School & District Management

Could an App Help Teachers Recognize Their Own Biases?

By Brenda Iasevoli — September 14, 2017 3 min read
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A Michigan State University professor has designed an app that helps teachers recognize their implicit biases using data collected from their own classrooms.

Assistant professor of teacher education Niral Shah will test the app in 6th through 12th grade math classes in Michigan over the next two years. His colleague, assistant professor of STEM education at San Diego State University, Daniel Reinholz, will test the app in advanced math college classrooms. The two will explore how data generated by the app, coupled with information on students’ own experiences with equity and bias, can help educators make sure they are aren’t unconsciously excluding anyone.

The app, called EQUIP (Equity Quantified in Participation), is an observation tool that teachers can program to collect data particular to their classrooms. Teachers heading diverse classrooms may want to track participation of different racial groups. Other teachers might want to track participation of students of different genders, or those possessing varying levels of language proficiency. It’s also possible to track the types of questions teachers are asking high-performing as opposed to low-performing students. Are they inadvertently asking critical-thinking questions only to top students?

“EQUIP is not about identifying racist and sexist teachers; it’s about illuminating biases that we all have so that we can do something about them,” Shah told Education Week. “Even when you have years of teaching experience and the best intentions, this is something that you have to continue to work on.” (Read about a video game that helps educators recognize implicit bias here and simulations used to head off teacher bias in preservice training programs here.)

Here’s how it works: The app creates a visual seating chart that the teacher pre-programs with students’ names and social markers such as race or gender. Then, every time the teacher calls on a student, she, or an observer, clicks on an image of the student’s desk in the app. To track types of questions, the observer would have to click a tag for, say, a critical-thinking or inferencing question.

Sharing Analytics With Teachers

Shah’s previous research focused on high school students’ perceptions of inequity and bias in the classroom. The students reported that in math class Asians participated more and got called on more. “There’s a false narrative that these racial groups are better at math,” said Shah. “We know it isn’t true, but the idea is pervasive in schools and U.S. culture.”

His new research is moving beyond description to actually share the analytics with teachers so that they can make changes to their practice. Shah says the simple graphs that the app produces can be pretty powerful. For example, a chart might show that only 40 percent of black students in a class that is 60 percent black are being asked critical-thinking questions. The app calculates the difference between how much we might expect black students making up 60 percent of a class to participate and how much they actually did participate, a disparity that indicates that there might be implicit bias.

According to Shah, teachers particularly like the histogram that the app produces. It can reveal, he said, how many indigenous students are participating in class, or that one student in particular never participates. Teachers can make a conscious effort to call on that student next time, or try to establish a connection with the student so that he or she feels more comfortable sharing ideas in class.

“What’s impressive to me is how courageous these teachers have been in opening up their practice because it’s not easy,” Shah said. “Teachers are so good-hearted and want to do right by their kids, and it can be hard to see data that shows them, for example: ‘Hey, I just don’t call on my [Latino] students.’ But teachers want to know these things so they can be sure they are supporting all their students.”

The app will be available for free by the end of the year, according to Shah. Once completed, he hopes teacher-prep programs and school districts will use EQUIP to train preservice and even veteran teachers.

In the meantime, teachers can still rely on low-tech standbys to ensure they are allowing every student to participate equally, like pulling popsicle sticks with students’ names on them out of a coffee can.

Photo: Niral Shah leads a workshop at a math conference in May. (Vivek Vellanki)

See also:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.