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Beware of Your Bias

It’s that time of the year when we make big decisions in schools. Teachers get their allotments, senior students get their subject selections, and our junior students will find out what class they will be in. These decisions can often be shaped by different committees, leadership styles and parents weighing into the discussion (or arguing about what’s best for their child). For everyone involved, they are decisions that can sometimes result in the investment of a significant amount of emotional energy.

It’s important to get them right.

But, how do you know if you are right? These decisions may appease some, but not all. We can open ourselves up for criticism. Finding fault in the decision-making process is normal human behaviour; we are hard-wired that way. You can’t keep everyone happy. After all, it’s easier to find flaws rather than give praise or offer solutions.

There are lots of elements that influence our decision-making processes. We are acutely aware of most of these influences, and although it’s not always easy, it can help us make informed choices to give us the best chance of getting it right.

But there are also several influences that we are oblivious to, or if we are aware, we don’t pay enough attention to them at the right time. At the top of this list is our cognitive bias. Cognitive bias is where the world around us affects the decisions and judgements we make. It’s our brain’s attempt to simplify processes due to other influences on us. Typically, the biases that are obvious to us include race, gender and age. But there are a few more that we need to be aware of when it comes to school and our decision making. When we become more aware of our bias, we start to increase the chances of making better decisions.

Let’s think about our students for a minute. Why did they end up in that class or with those subjects? Did you encourage them to stay in Science because you value Science? Is the Art teacher drumming up business for their class because it’s a subject they love, and everyone should be an artist? This is called self-serving bias. Let’s also be aware and considerate of their parent’s bias. Anchoring bias plays a role here when we have a tendency to be influenced by the first piece of information or learning. This is when our parents base a decision on their time at school or situations faced by other siblings. It may be that their other son had that teacher three years ago, and it didn’t work out well. In their view, it’s not their son at fault, but rather it’s the teacher. Ever heard a parent say, ‘I liked that subject at school’? They are inferring that because of this, their child should like it.

So, what do we do about it? Cognitive bias isn’t always a bad thing. It can be quite the opposite and help us make sound decisions. It’s not a question of being right or wrong, or good or bad. It’s a question about your level of awareness and the influence you allow it to have over decisions.

A simple way to increase your awareness is to ask these questions: Are you viewing problems from different perspectives? Are you thinking about the problem alone, but also working through it with others? Do you understand your motives and the motives of those involved?

Check out other articles Simon has written here.