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Confirmation bias and the learning experience

One of the things that adults tell themselves frequently, no matter which role we play; teacher or parent, is that we are fair or at least trying to be fair. The fact of the matter is we are human and bias is inbuilt when you are human. It would be the greatest hypocrisy to imagine we are unbiased under all situations. This is true in the teaching-learning paradigm as well. What seems to be wise is to develop the ability to recognise bias; when, where and how it is acted out; to learn about ourselves and see what biases we apply frequently to avoid acting out the bias. This is easier said than done, especially for adults. It involves a lot of unlearning and letting go of systems and comfort zones.

One of the most common biases which comes with age and experience is the notion that we know a young adult when we see them. You have the “classic” behavioral quirks: inattentive, distracted, uninterested and so on. These are “symptoms”. Several young adults may show the same symptoms. The reasons for these symptoms, however, may be quite different. A little backstory about the young adult might help tackle situations and students appropriately. The story (or atleast one version), must come from the students themselves. A story from a previous teacher or a parent will most certainly come loaded with their own biases, conclusions or hyperbole. This could lead to confirmation bias: “I have always held this belief about this student and this behavior/story confirms it”. This leads one into a spiralling pit of further bias and labelling the student. Of course, it is important to remember, a lot of times students form biases about themselves based on what they hear and how they are labeled.

A label, once applied to a student in a classroom, closes the case as far as the adult is concerned. The little things the student does differently are overlooked due to the label. The label sanctifies biases and overlooks small details and achievements. Labels can be dangerous at both ends of the spectrum: from the lazy, inept, troublemaker to the gifted, talented and brilliant. In both cases the adults want to see and look for what they want to see. This is true of students too. In one study a class was divided into two groups. While one group was told that the teacher was rather cold, practical and determined, the other group was told that the teacher was very warm. The “warm” group rated the teacher to be nicer and funnier than the “cold” group.

Confirmation bias makes adults set up hypotheses about young adults. In most cases adults, knowingly or unknowingly, set up situations to confirm these biases. Terry Heick describes the five steps to confirmation bias: forming an opinion, finding data that supports the opinion, working hard to collect more and more data to support the opinion, making it a package that can be sold to non-believers, holding on emotionally to the opinion (because you can never be wrong!), overlook or discredit new data because you were right and you do not want to dismantle your belief system.

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What might help is to recognise that “I can be wrong”. It helps to keep an open mind and reevaluate the evidence at hand from time to time and avoid the Halo Effect. Young adults change fast. For many of them, things fall into place with time, situations, subjects, people around them or growth.

Empathy plays a huge role in the adult-young adult relationship. “When I was your age…” is an oft-repeated sentence heard in homes. What is essential is to recognize that situations, circumstances and challenges are immensely different and perhaps more challenging now. More importantly, every person is different and processes/ responds/ reacts differently.

Cultivating a good relationship in the classroom is absolutely essential. After all, learning is one of those circumstances where the relationship between the teacher and student goes a long way in making the learning experience memorable. We all have had that favourite teacher whose classes we always looked forward to, simply because we liked the teacher. On the flip side, for the teacher, a trick suggested by many is to imagine the disruptor in the classroom for a week as the star-student. 

Systems in place can sometimes hamper the effort to recognise and remove the bias-tinted glasses. For example: slotting students into groups such as high, mid and low achievers. This might be a necessity in a large class population for practical purposes, but it does create a bias in both the students’ and adults’ minds. This was called the Macabre Constant (from La Constante Macabre by Andre Antibi). If at all slotting is done, it is important to recognise and reevaluate biases in the minds of both adults and young adults due to the slots or the time period over which students were put in a particular slot.

In summary, adults impact young minds, both with intention and unintentionally. Our evaluation of progress should be based on hard evidence instead of pre-formed conclusions. There is of course a chance that no new evidence is found and a subconscious label applied to the young adult is confirmed. The question here is: are we giving another chance to the young mind? After all, we, the adults, have been given many.

Resources:

  1. Here is a neat activity that can be done in a classroom or at home to explain confirmation bias to young adults and adults alike.
  2. Teaching confirmation bias using the Beatles

 

Dr. Shankar Ramakrishnan