Hidden Bias Exploration at Sheridan

It’s well documented that we all have hidden biases that influence our decision making and our relationships. As a species, we have evolved to categorize what we see so that we can keep ourselves safe. Now, we try to be aware of stereotyping and to avoid it, but hidden biases are harder to address. 

Toni Williamson

Harvard professors Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald describe hidden biases in their book, Blind Spot: Hidden Biases of Good People as “…bits of knowledge about social groups…that can influence our behavior toward members of particular social groups, but we remain oblivious to their influence.” There are well-documented studies of this kind of bias influencing everything from job applicants to eye witnesses to a murder. Hidden bias can even trick our memory into believing we have seen something that didn’t actually happen. Ask two first-grade eye witnesses to a playground incident to tell you what happened and you will often get two very different —  but very earnest — explanations of what they saw. They are not lying; they are just saying what their memory has stored for them, and their memories are influenced by their own hidden biases.

Through the teaching lens

As educators, we know that our hidden biases also influence how we interact with and teach our students, so we have set out on a journey to learn more about our biases and what we can do to counteract them. Our goal is to examine our own biases so we can ensure every child is seen for his/her potential and held to the high standards we know they can meet.

This work is part of our dual commitment to social justice education and to lifelong learning. Sheridan faculty and staff constantly seek ways to grow their learning, improve their practice, and find new ways to incorporate research and data into their work.

Expanding our knowledge

Last year, the faculty said they wanted opportunities for deeper learning around social justice and the ways it can be incorporated into their teaching. Often when we go to conferences, we find that we are the ones presenting new ideas, and what other schools are seeing as innovative are things we’ve been doing for years. As I looked for a consultant to work with us, I knew I needed someone who could understand our special community, our engaged teachers, and the work we are trying to do to teach our children to be agents of change and advocates for justice.

Toni Williamson fits that description perfectly. A nationally recognized diversity practitioner and consultant, Toni is also the Assistant Head of School for Equity and Inclusion at Abington Friends School in Philadelphia.

In the fall, Toni came to Sheridan to meet with faculty, staff and students and began our conversations around hidden bias. Throughout the school year, she has been working with a self-selected group of faculty who meet monthly to discuss dilemmas related to social justice education and support each other through critical feedback and observation. On Wednesday, February 6th, Toni will visit Sheridan again to meet with her faculty group, present to all of the staff, meet with middle school students, and then lead a discussion about hidden bias in the evening for parents.

Join the journey

I would love to have all of you on this journey with us. An often eye-opening place to start is to take a few of the hidden bias tests that are free on this Harvard website. Each test only requires a few minutes and you can choose the one(s) you want to take. You may be astounded to learn about your own biases.

I also encourage you to read Blind Spot. It is a fast and interesting read, with activities you can do as you read to think about your own biases.

Finally, I hope you will join me on February 6th at 6:30 PM at Sheridan when Toni Williamson will be here to talk about her work with our students and staff and more generally about hidden bias and how it influences us all.