Implicit Cultural Bias: Looking at Invention

In a recent article  Four Ways Teachers Can Reduce Implicit Bias  published on The Greater Good Web Magazine from the Berkely Department of Education, Jill Suttie cites a recent study in which teachers were asked to observe a video of preschool students and asked to look for behaviour problems.  In fact no overt behaviour problems were being exhibited.  The study found that the teachers focused their gaze for longer on the African American children than they did on the Caucasian children.

Suttie defines implicit bias as ‘a behavior that arises from subconscious associations, which may even contradict someone’s explicit values. Implicit racial bias plays a role in many classrooms and schools with potentially devastating effects.’   If one looks at her definition, it can be argued that there are in fact two definitions happening.  The first sentence is a broad definition of implicit bias.  The second sentence is a more specific definition of implicit racial bias, arguably a subset of the first.

That raises an interesting question.  What other subsets of implicit bias exist?  I wish to focus in here and look at what I believe is another variant. In the first of a series of blog posts I will examine what I will call implicit cultural bias.

This question arose when I made the observation one day while reading a storybook to my P4 (Grade 1 or Year 2) students, in our class located in India, that the students from Western backgrounds tended to be more actively involved in the readings than students from Eastern backgrounds.  Now here, I could fit into the definition of implicit racial bias as defined by Suttie.  Why did I choose, implicitly or explicitly, to categorize and define my students by the very nebulous and loaded terms Eastern and Western?  But I had a strong sense that there was something beyond race going on.  I wondered how the cultural literacy practices that the students were engaged in outside of my classroom differed from those inside my classroom?

the-first-drawingThe impicit nature of this bias requires that the first step be to make the implicit explicit.  No easy task to undertake.  To explore these questions I have employed the tools of Systematic Functional Linguistics (SFL) to compare two children’s books.  The first text,  The First Drawing and was written and illustrated by Mordicai Gerstein who lives in the United States.  This text finds its genesis in the thirty thousand year old cave paintings in the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc cave in France. The reader is asked to imagine that they were a child living at this time and that they invented drawing.


all-about-nothingThe second text, All About Nothing was conceptualised and illustrated by Nina Sabnani and written by Deeya Nayar who both live in India. This text finds its genesis in the invention of the number zero in India approximately one thousand eight hundred years ago.  The book presents a possible narrative of how the concept of zero was invented.  Both texts share the similar features that they are children’s stories and provide an opportunity to illuminate and compare cultural narratives on creativity and invention.


and-you-look-at-what-you-have-doneIn the American text, The First Drawing, the child has become frustrated that no one else can see the images in the shadows and jumps up and traces them out on the cave wall with a burnt stick.  I have used red to indicate the who or what that is doing the action.


And you look at what you have done.

You have created the world’s first drawing.


Here, it is clearly the child protagonist who is the agent responsible for the act of invention.

img_3053In the Indian text, All About Nothing, the main character Muchu, a merchant and father and a husband, has awoken from a dream and has been listening to the mantra his wife has been chanting.  He doodles circles on his page cast by the sun coming in the lattice work.  It is his daughter who asks “Oh, is this a new number, Bapu?”   At this point he begins to realise an invention has occurred.  Again, red indicates the who or what that is doing the action and blue indicates who or what that the action is being done to.  What do you notice?


Something strange began happening to Muchu

His brain whirred loudly inside him.

It was saying something

but he couldn’t hear…

Muchu’s head buzzed furiously.

It felt as if it would burst.

It almost did.

There was one loud bang inside.

And then, oh, it was all so clear.


Similarly, in the introduction to the same story it says,


So Zero stayed hidden.  It waited impatiently to pop out of someone’s head.


In the American text the child is the actor.  In the Indian text Muchu is not exactly the agent responsible for the invention.  The agent is referred to vaguely as ‘something’ and then ‘his brain’ though not quite Muchu himself.  He is the agent only when he is trying to hear what his brain is saying.   In the introduction, Zero itself is explicitly the agent responsible for the act of invention.

So what’s the big deal?  In the American text, the child fights against adults who can not see the images the child sees and ridicule the child and even insinuate that the child is crazy.  But the child, through dogged determination, prevails and in the end the naysayers come to see that the child is correct.  The child/protagonist is the agent that does not bow to the naysayers.

