A Shrewdness of Apes

An Okie teacher banished to the Midwest. "Education is not the filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire."-- William Butler Yeats

Friday, March 16, 2007

Teacher tricks number 2: Bias: like a liver, everyone's got one

I got the nicest complement from several of my students today. They said that they thought I was the least-biased teacher in the social studies department.

I was honestly touched. They're wrong of course, but I still was touched. Bear with me, now, while I explain.

A few weeks ago, I was called into another class where a discussion was going on regarding teacher bias. The sub in the class was a retired colleague of mine who adores stirring things up. He excels at classes that are dependent upon discussion, and then he probes and challenges students' assumptions and knee-jerk reactions. They may get heated up at first, but later they realize that they have been forced to actually consider their positions. It's an ancient teaching technique-- I believe a fellow named Socrates (pronounced "Sock-rat-ees," NOT "Sow-krayts," if you please) was a master at it back in the day, REALLY "Old-School." Of course, this teaching method did not end happily for him, which is why I personally do not believe it to be a wise way to conduct one's business, but to each his or her own, I always say. At least the students in the class couldn't get their hands on any hemlock anytime soon, so I guess my friend is safe, at least for the time being.

Anyway, the kids in that class asked if teachers should be biased. I answered that that was not the correct question. The correct question should be, "Should teachers force their biases upon their students?" And my answer is "Absolutely NOT."

Here's the thing: back at the turn of the century, many historians believed they could write objective history and strip all agendas or biases from their work. Just the facts, Ma'am. The Sergeant Joe Friday school of historicism.

One of my young colleagues walked by, and they asked him the same thing. "Teachers should not reveal their biases in the classroom," he opined (see?). "I keep my opinions to myself when I teach."

Those Progressive historians (and my young friend) were kidding themselves. Everyone is biased. One's biases and preferences inform a thousand small decisions one makes every day. There is no such thing as a non-biased person. I am sure MYF doesn't realize it-- because he honestly believes that he doesn't opine while in front of a class full of semi-eager young minds.

But he does.

The KEY is to recognize one's own biases, and compensate for them so that one presents a balanced picture to allow one's students to truly examine what they do or do not believe, and evaluate for themselves. I know my biases, and I know my tendencies. I deliberately and continuously labor to compensate for them when I am teaching. It helps that I hold mostly moderate view-- which doesn't mean I don't have opinions (Hahahaha! That's a laugh!), it just means that I decide different issues upon their own merit rather than through slavish adherence to some overarching, externally imposed label. For instance, I am certainly opposed to illegal immigration, but I'm not an advocate of slamming the torch of Lady Liberty across the harbor, either, as long as people follow the law. We all came here from somewhere else, after all. But illegal immigration depresses wages and allows the illegal immigrants to be unable to demand equitable treatment from their employers.

But when we discuss immigration in class, I present both sides of the argument. I don't pretend there isn't an argument, however-- that's ridiculous. The two sides of every story don't need to be sensationalized: just present them, answer any questions the kids have, and get out of the way and let the students think about it for themselves.

So, yes, it is important to me that I never try to present just one side of the story. But it's dishonest not to continually examine yourself, whether liberal, moderate, or conservative, and make sure you are really being "fair and balanced" in the classroom.

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At 3/16/07, 11:21 PM, Blogger 40 said...

This is certainly a challenge when teaching current events. I have found that in presenting both sides and compensating for my own more 'liberal' views, students have assumed I am actually conservative. Pretty funny when you think about it.

But, it's the right thing to do... and students appreciate it in the end. I find that towards the end of the year I end up opening up a bit more, because I feel as though I have presented both sides enough to give equal time. Then the kids just want to know what I think as a human being. By that time students who share a different opinion are more open to mine, because they know I respect their side as well.

At 3/17/07, 8:01 AM, Anonymous millersmith said...

I am biased against murderers. I WILL attempt to force that bias on my children.

Any issue with that?

At 3/17/07, 8:09 AM, Blogger Janet said...

