CMU Professor hopes to inspire teachers to move beyond bias

Aug 10, 2017

Researchers say bias, implicit or explicit, impacts everything we do and studies consistently show it can have a significant impact on the ways teachers run a classroom, especially in grades K-12.


Dr. Wafa Hozien recently received the Michigan Education Award for her work in multicultural education.

Ben: Let’s start maybe by talking about what bias is and bias in teaching looks like.

Wafa: Biases infiltrate how instructors conduct their classroom and thus create opportunities for some and not for others.

Ben: Talk to me about what data we have about this phenomena, about teachers overlooking students who don’t look like them.

Wafa: There is research down by Myra and David Sadker and Karen Zittlemen. Basically they identified specific ways in which specific ways in which implicit and stereotypic ideas about gender governed classroom dynamics.

What they’d done is found that teachers spend up to two thirds of their time talking to male students and are more likely to interrupt girls and allow boys to talk over them. Teachers also tend to acknowledge girls but praise and encourage boys. They spend more time prompting boys to seek deeper answers while rewarding girls for being quiet. When teachers ask questions they direct their gaze towards boys more often, especially when those questions are open ended.

Biases such as these are at the root of why the United States has one of the world's largest gender gaps in terms of math and science performance. Until they viewed their video taped interactions teachers believe that they are being balanced in their exchanges.

Ben:  So they’ve recorded some of these classrooms and teachers will watch this and say ‘oh I am favoring boys’?

Dr. Hozien on the campus of Harvard, where her daughter was recently accepted

Wafa: Yes and it affects them academically. I know I did it when I first was a teacher and I could not believe what I did. It was really eye opening for me. I had a friend come and sit in the back of my classroom  and he said ‘look, this is what you did.’ It was insurmountable statistics in my own classroom in a forty five minute time frame.

Ben: And to be clear what you’re saying is that even… my assumption would be you favor people who are like you as a teacher but you’re saying no you are just reinforcing the biases of the culture itself.

Wafa: Absolutely. And media perpetuates that.

So what I ask teachers to do is understand their biases. So that way they can be an ally and advocate for those kids. It’s so important to give students that voice or as adults for us to challenge our implicit biases and then challenge others in the school building to do the same.

Ben: What has your research looked at how do you study something like this?

Wafa: So what I study is Muslim girlhood adolescent experiences in public schools. What I found is these girls, just like any other adolescent girl that is in public high school or public school wants to be accepted. What I found is teachers, guidance counselors, and even school administrators, so people who are staffing the schools, either have implicit or explicit biases towards these hijabi girls.

For instance one student that I interviewed told me that she was a senior in high school ranked number 8 out of 550 students and her guidance counselor told her not to apply to college. She told her ‘girls who look like you don’t go to college.’

So then her AP chem teachers who had been a retired engineer at Exxon told her that she needed to apply to college and she needed to apply to these college because she had told her AP chemistry teacher about this conversation after school one day and her chemistry teacher told her ‘no you are a very bright child.’ She said had she not had that conversation with that one teacher she would have never applied to college. She got a full ride scholarship to a top ten university. So I’m saying as a researcher and an academic can you imagine what would happen if we had more than one person encouraging these hijabi girls or these african american girls to excel what we would have? We’d have an entire society of smart women.