In the Indian text the protagonist is not fighting the naysayers.  If anything, he himself is the naysayer.  He is awaking from a blissful dream and chanting a mantra and so is attuned with nature and in a state of harmony.  It is in this state that he is the conduit for the invention to come through.

Let’s go back and revisit the literacy event in which I noted that the Western students seemed engaged and the Eastern students seemed passive or unengaged.  It is rare that I read through more that a paragraph without stopping and asking questions. I want the students to engage with me, debate even.  I celebrate when a student suggest I am wrong.  Which of the two protagonist do these literacy practices reflect?  Yes, that of the American, Western text.  For the Indian students, if their past reference, likely implicitly so, is of not challenging and be a conduit for the knowledge to come through, then in my questioning patterns they are faced with practices that go against what they have been taught are the practices of a good student.  When I say, as I did in my initial observation, that they are not engaged, could I say that there is a mutual misunderstanding for what it means to be engaged.  Is this case where I am expecting one set of cultural practices, because that is what makes sense to me, and when I am faced with a set of  practices from another cultural context I fail to recognise those and label the student as deviant or not effective for failing to follow the  expected practices.  Is this what it means to be implicitly culturally biased?

Yes, this is a very small sample.  But by reading the grammar we can start to see implicit pattern that we generally miss.  A next step may be to look at patterns using corpus linguistics that is, collections of billions of words and see if these patterns are shown to be prevalent through cultural texts.  My suspition is that they are.

In next week’s post I am going to look at the discourse practices used in the two texts.  Who initiates conversation and who responds.  When responding, who supports and who confronts.  Since the act of reading a story to a class is a social act, comparisons can be made to the discourse practices I expect and discourse practices practiced by the students.

Technology in the Classroom, a 180

img_7289There are few trends in education that generate more focus and discussion than the use of technology.  This is with good reason.  Technology is fundamentally changing the way we live and learn and this trend is only going to continue, if not intensify.  There is no lack of thoughtful blog posts out there on the benefits and uses of technology in the classroom by people much more knowledgeable on the topic than I so I will not even attempt such a post here.  What I want to do here is take a step back and look at the idea of technology in a broader sense.  The Oxford English Dictionary defines technology as:

  1. The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry.
  2.  Machinery and devices developed from scientific knowledge.
  3. The branch of knowledge dealing with engineering or applied sciences. 

Think back for a moment to when I mentioned technology in the first sentence of this post.  What did you think of?  It was computers and Skype and blogs and… right?  It is funny how the everyday use of the word technology has taken on an additional point of definition not found in the  dictionary definition here.  Technology in the everyday use is positioned with an orientation looking forward, viewed as new technologies.  Perhaps we are orientated this way by the threads of the Enlightenment narrative of perpetual progress.

Here I want to ask, what happens if we go back to the dictionary definition of technology when we ask, what are the benefits of technology in the classroom?  What happens if we make a 180 degree turn and view teaching and exploring technology in the classroom as also having an orientation to the past?  Not in a sense that is pejorative towards new technologies, just in a sense that opens up new, or maybe I should say old, possibilities.

I will look at two examples, both of which I carted halfway around the world in my suitcase when I returned to India last August.  First a record player and second my parents old rotary telephone that they kindly lend me.   The  ideas here bare  some influence from the responses given to me by my P4 (Grade 1) students when I asked the same question to them.


Record Player

  • Things can take more time.  The music doesn’t start with the quick click of a button.  You need to take the record out of the sleeve, place it on the turntable, start the record player, cue up the needle and lower it.  Then, and this always surprises the students, you can turn it over and repeat the whole process again.
  • You can see the science happen.  In computers and cell phones the science behind the technology happens behind a hard, shiny, tightly sealed case.  We essentially have to take it on faith that there is technology going on because we cannot observe any of the actions with our senses, other than the result of the music appearing.
  • Music/sound is vibration.  This is closely related to the previous point but deserves to stick out on its own. Grooves shake a needle, that shaking gets turned into sound.  Then you can crank the music up and put your hand over the speaker and, vibrations.  True, you can do this with computer speakers but it is just so much cooler with a record player.
  • Things are fragile.  Luckily, we have not learned this in a tangible way yet, no one has scratched a record – but we have come close.  Yes, an ipad that a six year old may play music from is fragile, but not in the same way a thin needle riding around in a thin groove is.  If a student is asked to flip the record, they need to slow down.  The fragility is also something for the teacher who has bought the record player and carted choice records around the word to remember.  How will I react if a student scratches my Nat King Cole album?
  • Music my Grandfather listened to is not so bad.  One of the highlights of the year so far was playing Benny Goodman in the background while the students grouped popsicle sticks into bundles of ten, as I walked by a six year old I heard her humming along, she new the song.  She said “my dad likes this.”  I envision a day when they are twenty and they hear  Louis Armstrong and pause, and have a momentary flashback to being six, then carry on.  I have to admit, one of the reasons I wanted a record player in my classroom was that so when the kids bound out for recess, I can pause, slow down, and listen to Fred Astaire.


