Editor’s note: We’re posting two articles today about how learning more about the human brain can help address and overcome implicit bias in the classroom. This article shows how cognitive shortcuts can lead to stereotyping and biased behavior. The second article, “Is Implicit Bias Racist?” dives deeper into the science behind implicit bias and offers try-tomorrow tips.
Human brains create cognitive shortcuts to focus on important matters. Can you imagine how much time it would take to get to ready in the morning if you had to think about every step rather than relying on cognitive shortcuts for efficiency? We also use these shortcuts to respond to new situations. Imagine you are swimming at the beach and a shark touches your leg. Do you spend a lot of time thinking through all of your possible responses, or do you react immediately? Most likely, you react—and quickly—because your brain developed a plan by taking snips of information seen or heard in the past and created a cognitive shortcut.
It is my belief that these shortcuts serve an important purpose, but in the context of anti-bias education, they need to be looked at since they deeply impact our relationships with students, their parents or guardians, our colleagues and ourselves. Take, for example, stereotypes, implicit biases and prejudices. Cognitive shortcuts cause us to make assumptions and stereotype other people, and they can prompt discriminatory or exclusionary behaviors, even without our awareness. However, these fallible cognitive shortcuts can be identified and rerouted. The sooner we learn to identify them, the sooner we can reroute them to be in alignment with social justice values and positive school culture, thus deepening our teaching relationships.
What can you do to recognize and reroute your shortcuts?
Request professional development for your department, co-teachers and/or administration on privilege, bias and prejudice.
This professional development should include conversations about these topics, how they are perceived and how they are addressed. You may even introduce statements such as “That was a shortcut” to be used in reference to yourself and others. Examples of shortcuts in a school setting might be thinking a single parent may not come to volunteer, assuming a girl is going to be a better problem solver than a boy or deciding an administrator may not listen to your new idea. It’s important in all instances to separate conclusions based on experiences with individuals from shortcuts you created about groups.
Understand your own bias, which is essential for effecting change.
Be willing to ask yourself tough questions when faced with an exchange, meeting or situation where prejudices or biases were at play. Did your perceptions influence your reactions? Unchecked, shortcuts can lead to stereotyping and microaggressions. Practicing mindfulness can help you avoid these outcomes.
Recognize that most of us have at least one area of privilege, as perceived by others.
These privileges need to be recognized in ourselves as well as in others. Identifying our privileges will help interrupt this cycle of fallible shortcuts. You might want to keep a “Reflection Journal” to aid you in the process.
Consider that privilege assertion can be unintentional.
Unintentional actions do not mean that the injuries are any less painful when privileges are asserted. However, remembering that assertions may be unintentional (and even outside the knowledge base of the individual) provides a starting point for having conversations around rerouting shortcuts.
Help your students recognize that privileges are afforded and assumed.
Encourage students to recognize the complexities of privilege as they relate to historical injustices, membership in identity groups, structural inequities and so on.
Create a safe classroom.
This is a crucial step. Working actively toward reducing fallible shortcuts does not ensure safe classrooms for all students. There are many other considerations. Is your classroom LGBT-inclusive? Does your curriculum include diverse voices and experiences? Are families honored and invited to be involved?
Learning to reroute shortcuts that inform biases and prejudices requires time, consistent attention and dedication. The benefit of this process is that, once rerouted, cognitive shortcuts can more consistently be representative of the values at the heart of anti-bias education.
Cort is the founder of Jen Cort Educational Consulting, which focuses on student leadership, diversity education and advisory programming.