As an organization dedicated to promoting social justice and challenging all forms of hate and bias, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) knows what a vitally important role teachers and educators play in helping young people develop an understanding of and a respect for diverse perspectives. Many studies have demonstrated that when educational environments foster and promote critical thinking, empathy, and positive self-esteem in students, the result is a reduction in prejudice and bias, and an increase in tolerant attitudes.
According to ADL, one of the most important ways that teachers can help with this goal is by making conversations about understanding and respect part of everyday business in the classroom, rather than confining them to a commemorative event or other special program. To help create a “bias-free” classroom in which these types of discussions can be had successfully and safely on an ongoing basis, ADL recommends that teachers attempt to integrate the following best practices into their daily process:
Successful conversations about bias almost always start with examining one’s own cultural biases and assumptions. By building greater awareness about their own personal perceptions and cultural “filters,” educators will be better prepared to encourage and respond to different points of view from their students.
Teachers shouldn’t treat culturally diverse information and perspectives as if they were somehow apart from the norm. While special occasions like a particular cultural history month can be helpful in launching conversations about diversity, learning on this issue can be more effective if teachers incorporate multiple perspectives into all aspects of instruction and the curriculum.
Time and maturation
It takes time to be able to explore difficult subjects like bias in a classroom setting. Rather than trying to start the process of creating a bias-free classroom by jumping in at the deep end, teachers can begin by introducing less complex topics and allowing the discussion to build from there over time. It’s especially important to establish ground rules at the outset that will help keep conversations honest and respectful. Remember that building trust is a challenging process that won’t happen all at once, particularly in classrooms that contain students from different groups with a long history of mistrust.
An accepting environment
As students work through their own issues of personal bias and move toward a respect for diversity and inclusion, it’s important for educators to structure an environment that allows students to make mistakes along the way. For many people, particularly young people, prejudicial and stereotypical thinking have developed unconsciously, and individuals might not realize that certain attitudes they have are hurtful or disrespectful to others. Educators can help create an accepting environment by openly acknowledging that intolerant thinking may surface in everyone from time to time, and by modeling non-defensive responses when confronted with a situation in which they’ve said or done something that offended another person.
However, the creation of an accepting environment as described above does not mean that purposely-directed acts of bias should go unchecked: educators should be ready to respond when such acts occur. Remember that students are watching and learning from how educators intervene when someone becomes the target of discriminatory or hate-based behavior. Ignoring or remaining silent about such incidents conveys or reinforces the impression that prejudicial behavior either doesn’t matter or is implicitly condoned. Teachers can avoid allowing this belief to develop by making it clear to students what behaviors they will not allow in the classroom and by intervening in an appropriate and timely manner when necessary.
The sphere of anti-bias education is constantly changing and evolving. Teachers can keep abreast of current issues in this realm and discuss what they’re learning with students. It can be positive for students to see that their teachers are themselves learners, and that they consider themselves as part of the learning process.
Research suggests that exhortation—or “preaching” to students about how they should and shouldn’t behave—is not only an ineffective methodology for changing prejudiced attitudes, but more often than not it actually has the opposite effect of reinforcing such attitudes. Instead, teachers should strive to create opportunities for “discovery” learning by encouraging students to independently resolve conflicts, solve problems, collaborate with diverse peers, and think critically about information.
Teachers should regularly review resource materials that they use in the classroom to ensure that they are inclusive of all people. Sometimes, even after careful review, classroom materials might still reinforce existing societal stereotypes; when situations like this arise, teachers should be ready to point them out to students and to encourage students to challenge and think critically about these stereotypes.
The classroom is not the only place where students are learning about issues like diversity and bias. Teachers can help students’ overall learning experience be more cohesive by viewing the home, the school, and the community not in isolation from each other, but as part of an interconnected system that motivates students to learn.