Rotary Phone 

  • Again, things take time.  I have borrowed my parents old phone and it still has a sticker on it with emergency phone numbers.  A student asked “why is 911 the number for an emergency if the 9 takes so long to dial?  Why isn’t the number 111?”  The best answer I could come up with was “because we didn’t think it took a long time to dial 9.”
  • Sometimes you need to remember numbers.  No speed dial here.  We all remembered seven digit numbers.  Do kids practise memorising numbers that long today?
  • When you talk to your friend, you need to stop and maybe even sit down.  I talk on the go.  In the cereal aisle, going up an escalator…  Does this make the conversations more functional, what if I stopped, would I talk, would I listen more.

Teaching with an Invisible Basketball

This clip comes from the first movie in the Air Bud series.  The school’s basketball coach has been fired for being, well, a bully.  A new coach, the janitor, is brought in.  It turns out this new coach is a long forgotten NBA star.

What the new coach does next has become a go to for me when I want to bring a class of students from being focused on their own individual actions (as we all generally are) to being focused on the actions of others.  That is, when I want to work on building a community.  I have done this activity with students as old as Grade Five.  Today I tried it with a group of Grade One students.  Standing with the students in a circle I picked up my invisible basketball and told the students we were going to pass it around.  I find it works best if you ask the students to be quiet.  I then asked them how they would know who the ball is being passed to.  Eye contact would be essential we agreed.  I then asked them how they would know where the ball was going.  How they would know if it was thrown high or low or if it was thrown fast or slow.  Paying attention to the actions of the person throwing the ball would be essential we all agreed.

We then proceeded to pass the ball, to marginal success.  I have no doubt that our next try will find greater success as we all learn to pay better attention to what the other members of the class are doing.  As the coach in Air Bud says “before you play with [the basketball] you have to learn to play with your teammates.

I have also used this activity when coaching football (that is soccer for the North Americans.)  It is a great way to get the kids to focus on the other players.  To focus on what are they doing with their leg, what they are doing with their feet… and not just focus on the football.

Paradigm Shifts in Education: Thomas Kuhn and Ken Robinson

“Nobody has a clue – despite all the expertise that’s been on parade for the past four days – what the world will look like in five years’ time. And yet we’re meant to be educating them for it. So the unpredictability, I think, is extraordinary.”

Sir Ken Robinson, TED Talk, Do Schools Kill Creativity, 2006 0:56 (View the transcript here)

WARNING-page0001This quote comes from the most watched TED talk of all time with thirty million views at current count. (That is eight million views more than the next most watched TED Talk.)  There is one sense in which it is fair to say that this statement is self-evident or universally true. That is, we never know what the future is going to look like and one of the biggest mistakes we could make is to assume that we do. This normal accumulation and progression of knowledge is not what I believe Robinson is talking about. The key to understanding this statement could come in another quote from the same talk, “the whole world is engulfed in a revolution.” This revolution one could equate to a paradigms shift in Thomas Kuhn’s sense of the term.  In brief, prior to Kuhn’s narrative or theory of scientific progress the prevailing view of scientific progress was one where knowledge accumulated, mistakes would be identified and corrected and knowledge would continually grow. There will be changes and corrections in the future but things will continue to progress along rather predictable lines. In Kuhn’s model, as scientific knowledge accumulates eventually there comes a time when new knowledge cannot be fit in with the preceding body of knowledge. The preceding body of knowledge and the new knowledge become ‘incomprehensible’ to each other and a revolution of thought, understanding, narrative and practice happens.

