular.

Biased people, biased history, biased institutional aims and cultures… with literally everything to consider, yet being only human, we’re inevitably certain to leave something out on account of that limit, our incapability for anything more: eliminating bias starts chipping away at all we know because bias is essentially what we are. Eliminate bias, eliminate self. So, how to proceed?

For starters, let’s not just openly acknowledge bias, let’s embrace it: the rigor of education, of discourse and sharing and research… if two heads are better than one, imagine the dialectic arising from a dozen, or a hundred. We already know the potential of entire communities. Let’s value the humility of learning precisely because no one can say it all, know it all, or do it all. No less was suggested by Sir Francis himself: we all can do better together, and not just kumbaya – gotta love some bacon. Let’s learn and teach how to reason and how to communicate, and how to be biased.

Let’s learn and teach how to reason and communicate: how to be biased.

And let’s let bias be. If it limits alternatives, bias also clarifies too many. Ambiguity can amplify what we already know and also what we don’t; from there, we proceed. Elsewhere I’ve mentioned my ignorance in a museum: where I knew nothing about the exhibits, plenty others did know, and certainly over time, we all come to know however much. In the meantime, though, I’m partial for my ignorance, and a decision befalls me to take action, to study and learn, or to do something else.

Study is only a potential outcome of education, making education only a potential process of constant renovation, of who we are and what we know. Study is a decision that not everybody makes, I think because it’s humbling. It brings us to realise how much we’ll never know. Some rare few master plenty, but even they have limitations. We do what we can, or anyway, we ought to. But whether or not each of us accepts our own responsibility for our own decisions, come what may, we will still face the outcomes.

For all this, on balance, I’d say bias is a good thing. It changes as we grow, even if ‘change’ just means leaning further the same direction. Given our context – myriad influences, ceaseless decision-making, the whole roiling rippling mess – we’re probably wise to consider bias dynamic: fluctuating, buffering, whispering continually in our ears, always remaining, never quite resembling…

Bias is potent energy, our source of passion, opinion, vision: our perspective. Where a world without bias would be flat and dull and monotonous, lucky for us “eliminating bias” is also mere aspiration. For the world in which we live, bias marshalled by a culture of responsible morality can actually enrich our collective experience.

“…a world without bias would be flat and dull and monotonous,” so if you think this pic is oversaturated, maybe the world has too much bias… or could it be you simply see a world with too much bias?
Photo Credit: analogicus on Pixabay

That’s why, when teachers are told to minimize or eliminate bias from their planning and practice, I take the suggestion as essentially misleading for being superficial. Bias is an always-thing, not something we minimize or eliminate but something we identify and address, and if we’re wise enough, something we incorporate. Bias is not pejorative, it’s descriptive, and even people you admire have it. Everybody has it, which is perhaps most obvious when they say they don’t – that’s a fool’s game to be avoided by responsible teachers.

Worse, teachers who do plan and practise under this spell of rectitude risk falling blind to the costs of their still-biased decisions: believing they have somehow minimized or eliminated their bias, they merely shift its cost from whomever they sought to protect onto somebody different. As I’ve concluded about decisions more generally, a teacher’s so-called ‘best’ decisions would seem to be their most informed decisions. If so, then I think a teacher’s professionalism can oblige no less yet can also demand no more.

For me, there’s no such thing as unbiased – if a single word can be an oxymoron, ‘unbiased’ is it. There is, however, such a thing as multi-biased; in the current lingo, that would be interdisciplinary or holistic, or what I might otherwise simply call responsible, considerate, or even mature, or how about maybe just educated.

Click here to read Common Ground

Author: Scott Robertson

Scott is a Canadian school teacher, a doctoral candidate in Education, an avid gardener, and a football (soccer) coach. He is also a Dad. Scott worked in high school classrooms for 17 years, teaching mostly Secondary English. He describes learning as a continual renovation: intentional self-reflection aimed at personal growth, alongside people who share similar aims. At the core of his lessons is personal responsibility, an approach to living with integrity by adopting the habit of thinking. It's a blend of philosophy, literature, grammar, history, and science, all tied in a bundle by classical rhetoric. His students often described his approach to be unlike others they knew—mostly in a good way—which prepared them for post-secondary school and adulthood, citizenship, and whatever else. Outside the classroom, Scott has been coaching football (soccer) since 1990 and still enjoys playing, too, except when he’s too injured—then he tries to play golf instead.

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