Text Size

Search Articles

More By This Author

More From This Category

Article Information


By Laura Black in All Sorts

how expectations determines outcomes

Last month the Children’s Commissioner and School Trustees Association reported “disturbing and serious complaints about racist behaviour toward students in schools”.
One of the substantial culprits appears to be unconscious bias – the disadvantaging of a group by indirect and often unthinking means.
The classic example in schools in when teachers expect a group to do less well, so set lower expectation, and because children respond (in learning environments) to expectations above all else (it is called the Pygmalion Effect), their achievement drops. That’s unconscious bias.
And it goes some way to explaining why in an education system that is at its heart conceived as egalitarian, Māori and Pasifika children do so much worse – even controlling for all other factors – than their peers.
This week the New York Times reported on an Israeli study into another form of unconscious bias How Elementary School Teachers’ Biases Can Discourage Girls from Math and Science. Which shows how powerful even a little encouragement can be: students who had been encouraged in primary school did substantially better than children who had not – even when controlling for all other factors. .
A separate US study has shown that when school teachers who are marking papers cannot see the name of the author, boys and girls assignments are marked similarly. When the teacher can see the name of the author, boys are marked higher. Unconscious bias again.

Unfortunately, unconscious bias has traditionally been regarded as very difficult to remedy. It is about micro moments in the classroom between teacher and student. It is the repetition of those micro moments, and sometimes it is simply the absence of a moment.
So let me introduce you to Chris Sarra. Check him out on YouTube if you have time, because Chris has some answers to the problem of unconscious bias. In the late 1990s, Sarra became the first Aboriginal principal of Cherbourg State School in South-East Queensland. Under Sarra's leadership the school became nationally acclaimed for its pursuit of the ‘Strong and Smart' philosophy, which led to dramatic improvements in educational outcomes:
• Unexplained absenteeism reduced by 94% within 18 months;
• Real attendance improved from 62%in 1999 to 94%in 2004
(without touching welfare payments);
• Year 7 diagnostic reading tests went from 0% at state average in
1998, to 81 % in 2004; and 58% improvement in Year 2 Literacy
within 2 years;
• 5 Aboriginal teacher aides completed teacher training while
studying and continuing to work at the school;
• Enrolments nearly doubled.
At a presentation last year, I heard Chris talk about the basis of the changes he made being a shift to a “high expectation relationship”.
Chris defines high expectation relationships as honouring the humanity of others, and in so doing, acknowledging one’s strengths, capacity and human right to emancipatory opportunity.
So when the school instituted uniforms and most parents couldn’t afford them, the school agreed to buy the uniforms if the family helped out a school (supervising homework classes, reading to the younger kids) for a specified time.
The secret lies in co-creating the opportunities, not in seeing them as write-offs before the work even starts. How very Methodist I hear you thinking!
Laura Black