Unconscious Bias

Last year stuff.co.nz released an article about the Unconscious Bias that teachers bring to education.

The new study blames the 'unconscious bias' teachers bring as a major contributing factor to the underachievement of Māori students. It is not a form of deliberate racism, just the normal characteristics of human behaviour that people bring to their life. Homelife, domestic violence and poverty all play a significant role in the achievement of our students, however, and Hattie will support this, the relationship between the teacher and the student is the key to success.

The bottom line is we as people, as teachers, are more likely to engage with others that are like us.

Key messages

  • New Zealand Māori and African Americans occupy similar social spaces in their respective societies. When educational outcomes of Māori and African American children are compared, a strong and consistent pattern of disadvantage emerges.

  • Deeply held and subconscious biases, based on social groupings and in-group favoritism, determine human behaviour and influence relationships between diverse social groups and ethnicities. The paradigm of unconscious bias helps explain patterns of discrimination.

  • Māori children face significant barriers to achievement, which stem from negative stereotypes attached to Māori as a social group. Personal and interpersonal racism – and institutional racism – also work together to perpetuate Māori disadvantage.

  • The “Pygmalion Effect” describes how teachers’ expectations determine, to a large part, students’ educational outcomes. If Māori children are to achieve, teachers must lift their expectations of students and treat all students as having the same potential for achievement.

  • US literature shows that gaps in achievement between individuals and across socio- economic and racial groups open up at a very young age, before children start school. The gaps that emerge at a young age strongly affect adult outcomes.

  • Location and neighbourhood have a huge impact on success later in life. Children who move to low-poverty areas below the age of 13 do much better as adults.

  • African American students who do well at school are picked on by their peers for “acting white”. External forms of repression also come into play. Unconscious bias is a major factor, manifested in insidious discrimination that affects African Americans in every sphere from getting a job to obtaining medical advice.

  • Recognising how unconscious bias influences teachers’ relationships with Māori students is the key to lifting Māori educational achievement. Tools and programmes to address unconscious bias towards Māori should be developed and applied broadly in the full range of education, health and social service sectors. A whole of systems approach is required.

Ben Ward-Smith


Lytton Street School, Feilding

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