Kuhn’s prime example is found in his book The Copernican Revolution where he argues, that the discovery that the Earth orbits the Sun fundamentally contradicted the Medieval narrative that the Earth was the centre of the universe and this fact was believed to reflect the fact that humans were the prime focus of God’s attention, having been made in his image and all. There was the whole Ptolemaic astronomy  to explain how this picture of the universe worked. When the discoveries of Kepler, Copernicus, Galileo and others accumulated, the picture of the universe drawn from their findings led to a view that was fundamental incomprehensible with the medieval view.  This triggered a revolution of the Enlightenment.

Accessed through The Creative Commons.  Photo Credit, Tim Wilson, 2010

Accessed through The Creative Commons. Photo Credit, Tim Wilson, 2010

That is, I would argue, the sense of “revolution” that Sir Ken Robinson refers to and is the reason why “nobody has a clue… what the world will look like in five years’ time.” The emerging narrative will be incomprehensible with the past. I think he is still overstating it when he uses the time frame five years, for effect I am sure, because we do have an idea – for one thing computers will get smaller and more easily integrated into daily classroom practice. (In fact, Robinson made this statement nine years ago in 2006, four years before the release of the I Pad.)


Flippin report cards

The Flipped Classroom The term flipped classroom has been in vogue in teaching circles over the last couple of years. In short, it means traditional school work becomes homework and homework becomes school work. For example, traditional school work such as listening to lectures and taking notes becomes homework where the students might watch lectures posted on a You Tube channel or read the lecture posted on a class blog. Then when they return to school the next day what would traditionally be homework such as answering comprehension questions become class work. The difference is that this process is not done in isolation, instead the students answer the questions together, collectively in a dialectic challenging and supporting each other. In this way they can be said to be enacting the sociocultural perspective on education where knowledge is not a product of the individual but is socially or jointly constructed – but that’s a whole blog post on its own. (Click here for an example of the flipped classroom in action by one of the teachers from Colorado who many credit with the idea) The Flipped Report Card report card graphic-page0001I got to thinking about this after I found myself sitting in Darjeeling last Christmas recovering from an acute case of report card fatigue.   I know I am not the only one who gets this.   As report card time approaches, teachers begin to write math comments, science comments, behavior skills comments… We all get better at it as time goes on, we get more organized and we get more systematic in our approach but we are still faced with report card season. As I sat there I had the crazy thought that there had to be a way to spread the work of report cards out equally over the semester and more importantly, there had to be a way to integrate the report cards much more effectively into the daily life of the class so they are an active part of the learning process and not some detached third person reflection. I thought, why not have the students write their own report card comments at the beginning of the semester, revisit them together with the student mid-semester and then finalize them together at the end. In this way, the report cards would become:

  1. part of goal setting.
  2. authentic writing opportunities that are published at the end of the semester.
  3. an opportunity for the students to take ownership over their learning.
  4. a way for the students to become involved with the contents of their report cards and a way to ensure that there are no surprises at the end of the semester.
  5. a way for the students to have a greater ability to explain the content of the report card to their parents and to engage in a meaningful discussion as to its contents.
  6. to take more ownership for the results of their reports.

When I returned to school after the holiday I gave the idea a try. I told my Grade Five class to write the learning skills comment that they wanted to go home in their report card at the end of the semester. I also gave each student a copy of the behavior skills rubric that I used to help generate their marks and told them they are welcome to copy statements off of the rubric. One caution is that you would need to ensure that the students are writing their comments based on the expectations taken from the curriculum that they will be assessed by. I conferenced with each student mid-semester and again at the end of the semester. I only had to make a few alterations to the comments the students wrote about themselves, on average they were pretty spot on. A few students were too easy on themselves and a few students were too hard on themselves.

This year, I have moved to a Grade One class. How to modify this to work with this age group, will be the topic of another post – mostly because I haven’t figured that one out yet.

T.A or A.T.

I have been thinking about the difference between the job titles, Teacher’s Assistant (T. A.) and Assistant Teacher (A. T.). When you look at it through the lens of the adjective noun structure of the English language it looks like this:

ta or at imageTherefore, a T.A. is an assistant and the adjective that describes their role is that they are an assistant to the teacher. An A.T. is a teacher and the adjective that describes their role is as an assistant teacher. These are terms that seem to be batted around as synonyms. I think the difference would play an important, albeit implicit, role in framing the practices between the T.A./A.T. and the teachers.