No such thing as bad publicity? How unconscious bias put the spotlight on a prestigious American educational institution…for all the wrong reasons

University students in a lecture

A law professor of more than 20 years at the prestigious Georgetown University in Washington D.C. received widespread criticism when they were recorded on videoconference discussing the assessment of students in her mediation class. As originally reported in CNN, Professor Sellers said, in a conversation she believed was private with a fellow professor,

“I hate to say this … I end up having this angst every semester that a lot of my lower [performing] ones [students] are Blacks. Happens almost every semester. And it’s like, ‘Oh, come on.’ It’s some really good ones, but there are also usually some that are just plain at the bottom. It drives me crazy.”

We often express our thoughts without as much care when we are having private conversations. Despite this, Sellers’ words unfortunately reveal the challenge educators face in their professional responsibilities to accurately assess student achievements. The nature of unconscious bias is that it can impact our judgments and assessments. Our brains use readily available and recalled information (“lower performing students are Blacks. Happens almost every semester”) and, if left unquestioned and unchecked, can lead to our thinking being entrenched in a biased manner that leads to further inaccurate judgments of students.

The Dean of Georgetown University Law Centre, Bill Treanor, fired Professor Sellers but understood that removing one staff member would not solve the wider issue. In his statement, the Dean set out some further actions needed to address the issues revealed by this incident:

“This is by no means the end of our work to address the many structural issues of racism reflected in this painful incident, including explicit and implicit bias, bystander responsibility, and the need for more comprehensive anti-bias training.”

It can be challenging for professionals in any field to consciously think about how our brains process information or how we form judgments and make decisions. For educators working in diverse classrooms, unconscious knowledge impacts everyday small decisions that can compound into a manifestation of unconscious bias: when a teacher selects which student to answer a question in class, when they hear accents or different manners of speech of students, when they grade students’ work, when they allocate time to respond to queries from students, when they choose to provide extra help or special consideration to some students and not others, how they interpret a female student answering with conviction and directness compared to a female student answering in a more stereotypical nurturing manner…the list goes on. Education professionals need support to better understand what unconscious knowledge is and how it can lead to bias. Quality training also helps educators and administrators better understand this risk of bias and this understanding is the key to mitigating errors in their judgments and assessments of students. Teachers’ must also be willing to question and critically evaluate how they make judgments in every facet of their teaching. This is especially significant where the grading for a course is fairly subjective (often by necessity in subjects where answers are rarely clear cut) and takes into account tasks such as ‘participation’, which can be a bias hotspot. Research indicates that unconscious bias in the area of gender can affect the grades of students even in subjects where grading is less subjective, such as mathematics.

Georgetown University Law Centre (often referred to simply as Georgetown Law), as an institution, has shown commitment to helping diverse students excel at the school. The Law Centre created and launched the Office of Equity and Inclusion (OEI) in 2016 to champion community-wide equity, inclusion, and diversity initiatives. Despite the work and commitment shown, this incident is a reminder of how the work of mitigating the effects of unconscious bias in education is an ongoing and serious task. Policies and frameworks within educational institutions need to translate into actionable risk mitigation strategies to reduce unconscious bias in the thousands of decisions teachers make every day. Strategies such as ensuring diversity in teaching staff, while necessary and commendable (Georgetown Law has 27 full-time minority faculty members out of a total of 192, thus comprising 14% of the faculty), are no insurance policy against the impact of unconscious bias on student outcomes at any institution. Supporting educators in their quest to make better judgments and assessments is necessary—not only from the perspective of maximising student potential, but also from a business risk management perspective.

At Cognicity, we have developed market-leading bespoke unconscious knowledge and bias training for teachers. This training provides specific and actionable mitigation strategies that target bias hotspots relevant to the unique attributes of educational institutions. Please contact us to find out how we can assist your educational organisation to meet your inclusion and performance goals.

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