Category Archives: Research

Colour-blindness, cats and cucumbers, and cycling

Image result for Unconscious bias
From Margie Warell

Why is my curriculum white vs. why, is my curriculum white?

I was telling a friend of mine about the BAMEed Network and was surprised by her reaction when we started talking about a podcast I had listened to called ‘Why is my curriculum white?’ She suddenly sounded really annoyed as she said, “you know, we don’t need this pitying, dumbing down of the world on our behalf, thank you. Of course the curriculum is white, this is England. I don’t mind adding a black or Asian philosopher into the mix but it’s not representative and it is artificial if there’s more than one or two isn’t it?”

I wasn’t sure how to react. She said, “All you are doing with this BAME thing is segregating and categorising people – I don’t want to be seen as a brown woman when I walk into a room or representing brown people or women when I am on the school governing body. I just want to be me”. I love my friend, we often holiday together as families, we feel so at home together but we are completely opposed in terms of politics and many aspects of our world views. But we can talk about things and trust each other completely. We also don’t try and change each other’s minds about things. We find the middle ground. Still, I said to her, “colour-blindness, that’s not actually real you know?” She was resolute. It would be for her.

Test yourself if you dare

It gave me pause for thought though. I am not trying to segregate the world, I am trying hard to be aware of my unconscious bias. I start from the standpoint that we are so culturally socialised by certain viewpoints that it is unrealistic to pretend to be colour-blind or neutral. I have been challenging myself recently by trying out some of the Harvard University unconscious bias tests available online. If you are brave you will give them a go too. It makes me squirm but it reminds me that this difficulty exists and the key is to be aware and to not deny or enact the consequence of your initial unconscious bias.

My husband and I keep comparing our results with great curiosity and some mirth. We are such opposites in some ways too. His experience starts as an Israeli-Iraqi Jew brought up in Jerusalem, where he is seen as mixed race and a second class citizen alongside the Ashkenazic, European Jews. He is an immigrant to this country since the early 2000s and that makes him feel an affinity with certain populations more than others. He sees how ethnic minority students, and staff members, are treated differently in his workplace, a university setting, and it makes him incredibly frustrated. Having spent over a decade living in Israel myself, being constantly reminded that I am a foreigner, I know how he feels to some extent. Back in England now, in my relative position of white privilege, but still sometimes finding it hard to assimilate back in, my experience sometimes feels so extreme that it feels disingenuous to do anything but recognise that the way we see the world and are seen by it differs depending on many factors.

Three popular internet things that make you wonder

Every day, things I see online make me think more about this. Three very different ones have made me think. The first is the story of a five year old white American boy who wanted to get his hair shaved short like his black American best friend so that their teacher “wouldn’t be able to tell them apart”. This is a stark reminder of the fact that we don’t seem to be born looking for differences and aware of skin colour that much. It is culturally constructed over time and is a part of our education. You can’t culturally un-construct it just by declaring yourself colour blind. All culturally constructed notions are deeply engrained.

Secondly, the news interview where a white man is speaking to the camera and in marches his small daughter, shortly followed by his other child in a baby walker. They are pursued by a woman who rushes in on all fours grabs them both and hustles them out of the room, returning briefly, still on her knees to shut the door. The assumption online was that this was his wife. Others speculated that it could be the childminder. There was backlash against presumed racially charged assumptions that the woman was a childminder and not the children’s mother and the white man’s wife – she was Korean. She was his wife.

Thirdly, isn’t it human, – and animal – ancient, learned behaviour to break the world up into categories of like me, not like me, threat and non-threat. You only have to see what happens to a cat when someone puts a cucumber behind it. Why would a domestic cat that has never seen a snake, have it so engrained in their ancient cat-bias, so as to be afraid of a vegetable that has only a vaguely snake-like appearance, is completely inanimate but seems to have sneaked up on them? Could this be true also for us human folk? Does it go that far back?

Cycling and gender-biased aggression

On a personal note, as a cyclist in London, I am now clocking up 45 minutes each way on my commute to and from work. I have always been bothered by the amount of abuse I get, although my cycling style is pretty mellow and non-confrontational. I have cycled for years and a while back now, I complained to my husband that as a woman, I get called all sorts of vile names and people can be unduly aggressive towards me. He said he never got any abuse and put it down to the fact that I can be bloody-minded and belligerent with my opinions so I am probably the same on the roads. One evening, we went out together locally and I suggested we cycle there together. On the way, I asked him if he would be willing to do an experiment with me, and to cycle some distance behind me and watch what happened. Sure enough, he was shocked by the different treatment I got compared to what he has been accustomed to. I had the usual array of cars beeping, or deliberately overtaking dangerously close and shouting as they passed, making me jump. There was also unwanted interaction with swearing pedestrians, heads down in their phones while they were weaving between the cars pausing for a moment in traffic, and from other (male) cyclists even.

