Summary – Confronting Bias Through Teaching: Insights from Social Psychology

Setting the stage to learn from and break down the gaze of bias ⎮5 min read
Summary – Confronting Bias Through Teaching: Insights from Social Psychology

Many teachers are trying to figure out how to help students think through equity and bias issues highlighted this summer by the Black Lives Matter (and other group) demonstrations. In 2017, Chelsea Crittle and Keith Maddox (Tufts University) wrote a fascinating article with social psychology-based advice that might be useful to teachers planning these discussions. The article is behind a paywall and may not be available to some teachers (especially high school teachers) so I thought I’d try to summarize some of the suggestions from the article here. (UPDATE: Dr. Maddox kindly provided a copy of the article – thanks Dr. Maddox!! – Confronting Bias Through Teaching: Insights From Social Psychology)

Crittle and Maddox open the article with a powerful statement: “There are continuing disparities among racial, ethnic, gender, and other groups in the United States, and these disparities can be attributed to past and ongoing bias and discrimination faced by members of stigmatized and typically underrepresented groups.” I appreciate this clear, factual statement at the beginning of the article. The rest of the first part of the article is a useful literature review of past studies about addressing bias in classrooms.

Maddox and Crittle spend most of the rest of the article describing different techniques teachers can use to confront bias in classrooms based on social psychology research. Here are some highlights (along with my thoughts about how I might use this idea if I were still teaching high school psychology):

Teachers as messengers: Research indicates that teachers from under-represented demographic groups may have a MORE difficult time getting students to honestly address their own bias. Students may perceive teachers from some demographic groups as “defensive” or less professional when discussing issues about bias. Because of students’ implicit biases, teachers from non-stigmatized groups may have a greater opportunity to help students discuss bias. All teachers can help increase the chance that students will honestly address issues of bias by establishing a common “in-group” with students: focus on group membership that the teacher shares with the students (e.g. common team affiliation, hobbies, age, etc.) Activating this “we are in the same group” connection with students can help students overcome bias and resistance to the discussion. As with most teaching/learning, strong teacher-student relationships are important for discussions about tough issues like bias.

How I might use this idea: I am white and I taught in a mostly white school. I might discuss some of these “teachers as messengers” research findings with my students and talk about the implications of this research. The famous philosopher Stan Lee wrote “With great power comes great responsibility.” As a white teacher, this research leads me to conclude that it is my responsibility to use my privilege to help students confront racial and other biases, and I may be in a unique position to do that. Acknowledging this research and this responsibility may help set the stage for some difficult bias-confronting conversations later.

Message Style: Fortunately, messages accompanied by strong evidence are more persuasive to students than evidence-free arguments. Studies indicate that teachers should use a combination of personal stories/anecdotes (peripheral route to persuasion) and empirical evidence (central route to persuasion) to help students engage with tough questions. Teachers may be able to use this combination to reinforce scientific thinking habits: anecdotes and stories are a potentially useful starting place, but we always want to look beyond personal experiences and figure out how to find/use group data from carefully controlled research studies. When conflicts arise during a discussion, teachers can usefully confront (and/or help other students confront) biased comments by using solid, evidence based arguments (rather than weaker arguments based on emotional appeals or personal attacks).

How I might use this idea: In my psychology class, I would seize the opportunity to talk about different kinds of evidence during the research methods unit. Psychology students need to understand what kinds of data psychological researchers need to examine before concluding about hypotheses. This discussion may help students think differently about their personal experiences within the context of findings based on research data, which may in turn help them re-think biases resulting from their personal experiences.

Discrepancy factors: Teachers can help students overcome biases by helping them realize that these biases conflict with important values they already ascribe to. Having students talk/write about their personal values and pointing out how their biases might conflict with these values can help students confront their bias.

How I might use this idea: Class activities like the “It’s a Just World, Isn’t It?” activity might help students confront discrepancies between their beliefs/values and judgments they make about others due to bias. In this activity, students get to encounter the “just world phenomenon” and see differences in judgements based on irrelevant personal characteristics.

Perspective-taking strategies: encouraging students to “walk in the shoes” of disadvantaged groups (out-groups) can help lessen students’ denial about discrimination against those groups. These reflection strategies should be respectful and focus on taking the perspective of the out-group (rather than using superficial or even offensive simulations.)

How I might use this idea: Reading/hearing authentic voices from groups other than their own can help students challenge their pre-existing beliefs. I would find written or oral/video accounts from individuals representing different perspectives (especially from groups students might consider “out-groups”). When I taught the psychological disorders and treatment unit in psychology class, I found personal accounts of people suffering from schizophrenia – listening to these actual experiences helped personalize the symptoms students read about in their textbooks, and humanized our discussions about psychological disorders.

Consciousness-raising strategies: teachers can use specific experiences designed to provide students with information about their own bias (such as the implicit association tests or related classroom demonstrations). Results from these experiences can help make bias more “real” for students.

How I might use this idea: I never had much luck using the online implicit association tests with my students. After receiving their score, students spent more time arguing about the nature of the test than discussing implicit bias. After seeing Dr. Maddox use a similar demonstration at a conference, I adapted this activity (originally written by Nancy Fenton): Knee-Slapping Implicit Bias.


Crittle, C., & Maddox, K. B. (2017). Confronting Bias Through Teaching: Insights From Social Psychology. Teaching of Psychology, 44(2), 174–180.

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