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Why Unpacking Biases is Critical When Personalizing Learning

Why Unpacking Biases is Critical When Personalizing Learning

Personalized Learning  |  Equity  |  Classrooms

I had a middle school science teacher once tell me she was surprised that I did well on a test because she assumed I was bad at science. She pointed to one of my classmates and said, “Her, I assume she’ll do well, but you’re just not very good at science.” I remember being deeply hurt by that statement but not understanding why it hurt. Years later, I would try and remember that moment when I found myself making assumptions about which students I expected would do well on my tests. Why was I expecting some students to do well but not others? Past academic performance was one part, but I realized I had biases that were also impacting those assumptions. 


Assumption: a thing that is accepted as true or as certain to happen, without proof.

Bias: prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair. A bias is one form of negative assumptions.

Unpacking biases: A personal reflection process, meant to uncover the biases that are impacting how we see and interact with the wider world

Cultural capital: the symbols, ideas, tastes, and preferences that signify value in a culture.

I (and my students) benefited from close colleagues who pushed me on those assumptions. I tried addressing my assumptions on my own, but found myself running in circles. I reached out to a few close friends at work who I trusted to check my assumptions and support my growth. They helped me recognize my unconscious biases and supported me in addressing them. We talked about their own biases; the moments when they recognized them, the habits they developed to address them, and the issues they were still working on.

Bias is a part of being human. Everyone develops biases that shape the way we view the world. I have a regional bias for Pittsburgh which leads me to support the Steelers despite not caring about football at all. But what if that same regional bias led me to assume that students from Pittsburgh were smarter than everyone else? What students would I pass over, ignore, or dismiss? Would there be students from Pittsburgh who would never get the extra support they needed because I assumed it wasn't necessary? What if instead of being based on region, that bias was based on race or gender? How might that bias play out in assumptions about family involvement, students who are loud or quiet in class, the amount of time a student can remain seated and focused, or a student’s use of “standard English”?

When teachers personalize learning, they have a greater opportunity to honor the cultural capital of every student and create the space for individual self-actualization. However, the potential of this opportunity will never be fully realized if educators do not take the time to unpack their biases. We cannot honor our students if we do not address the biases that impact the assumptions we make about their cultures, perspectives, and identities. Teachers who personalize learning must unpack their biases if they are to truly honor all their students.

"Teachers who personalize learning must unpack their biases if they are to truly honor all their students."

Unpacking and addressing our biases is a journey that takes time, support, and work. This journey should shed light on the negative assumptions we unconsciously make and requires us to exist in spaces that are uncomfortable. It is also a journey that many other people have and are taking. We have collected some resources and strategies that can be helpful whether you are just starting this journey or have been deep in this work for years.

Related Resource: Watch the video, Can Personalized Learning Support Educational Equity?


Know Yourself

Unpacking biases is a reflective process. It can be helpful to have a starting point or standard on which to base that reflection. Project Implicit is an organization out of Harvard that developed a series of implicit association tests to help people identify preferences based on factors such as race, religion, and gender. This is one way to begin identifying the biases we carry.

Deeper Dive: Learn more about "Know Yourself" and the other traits of an innovative leader with our Innovative Leadership Development Methodologies


Find Support

Ever since Google’s two-year study on the attributes of successful teams, we have been talking about the importance of psychological safety. This is when “team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other.” Psychological safety is critical when groups work to support one another in unpacking and addressing bias. It can be helpful to have a few trusted associates whom you can talk with during this journey. They can serve as a sounding board and provide you with advice. Most importantly, this should be a group where members can be vulnerable in front of another.


Connect with Students

Personalizing learning for students requires us to know who they are as people. We do this through both academic and non-academic conversations. Natalie Hall is Design Principal at Education Elements who emphasizes that, “When we engage families and truly honor their expertise about their children, we not only build an important relationship, we begin to understand the whole child.” These conversations help us celebrate each student’s uniqueness and foster their self-actualization.


Build Diverse Environments

First and foremost, a diverse teaching staff allows students to see themselves in their teachers. Travis Rodgers is a Strategic Advisor-Directing Diversity and Equity for ETS. He works on diversity and equity in teacher licensure. “The impact of diverse teachers is undeniable: research shows all students, in particular children of color, do better academically, socially, and emotionally when they have a teacher of color.” Rodgers also notes, “that you can’t have a culturally responsive workforce if you don’t have diverse teachers.  While teachers of color are not inherently culturally responsive, anecdotal data and student outcomes suggest these educators are more likely to employ culturally responsive practices. White teachers can benefit from exposure to diverse peers, gain perspectives on their students’ backgrounds, and have culturally responsive behaviors modeled.”

Related Resource: Read our blog post, How Can Personalized Learning Support Educational Equity?

I finished that middle school science class with an A. Towards the end of the school year, that same teacher came to me and said, “I always knew you could do it.” I always looked back on that statement with skepticism. I assumed she was just trying to correct the harm she had done without actually owning up to the offense. It wasn’t until writing this article that it occured to me that it might have been her way of addressing a bias. Maybe this was one of the small actions she was taking to shift an assumption. Addressing a bias rarely involves grand gestures. More often, they are made up of the small actions, reminders, and mental checks that help us change the way we approach the world.

The teachers who leave the greatest lasting impact on their students are the ones who see them for who they are, often before the students even see themselves. These teachers uplift their students by developing their interests, celebrating their uniqueness, and challenging their assumptions about the world and themselves. It is not uncommon to hear a teacher say, “I see a part of myself in you.” Until we unpack our biases, that full impact will only ever be felt by the small segment of students who are lucky to be similar enough to us to be seen.


If you are looking for more inspiration and guidance in personalizing learning for your classrooms, join me in my upcoming webinar, Successfully Personalizing Learning in Secondary Classrooms. See you there!


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About Noah Dougherty - Guest Author

Noah Dougherty is the CEO and Co-Founder of Relevant Learner. He taught secondary ELA and social studies for eight years before becoming an instructional coach and school leader. Noah has written curriculum for public districts, charter organizations, and for-profit companies. He also worked as a consultant, partnering with districts across the country on personalized learning; strategic planning; and diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. Noah grew up in Syracuse, NY and now lives in Washington, DC.

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