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5 Cognitive Biases that Shape Classroom Interactions – And How to Overcome Them

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View the full episode transcript.

Teachers are tasked with making countless decisions every day, and some of those decisions happen quickly because they are rooted in bias. While bias is everywhere, the impact can be especially negative on students and how they are perceived and treated as learners.

Former high school English teacher Tricia Ebarvia wrote the book “Get Free: Antibias Literacy Instruction for Stronger Readers, Writers, and Thinkers” as a way to help educators and students think about five biases that are pervasive in the classroom. Her hope is that when people can see their own biases, they can see the world more clearly and feel enabled to be develop the skills they need to thrive.

Episode transcript

This is a computer-generated transcript. While our team has reviewed it, there may be errors.


Ki Sung: Welcome to the MindShift Podcast, where we explore the future of learning and how we raise our kids. I’m Ki Sung. Educator Tricia Ebarvia has been at the intersection of English instruction and identity, both for educators and students. She advocates for a more complete way of seeing ourselves, one another and curricula. She’s a co-founder of #DisruptTexts and just published a book titled Get Free Anti-bias Literacy Instruction for Stronger Readers, Writers, and Thinkers. She’s on our podcast today to unpack bias, which is all around us, and to share tips on how teachers can enable students to improve their reading and writing skills. Stay with us.

Ki Sung: Tricia Ebarvia, welcome to MindShift.

Tricia Ebarvia: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Ki Sung: Tricia, you’re a director of diversity, equity and inclusion at a K-8 school. Tricia, you also spent 20 years teaching high school English. Tell us what motivated you to write your book Get Free?

Tricia Ebarvia: Well, the short answer to that is my students, right? I think that my work in the classroom especially, was what motivated me to, write this book for other educators.

Ki Sung: And when you say for your students, what were you seeing?

Tricia Ebarvia: I think about different stages in my own teaching life. I think about the early career teacher who was Tricia in, you know, more than 20 years ago. And I think about the way I showed up in the classroom for my students then, versus how I start to show up in the classroom as I became a more experienced teacher. And so I thought about the ways in which my students have really shaped me. And, you know, even though I may have the title of teacher in the classroom, I mean, I learn just as much, from them every single day. And so when I think about writing this book for my students, I think about all the students that other teachers also have and how they might benefit from having their teachers do some of the work that I suggest and get free, to do the kind of self-reflective anti-bias instructional practices that I think my early career. Tricia, you know, teacher days could have really benefited from. So I think I’m just trying to help students presently in classrooms and in the future, whether they’re in my specific classroom or not, have a different kind of experience.

Ki Sung: You probably get this a lot, Tricia. Whenever we broach the topic of bias, it’s a common response for anyone to get defensive. Can you explain to us, what is bias?

Tricia Ebarvia: Yeah. So bias is something that I would teach in my classroom, actually. And I would sort of define it really from more of a sort of the cognitive science viewpoint, which is to say that we all have biases. They are neither good nor bad. They’re like mental shortcuts that we have. So, you know, when you think about, you know, I’m sitting here right now speaking with you, and there are lots of different stimuli that are coming at me. Right. I can think about the way in which, like, I’m sitting in the seats. I can think about the the air in the room. I can think about the noises down the hallway. All these different things are coming at me at once. And what our brain needs to do is to sort of focus. And we have these biases, these sort of like mental shortcuts that help us to understand what is what we need to focus on in the particular moment. And that’s what our brain likes to do. It takes a shortcut to get there. Now, sometimes these biases can lead us to faulty conclusions, but other times it can also be things that, you know, save our lives, right? I mean, I don’t need to stop and do slow thinking when it comes to seeing like a, you know, like a large animal approaching me. Right? Like that. I know immediately my instinct takes over. But when we think about all the different decisions that educators make at any given time and during the day, I think researchers heads anywhere. I’ve seen everything cited from like a few hundred to even like a thousand decisions in a day. We don’t stop to think about them. You know, we don’t carefully weigh every single one, and we don’t let all the different stimuli, like, affect us. We we, you know, we have to rely on a mental shortcut. And I think that, when we think about bias, we have to think about the ways in which those biases are impacting us and informing our decision making, sometimes in potentially harmful ways.

Ki Sung: And in the first chapter of your book, you outlined five biases that educators in particular are engaging in. Can you describe those?

Tricia Ebarvia: One bias is the curse of knowledge. And this bias basically is that, you know, the more that we we’re sort of coerced by knowledge in the sense that once I learn how to do a specific skill or acquire a specific set of knowledge, we start to sort of lose the ability to appreciate what it is like to learn that skill or acquire that knowledge for the first time. So the example that I gave in the book is that, you know, when I was first teaching, I thought my students were absolutely brilliant and they absolutely were too. I mean, I was the first time I was teaching any of the books that I had taught that first my, you know, back in the early 2000. And every idea that they offered me was I just thought was absolutely brilliant because I had never heard them before. And as many English teachers know, you often, teach the same books over and over and over again. And what happens over the years is that you, as the educator, acquire knowledge. From your students and from your own work. You know, when you read a book, you know however many times and discuss it like five times a day? With students, you realize that in some ways, there’s only so much that can be said about a Booker. But over the years, the ideas that students were sharing in class, their interpretations, it became more rare for these interpretations to be or from my perspective, to seem new, really, because I had sort of heard everything before. And so, this curse of knowledge actually made it sort of in some ways harder for me to appreciate the ways in which my kids were bringing what was, for them, new knowledge and really original knowledge. And instead I was looking at it more from, you know, well, of course they would know that. Right. So that’s one, you know, simple thing, but I think is something that, changes the way that we interact with kids. So one of the things that I did is, I would always find opportunities to read something, new with students to put myself in a learning stance with them. So I wasn’t always relying on all the knowledge I had acquired over years, and sort of unfairly judging them on what they weren’t bringing to a text.