Due to the air quality of central London, I have taken to wearing a pollution filter mask while cycling in recent months. It has been quite cold so with the mask, gloves, helmet and all my waterproof gear on, you can’t tell if I am a woman or a man or even what colour I am. It’s amazing. It’s as if I have been granted a completely new status. No-one bothers me at all. Bingo.  I can see why it would be amazing to reach a place where we don’t automatically treat people in certain ways based on deep seated and learned bias.

Dare you consider, how might unconscious bias affect your relationships at school?

Let’s assume then that unconscious bias does exist. How might this affect your relationship with your students and other staff members? Here are some all-you-can-eat, food for thought observations I have heard played back to me by school staff I have spoken to:

Have you noticed that BAME staff members tend to be in charge of certain subjects and the further up the hierarchy you go, the whiter it gets? Any BAME senior leaders that do make it in schools tend to be in charge of discipline or PE. What’s that about?

Why is it, in some schools, that the majority of kids that are in detention at the end of the day are black? Why do teachers of all races treat black children’s misdemeanours differently?

Why is it that schools which serve predominantly BAME areas, in parts of London for example, often deploy a military style discipline regime and refer to this as being appropriate for “these kinds” of students? The claim is that they are entrenching bias towards certain groups being subordinate to the ruling middle classes rather than promoting a socially mobile, lifelong learner expectation for children of ethnic minority backgrounds.

What about the teachers who are surprised when their Chinese heritage students educated in this country are not maths whizzes, when the black kid can’t run and their white working class boys love to read?

What of the Asian British pupil who wrote that he lived in a terrorist (terraced) house, and then ended up facing an investigation by police?

Why is it that more ethnic minority people get university degrees than white people in Britain and yet in the workplace they will be still more likely to be unemployed and paid less?

What about assessment, what elements of that is geared towards certain socio-economic and ethnic biases? What about the recent Year 6 SATs test and the dodo question for example?

Can you join me in learning more?

Please ask yourself these questions, try the Harvard online tests and let’s start to discuss what this makes us feel, what we could do differently and where the issues might lie. We will be holding a BAMEed Network conference on all aspects of unconscious bias on June 3rd. If you have ideas for what other issues should be covered, let us know and make sure you are there on the day!

What I learned from my learning styles research project back in the day 

learning
Photo by Penny Rabiger

 

In 2000, I was in my 5th year as a teacher, working in a high school in Jerusalem. I was also working towards my Masters in Education through the University of Leeds, which weirdly happened to have a department above a Toyota showroom in the industrial quarter of the city.

As part of the course, we were encouraged to carry out action research, which I absolutely loved. It was the perfect way to marry academic enquiry and actual practice and it was a great way to challenge my own thinking around what works by taking an interest in evidence-informed practice. In vogue at the time was the now much-maligned “learning styles”. Working in such a diverse school, I found it fascinating how I would reach each and every student in my classes and set about reading everything I could about de Bono’s thinking hats, multiple intelligence, learning styles and more.

My learning styles action research project

For my final research project, I decided to undertake a two-term study with one of my groups of students, examining the effect of learning styles on the class. Having studied anthropology for my BA, I knew this shouldn’t be structured as some kind of scientific laboratory project and I wanted to make sure that my ‘subjects’ were fully involved so that they could give me valuable insights into their very subjective and personal experiences as we went along. I began by explaining to my students with great excitement what I had been reading, and what I planned to do with them over the course of the rest of the academic year. They were interested. Not least because they hadn’t had such an interaction with a teacher before and it made them curious.

I set about testing each student in the class to see what their dominant learning style was and I did a test to see what my most comfortable teaching style was. Once we had all completed the test, we discussed what we thought this meant for each of us. It was so interesting to see best friends in the class suddenly realising that they were not the “same” in their favoured style of taking in and processing information and that they may need to part ways during lessons if they were to make real progress. I then went about the massive task of writing my lesson plans and homework assignments so that each and every child’s favoured style was catered for. Amazingly, I then taught an entire class of 27 kids, with each using their preferred learning style as identified by the test.