A few times I have said to myself that I would like to grade my students papers without the names on their papers. I know I give the benefit of a doubt sometimes to some and meanwhile I'm harsher on others, unintentionally. It's hard not to get that way though once you know generalities about a person. Just the other day I had an episode like this with a known "liar" in my class. Here he was, finally telling the truth, and I couldn't believe him. I tell the story of the boy who cried wolf a lot.:)

At 3/17/07, 1:18 PM, Anonymous jonathan said...

I am not so sure. Even presenting "both sides" assumes that there are 2, and not more. And it is hard to present well that with which one completely disagrees. I have an advantage: I don't teach social studies. Instead of shielding my biases, I identify them clearly (when they come up directly) so that the kids know where I am coming from, and can count or discount as they please. Again, a math teacher carries less authority when it comes to current events, which makes this easier for me.

In the same vein, I prefer The Economist (strongly and openly aligned with the financial interests of the City of London) to the fake-objective stance of the New York Times or Time magazine.

At 3/17/07, 5:28 PM, Blogger QuakerDave said...

The best compliment a student can pay me when it comes to this is the one I got once on an eveluation form from back in my community college teaching days: "The only problem with Prof. A. is that we can never tell what HE thinks about the issues we discuss."

But if they wanted to go for coffee AFTER class, then man, they would get an earful!

At 3/17/07, 5:29 PM, Blogger QuakerDave said...


Nobody ever accused Prof. A. of being a good typer...

At 3/18/07, 1:38 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

miller: that's another part of my point. All organization, and usually most people, have biases toward order, toward following rules, etc.Once again, you're kidding yourself if your think otherwise.

40 and QD: Most of my colleagues are very loudly conservative. At first, therefore, I was not suee how much of a complement it was, but my students insisted and used examples when I pooh-poohed them at first. Now, if they drive behind my car, they definitely will learn how I feel about certain causes. But my car is not my classroom.

janet, I try not to look at names when I grade, but the handwriting is a dead giveaway....

At 3/18/07, 2:01 PM, Blogger Darren said...

I'm with Jonathan.

When students ask my opinion about something, I give it to them. They know who I am and where I'm coming from and can use that to inform their own judgement. To do otherwise strikes me as dishonest. It's also demonstrates disrespect for the students, by making it appear that you think they don't have the capacity to judge things for themselves.

At 3/18/07, 2:45 PM, Anonymous Rhymes With Right said...

class. I feel it is an imperative, because it serves to keep me honest and them on their toes by being aware of THEIR biases.

I am a white Republican male teaching in a school that is over 80% minority. Many of my students don't know an adult who is openly Republican. Confronted by a teacher who is a member of an organization that is allegedly "racist" and "for rich people" challenges their assumptions. I also use this challenge to assumptions as a way of bringing up the point that disagreements on issues and points of view are not the equivalent of personal attacks and enmity -- because I inform them that I am married to a very partisan Democrat (dinner-time discussions do get rather heated)

But being open about my biases is also very important in two other ways -- it serves to keep me honest and to invite challenges from my students. Having admitted to a bias, I have to make sure that I bring in more than just my point of view to retain credibility -- and my students know that it is acceptable to challenge me as having a bias when I fall short in presenting multiple points of view.

And there is one other thing, too. Most of my students are pretty ignorant about politics. By "confessing" my involvement with one political party, it invites students to ask about political issues they hear about outside of school (or even on ChannelOne). I'll say what I think -- but always follow up with "what do you think". Such conversations have provoked some of the best "throw out the lesson plan" discussions I've ever had in class.

Interestingly enough, one of my former students is organizing a run for school board -- as a Democrat. He tells me that my passion for the political is part of what made him realize that being involved in politics can make a difference. I hope he wins.

At 3/18/07, 3:20 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

I prefer to view it as "attempting to keep them from thinking for themselves" rather than "dishonesty." All their lives they've had people telling them what to think about issues.
You're absolutely right about kids not thinking about politics very much, though, Greg. And that's why they need information and the encouragement to think for themselves.

