The Effect of Implicit Biases in the Classroom

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At Stuyvesant, teachers reign supreme in the classroom. From having the freedom to structure the curriculum as they wish to enjoying discretion in grading, most teachers have carté blanche in the ways they want to teach. While this can often be a good thing, as it allows teachers to personalize their classes and cultivates a rich diversity of teaching styles, it can also manifest in negative ways. Many teachers are often guilty of playing favorites and rewarding students they favor with higher grades.

Asking teachers to stop playing favorites, however, gets more complex when implicit biases are taken into account. Certain teachers’ unequal and unconscious treatment of students of different races, genders, religions, or ethnic groups is one of the many elephants in the room at Stuyvesant.

Students in various classes across multiple departments have complained of the existence of a “Jewish curve,” “white curve,” “girl curve,” and “feminist curve,” to name a few. Teachers favor certain subgroups of students, often singling them out in the beginning of the year and offering them extra attention throughout the semester, largely because of factors that a student cannot control. To be fair, teachers don't do this with malicious intent. Rather, these curves appear to be real-world manifestations of teachers’ implicit biases, something that is extremely difficult to root out—and something that is extremely human.

Of course, this is not to say that there are no instances in which a curve is appropriate. When used properly, curves help make sure that students get the grades they truly deserve. Notably, this is not always the grade students receive. For example, a student who puts hours of effort into mastering redox reactions but just can't master them, shouldn't necessarily fail a class as a result. In a fair grading system, the effort a student puts in should be taken into account.

Teachers should undoubtedly give struggling students who put in the effort a curve or some other form of extra credit. However, teachers should be sensitive to their personal biases. They should avoid giving a curve to the more vocal student who struggles, while giving another quieter student who puts in the effort nothing. Appearances can often be deceptive. It is important that teachers make sure the recipients of a curve are qualified. This should be assessed via more student-teacher interaction, with teachers acquiring an understanding of how their personal biases shape their views.

Favoritism aside, teachers also tend to call on students in class and force them to represent their demographic; they may call on a person of color in discussions about race, or an L.G.B.T.Q person to weigh in on issues of gender. While this is meant to give often overlooked and unheard demographics a voice in the classroom, it often forces minority students to represent their entire race, gender, religion, etc., which is an arduous task many feel they are unfairly burdened with. In addition, it can reduce students’ classroom contributions to stereotypes that don’t reflect their complexity.

Teachers must be sensitive to how a student’s identity shapes his or her classroom experience. Teachers should avoid calling on the token *insert demographic* kid to answer questions on his or her demographic. They should avoid playing favorites with certain racial, ethnic, or religious groups, or curving a grade based on anything other than an accurate understanding of the student’s efforts in the class. As a Stuyvesant community, we should be more sensitive about how student identity is a factor in the classroom. If teachers become aware of their own perspectives - conscious and unconscious - then we will become a more fair, moral, and progressive school community.