Ki Sung: Tricia, I want to acknowledge for our listeners that recess is obviously in session. Good to hear that you’re a real life educator. Now let’s get back to the second bias you unpack in your book, Nostalgia Bias.

Tricia Ebarvia: If you’ve been a classroom teacher for any number of years, you I’m sure you have heard seasoned teachers in a, department room say things like, well, kids these days or, you know, kids used to be able to do X, Y, or Z. But unfortunately, you know, those that kind of thinking and that kind of, you know, judgment on kids isn’t really isn’t really healthy. It’s based on this idea that kids were somehow better in the past. And I think this can be especially hard or problematic when we think about the ways in which our student population is changing all around the country. If we have sort of these rosy colored glasses about what kids used to be able to do and unfairly start judging the kids in front of us, especially kids who may be coming, you know, if your classroom is become more diverse and you have a view of what kids used to be able to do before and and now you’re looking at kids and you’re thinking, oh, well, you know, they don’t have all the same skills, or now they’re always on their phones, or now they’re doing this and that. You know, that’s a bias that we also need to be aware of. Because the truth is, there are some things about kids that have just always remain the same. My kids are kids at the end of the day. So the nostalgia bias and when I unpack how that can get in our way, another bias that I talk about in the first chapter is the anchoring bias. And the anchoring bias is really interesting. In fact, it’s this bias that, happens when we are anchored to the initial information we receive about something. So the anchoring bias, when I think about it in schools, I think about the beginning of the school year and how at the beginning of the school year, we might be anchored to information about a student or students or groups of students, that then disproportionately affect or inform the way we see those students from as the year goes on. One clear example of this is, you know, like, I used to do this thing where we would go around and share, class list with previous with teachers who had taught this class the year before, and teachers would look at the list and we’d have all sorts of reactions like, oh, watch out for this kid or this student does X, Y, or Z, or this one’s really great, right? They we give feedback of to something that we very we were being helpful to our colleagues. And after, you know, it didn’t take long for me to start to realize that, you know, this information more often than not did more harm than good, because I would start to question in what ways this information, especially if it was negative information, unfairly inform the way I might be treating students or thinking about students. And I think that’s really hard. I think kids, especially at the beginning of the school year, we all deserve a chance to sort of start anew and have second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth chances and to have that kind of feedback, especially if it’s negative, follow kids around and potentially anchor to future teachers experiences of them to that particular like view. I think it’s just unfair.

Ki Sung: Okay, Tricia, you’ve covered three biases. What’s another bias you’ve seen in classrooms that if address can help students learn?

Tricia Ebarvia: Another one of course, is in-group bias, which, you know, again, this this is none of these things are like necessarily groundbreaking. But when you start to think about the ways in which they might just be impacting our relationships with kids, it can be negative. So in-group bias just occurs when we show preference for those who are similar to us. Period. Right. It’s very natural to do like I. Have to admit, like I have a bias or I had a bias for many years in my teaching for kids who were very similar to who I was when I was a student, and so I was very quiet as a student. You know, I would be horrified if if a teacher called on me without, you know, without me raising my hand. So I have, you know, I have a sort of special place when I look in my classroom for the kids who might also be sensitive to that. So you might have favoritism towards or give the benefit of the doubt to kids who are more similar to you. And I think it’s important for teachers to sort of keep track of that range, to do that self-reflective work around, like, what are my identities, what makes me who I am, what are my relationships like with kids in the class is, you know, I might get along with certain kids or I might treat certain students favorably or unfavorably, depending on, I might say that it’s because of their work or the way they’re showing up. But let me actually think for a moment and step back and say, well, is there something else that could be potentially driving this? And one question that I ask in that chapter is, you know, when we think about the kids, maybe that we don’t have as strong of a relationship to, to what extent might that be? Because they are the ones who are also least like us, right? Or kids who are considered quote unquote troublemakers in school. You know, to what extent are those kids who are least like the ideal student in class?

Ki Sung: Tricia, you’ve talked about four biases. Let’s review them real quick. The bias of knowledge, nostalgia bias, the anchoring bias and ingroup bias. What’s the last bias you write about in your book?

