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.

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.)


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.

Bloomin Questions


People riding on a commuter train in Yangon, Myanmar  2012

People riding on a commuter train in Yangon, Myanmar 2012

Bloom’s Taxonomy or those six different categories of questions that are usually displayed in a pyramid, has been around since the 50’s.  As a result it is at least as disputed as it is accepted.

One can be wary of Blooms, and other taxonomies, because they can box or compartmentalizing ideas.  As the sometimes philosopher, Joni Mitchel has said:

Every bristling shaft of pride
Church or nation
Team or tribe
Every notion we subscribe to
Is just a borderline
Good or bad we think we know
As if thinking makes things so!
All convictions grow along a borderline

page0002Joni, from Borderline

When defining or categorizing something, in this case questions, we run the risk of cementing our habits and locking our definitions in between borderlines. The irony is that these borderlines around questions may deter our questioning of questions.page0003

The popularity of Bloom’s Taxonomy and the borderlines it has created around the space of questions means that it has played a part in defining how we understand and how we use questions.  Taking a post-structuralist view, language or definitions around words and grammar, create our page0004understanding and that understanding becomes our identity.


Recently I was asked to give a talk for the PTA and decided to run with the Blooms.  The powerpoint along the side is the product of that and what got me thinking about Bloom’s recently.