I distinctly remember stepping back one afternoon to proudly behold my bold creation as some students were huddled in a small group, one was pacing the room, a couple had headphones on and were lying on mats on the floor and one lone student, who learned best through traditional face-the-front teacher-talk had me and her working one opposite the other.

 What actually happened was encouraging

Some amazing things started to happen. Firstly, I had been nervous about this experiment as the class was not easy to manage at the best of times. There was a small core of boys who misbehaved and some disengaged girls who were really struggling and therefore would switch off or egg the boys on to muck about and provide some distraction. But suddenly, there was a buzz of purposeful activity, the kids were arriving on time and getting stuck in, eager to receive their very personalised instructions for the lesson.

Secondly, they were all doing their homework and handing it in. Again, the personalised nature of the tasks and their knowledge of “what works for me” meant that they were now getting organised at home and trying out their newfound learning style preference without the intervention of the teacher. They were starting to take ownership.

Thirdly, their grades were improving. And the most stunning thing was that as their form tutor, I was being informed that their grades were improving across the board as was their engagement and behaviour in other classes.

I also learned that arranging every lesson in such a detailed, multi-faceted and involved way would kill me if I had to do it for every lesson and for every child. I taught English full time to Year 7 through to Year 10. This would not be realistic or sustainable.

What I learned about learning

We did a lot of talking about learning. Since these students were also my form tutor class, I had an hour a week to do what I wanted with them and we explored issues around learning a lot in discussions. I also carried out an in-depth interview with each child and recorded the interviews as part of my research evidence. I was delighted that each child seemed so much more engaged and motivated by learning and not just in my lessons, but across the board. I wanted to know why this was and asked the class what they thought were the reasons.

Reason 1: Enthusiasm
My own tangible excitement and enthusiasm for the project was contagious. The children were swept along. It also meant I had massive energy to prepare intricate and individualised lesson materials, which the children appreciated. My own conviction that this was going to work, probably made me completely focused on the elements of it that were working, and made me less anxious about any behaviour or other issues that might have escalated if I had paid any attention to them!

Reason 2: Trust
My attitude towards the students was completely trusting. I was ready to let them have some freedom and I trusted them to behave well and respect the experiment we were undertaking together. We had taken the time to talk through the evidence behind the reason for this experiment in the first place, I had trusted them to be equal partners in the process and they trusted me to be responsible and responsive to their needs. Compared with the sometimes very didactic and controlled learning experience these students were having in other classes, this was very enticing.

Reason 3: Metacognition
Recently, a study of 1,850 pupils in 30 primary schools, commissioned by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), tested a programme intended to develop pupils’ ability to think about their learning, assess their progress and set and monitor goals. In my opinion, this is the single most valuable thing about learning styles. Learning styles themselves are about as useful as knowing your horoscope and then trying to arrange the world around it. But the simple act of engaging deeply and meaningfully with yourself as a learner is absolutely vital to learning. In my in-depth interviews with the students, each of them had gone through a deep realisation that they were the masters of their own destiny as far as learning was concerned. And not in the usual blamey “it’s up to you so pull yourself together” kind of way.

It is the learning and not necessarily the style that matters

My students had been given an opportunity to think about the reasons why they found certain things interesting and other things difficult and had been pushed to think of ways to make things work better for themselves. The language had changed from “the teacher doesn’t teach in an interesting way” or “the subject is boring” or “I am not good at x” to thinking about what they needed to learn and how they could ensure that this learning stuck, allowing them to engage, encouraging greater depth and progress. One student found taking notes while listening virtually impossible. She opted instead to record the lessons and then make notes later at home when she was under less pressure. It freed her up to engage in discussion, ask questions and be fully present in lessons, knowing she had the rest recorded to refer back to. Another student found the skill of asking for further explanation, after years of pretending he knew what was going on because he was too embarrassed to appear slow. We had created a culture whereby there was no standard one-size fits all learner and different needs were acceptable. A huge part of real learning is ownership. It is thinking about thinking and knowing about knowing. It is knowing about yourself as a learner and owning that.

Even though it might be hugely embarrassing now to admit that I ever dabbled in the dark arts of learning styles, I am really grateful that I did. In a roundabout way, I discovered what I only learned a decade later to be called metacognition. It also reinforced my own belief that teaching is about relationships and that includes not only the students’ relationship to their teacher and each other in the class, but their own relationship with themselves as learners.