Tricia Ebarvia: The last bias that I discussed in chapter one is the just world hypothesis, which I think is one that, you know, the term I don’t think people might. People might not be as familiar with, but it’s basically this idea that, you know, we believe that the world is an inherently just place, that what goes around comes around. Right? Like, if I do this, then I get that if I work hard, then I will get good grades. That’s the sort of very oversimplified equation of the just world hypothesis that you get what you deserve. And I just think about how so much of our school system is built around this idea, like meritocracy, right? This idea that, like you, you get what you deserve. And therefore if you do well, then good things will happen to you. But then the other side of that is that if you’re not doing well, then somehow you deserved that rain. And I think too often we might, ignore or overlook the ways in which people, circumstances and different systems of oppression or unfairness and barriers might actually get in the way. So that bias is something that I, I really try to unpack a bit in the first chapter to have teachers really sort of think about that, because once you know about that bias, you start hearing teachers, you start hearing the assumption of that bias in the conversations we tend to have with kids.

Ki Sung: Knowing these five biases that you unpacked. How does that connect to helping students become stronger readers, writers, and thinkers? Can you make that connection?

Tricia Ebarvia: Sure. So I think the longer that I taught and the longer that I teach, the more I realize that without having a strong anti-bias lens, like it’s really hard to be a critical thinker, right? Because when we think about being a strong reader, writer or thinker, I mean, we think about how we absorb a text, how we read and respond to different texts. And that text can be, you know, the book where the reading in class, it could be a video that we’re watching. It could even be outside of school. And I’m just watching television, or I’m watching the news, or I’m scrolling my social media feeds, and we all have responses and reactions in the moment. And I think it’s important for kids to be able to stop and reflect for a moment and think, okay, where is that response coming from? Like, if I see something and it makes me very upset, if I see something that I profoundly disagree with, I might say, okay, well, this is because I have these values. This is because I have this evidence. This is because x, y, or z. But I think it’s important to take a step back and say, how have I been socialized to have this reaction? Because biases at the end of the day are also things that we’ve been socialized to, embody.

Ki Sung: One thing I hear from anyone pushing for liberation or anti-bias is to reframe the narrative, you know, and the tools you’re talking about for students, sounds like also helps with this reframing of the narrative. That so much of what students are taught are about, you know, the worst things that can happen to people, especially if they’re not white. And I think for teens in particular, you know, who are emotional and developing, there’s this tendency to catastrophize, you know, to kind of dwell on those worst things. And, you know, with this mental health crisis that. Is pretty widespread in this country. You know, and all the media that we consume that has a lot of those worse things. How does thinking beyond the worst thing help students reframe and possibly get a more accurate, hopeful version of themselves?

Tricia Ebarvia: Yeah. Thanks for, raising that. In the book, I talk about, you know, one of the books that I used to teach with my students was, Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson in that book. There’s a wonderful quote where in the very beginning that almost every time I taught it, kids would always tell me that that was one of their favorite passages. And it was really about how we are. We are more than the worst thing that we’ve ever done. Right before I start teaching that book, though, I pose a question to kids and I asked them, you know, to write down like a list of, you know, things that they’re really proud of, things that make them who they are. You know, like the it’s like the resume lists, you know, all the sense of accomplishments and all the things you want people to know about you. And then I also asked them to write about a time that they didn’t show up as their best selves, where they had an argument with a friend. Maybe they lied. Maybe they were mean spirited, like all the worst. Like, think about the worst things, the the worst version of themselves. And we that’s the thing. We all have a worst version of ourselves, right? And they write that down. And so then I, then I ask them like, well, what’s the truth? Like is the list of all the positive things about yourself, the truth? What about the list of all the negative things or your worst version of yourself? Where’s the truth here, right? You know, and I’m speaking just in binaries right here, just for the, you know, the point of the exercise. But both of these lists are true, right? These are all things about us. But together they form a more complete picture. And even then, there’s a lot that’s in between these two things, right? Between the very best and then the catastrophe of who we are. Right. So there’s a whole middle section. Right. And so when we’re doing this writing and we’re thinking about this work and we’re thinking about, how we’re interpreting the things that we’re reading or we’re absorbing the way, the news that we’re seeing, it’s one of those exercises that I do with kids to help them see that there can never really be like, I like that idea of a single story, that we have to constantly seek multiple perspectives to have grace for ourselves. When we think about mental health, I think, you know, developmentally, kids are really trying to figure out who they are, and they think that this one thing is defining for them. And, you know, I think the work that we do as educators is help kids see that no one thing can define who they are, that they are beautiful, messy, complex human beings with so much in between and so many contradictions. And if they can have that kind of grace for themselves, which is so important, that sort of self-love, then I think that we have a better shot of being able to have that grace and that love for other people. If I can think to myself, okay, I’m a messy person and I have contradictions and I say things or do things that sometimes I’m not, I’m not proud of, how can I afford that to the person? How can I afford that kind of grace and flexibility of thinking to the person who’s now sitting across from me? And maybe we disagree on things, but I still see them as a complex person who is worthy of dignity. Right? So that complexity, I think, allows us in that complexity that allows us the grace to see ourselves in more humane ways and to see others the same way, too.

Ki Sung: And who doesn’t want that for students and educators?

Tricia Ebarvia: Right.

Ki Sung: Thank you, Tricia Ebarvia.


Tricia Ebarvia: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me.

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