An increased focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives in the K-12 schooling sector has led to the implementation of race-, ethnicity-, and culture-focused professional development training for administrators and teachers. Training on implicit bias, microaggressions, and culturally responsive teaching are increasingly common. As schools have become more racially, ethnically, culturally, and socio-economically diverse, administrators and teachers have rightly focused on adapting their practices to meet the needs of their students, but these trainings in particular do not stand up to empirical scrutiny and often flatten the concept of diversity and the experiences of diverse pools of students.
Implicit bias, broadly defined, is the influence on thoughts by elements in your environment without your intention to be influenced. Research has shown that human thoughts, feelings, and actions can be influenced without us knowing or wanting them to be influenced, but we do not always act on this influence. An underlying assumption in implicit bias training that is rolled out in schools as part of diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives is that people do act on biases. The training’s premise is that racial and ethnic implicit biases lead to prejudices, which need to be illuminated, explored, and constantly acknowledged, often using the Implicit Association Test (IAT). Scholarly research on whether implicit bias is connected to prejudice or how people act in real life is not settled and validity concerns for using the IAT to predict racial or ethnic discrimination have been raised by scholars. Nonetheless, training for school administrators and teachers continues to emphasize uncovering implicit bias, and a common tool for measuring it remains the IAT. For example, implicit bias training offered by the Kirwan Institute, which has been cited by education scholars and adopted and adapted by many schools, focuses on understanding personal biases, specifically through taking the IAT, and then offers ways to mitigate them.
The faulty assumption that implicit bias equates to unconscious prejudice creates division in schools between oppressors and oppressed, and focuses on the impact of actions over the intent of those actions—in other words, how you feel about what someone said is more valid than whether they intended to make you feel that way. Impact versus intent is the underlying premise of microaggressions, another concept with little evidentiary support, and discussion of microaggressions is often embedded in implicit bias training. When implemented in classrooms, teachers are faced with the dilemna of being accused of committing a microaggression, for example, if they call on a white student instead of a non-white student to answer a question, or if they call on a non-white student but in some way criticize the student’s response. For students, the fear of being called out as an offender may lead them to minimize interactions with students outside of their identity group(s).
The underlying assumptions of implicit bias and microaggression training contribute to a scenario in which many teachers feel blamed for injustices they did not inflict. And when the outcomes of these training are implemented in classrooms, students feel the same way.
I spoke with one teacher who worked in an all-male high school that is, historically, predominantly Irish Catholic. The school was grappling with how to address issues of race, diversity, equity, and inclusion and required professional development focused specifically on inclusion. The means through which the school aimed to increase inclusion was through “culturally responsive” teaching practices. Like many diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, culturally responsive teaching is well-meaning and difficult to argue against. The concept is similar to teaching methods that apply curricular content to the real world, which teachers have long-known to be an effective teaching method. But culturally responsive practices focus specifically on applying broadly defined cultural practices to the classroom. Recently, these practices have put emphasis on elevating non-Western cultural values over Western cultural values. The teacher I spoke with had encountered this approach in her professional development session and described the categories associated with Western and non-Western culture as “cultural essentialism” and “cultural flattening”. She noted that the elevation of so-called non-Western over Western cultural values was creating a divide in her classroom:
“Many of my white students felt that they were being blamed for society’s problems just by virtue of being who they are—white, middle-class men—and frankly this kind of training would only serve to reinforce this view. This training gives no sense that Western or American culture has ever had anything valuable to contribute to the world and is nothing at all to be proud of.”
From the perspective of her non-white students, she went on to state:
“I feel that the cultural essentialism embedded in this type of training is really trivializing. While I as a teacher would love to see non-Western cultures, histories, and literature more widely represented in our school environments and our curricula, I think it has to be done in a responsible, historically informed, and authentic way—not with a superficial brush-waving approach that paints in broad strokes and offers really no historical, anthropological, or sociological evidence to back up its claims.”
A focus on acknowledging implicit biases, being mindful of microaggressions, and granting primacy to so-called non-Western cultural values creates a scenario in which teachers and students are afraid to present alternative perspectives; critique policies, practices, or content; or simply ask questions. As the teacher noted when discussing the social-emotional development of students: “I fear that teaching kids to walk on eggshells, to be terrified of inadvertently insulting others, and to be constantly vigilant for the possibility of insult against themselves, is not teaching them the resiliency they need”. She went on to state that these trainings and approaches to schooling also “engender division and the tendency to see the ‘other’ as the ‘enemy’”, and that they decrease “willingness to dialogue and seek constructive solutions”. This outcome is antithetical to the tenets of inclusion which her school and many others are striving to encourage.
If the goal of schooling is to prepare young people to live well and prosper in society, teachers should be trained in evidence-based practices of how to encourage dialogue among and across diverse viewpoints and how to create a classroom environment that is truly inclusive. Frankly, many, if not most, teachers already know this to be a better approach, and evidence is on their side; they just need to be empowered to speak up without fear of being cancelled or fired.