But as long as you think it's okay for non-Republicans to spout off in the classroom, as well as Republicans, then fine. Sauce for the goose, and all that.

But I will still attempt to provoke thought without indoctrinating outright. Of course, I'll never be able to hide my prejudice for justice, or reason, or honesty, or ethical behavior. But outright espousal of a political party in my classroom? No.

At 3/18/07, 3:50 PM, Anonymous JM said...

"I'll never be able to hide my prejudice for justice, or reason, or honesty, or ethical behavior."

I think you're using both "bias" and "prejudice" much too loosely and somewhat disingenuously.

Do you really think that your belief in justice and honesty is a "prejudice"? Do you honestly believe that your ethics, whatever they are, are simply another bias, no better or worse than any other?
If so, then why do you believe in these things? Because you find them sort of vaguely appealing? Or because you believe that they are capital-T True?

As for "letting" kids think for themselves, you speak as if there were no other influences on them and if you give them just the teeniest push in one direction, it will change the course of their lives.

Everyone - but especially kids and teens - is influenced by the adults they like, whether that adult is you or Oprah Winfrey or Donald Trump. You think Oprah and Donald are afraid of letting their "biases" and "prejudices" show because they don't want to unduly influence young people with their wealth and celebrity? I don't think so.

The well-expressed thoughts and beliefs of every decent, reasonable adult - and I've read enough of your blog to consider you one of that number - are a necessary and welcome corrective to the "values" kids are bombarded with every day of their lives through movies, TV, YouTube, MySpace, etc., etc.

That doesn't mean you have to proselytize. But I don't think it means you have to self-censor constantly, either.

At 3/18/07, 8:59 PM, Blogger QuakerDave said...

... now, my bumper stickers? They're a whole 'nother can of worms...

At 3/18/07, 9:21 PM, Blogger elementaryhistoryteacher said...

I don't see how you can teach about current events, history, etc without a bias coming out....I try to give both sides by posing as devils advocate and asking what if questions. We had a great debate going about the Boston Tea Party and the fact that the tea that was dumped did not belong to the Sons of Liberty. Great post!

At 3/19/07, 11:51 AM, Blogger rightwingprof said...

My policy is the opposite of Darren's. I never reveal my politics in or out of the classroom to current students. Now, at least when I was back at the university, I had a lot of ex-students who came by my office to see me and if they wanted to talk politics, fine (and it worked out well since most of my students were conservatives). And even if I had wanted to, I had too much material to cover to waste time on politics. And I'll freely admit that my stance is easier in some fields than others.

I agree with you for the most part, but I think it's a bit more complex than you have laid out here. It's our job first to teach students the difference between fact and opinion. It's our job second to teach students that all opinions are not equally valid, that is, some can be supported by evidence while others cannot (or one by more or better evidence than the other).

It seems to be more educational to give students all sides to an issue then have them analyze the positions based solely on the evidence, and ignore their feelings or opinions. One of my professors in grad school would feel out our positions on various issues in the field, then put us on debate teams on the opposite side. It was infuriating, but possibly the best intellectual exercise I got in my grad school career.

At 3/21/07, 2:11 AM, Blogger Chanman said...

--"I have found that in presenting both sides and compensating for my own more 'liberal' views, students have assumed I am actually conservative."

Don't worry, Fox News gets that all the time.

At 3/21/07, 9:51 AM, Blogger Ellen K said...

It is difficult to judge such open ended assignments as essays or artwork without some personal bias. That may be on the issue of taste. It may be on the the style of writing. I truly try to avoid this with a rubric to assess grades, but let's face it, for some kids simply getting something on paper is a major accomplishment and for others a walk in the park. I have had parents say I am biased, but I often don't take in the name on an artwork until after I have filled out the rubric, which is the reason I have students put their names on the back of artworks. But there are those who will seek to mitigate their own shortcomings by placing blame on a teacher's bias. I try not to use my political views in class, but I also will not always demure from stating views when asked my opinion. In my world, I think it's my job to offer alternatives but to try to take the high road in terms of speaking them in class.


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