From education to employment

The unintended impact our brain has on our learners

The brain is a pretty amazing organ, it does so many wonderful things, what’s not to love about it? It helps us make decisions, it controls our emotions, I mean it’s incredibly useful.

But, sometimes the brain can be a little too clever, it tries to do things that it thinks will help us, but actually they just hinder us.

One example is the process of decision making – our brain wants to reduce the number of decisions it has to consciously make, so it gets crafty and tries to hard-wire short cuts. This can be extremely useful when it comes to a decision you make often or where an automatic response will do, leaving your mind to focus on other things. For example, most of us have common combinations of clothes that we wear together and so will frequently just pick them up and put them on.

However, there is a negative side to this too and despite your best efforts, this will be having an impact on how you are with colleagues and with your learners.

One of the side-effects of these short cuts is that bad choices can creep in too. An example is if you have been raised in a family, who for generations, have had bad experiences with a particular ethnic minority (for example travellers), then your brain will often unconsciously seek to avoid them.

These short-cuts cause Unconscious Biases either towards a decision (an affinity) or away from it (negativity). They have been shown to have an impact on recruitment, pay, equality, decision-making, internal and external communication, line management and much more. And the worst thing is, that it is very likely that you won’t know about them, they are subliminal.

Unconscious Biases exist around gender, ethnic minority, age, religion, education level, dialect, special needs, mental health, location or region, hair colour, looks, weight and so on…

The reason they are formed is due to the brain deciding, based on how we were raised, external influence (the media for example), our own observations or experiences, that this is a decision we want to make all of the time. So, the connections are made and you are not aware of the decisions being made based on this.

  • Ever had an impulse to dislike a learner because of the way they speak?
  • Found yourself enjoying working with a learner and find you are giving them an extra hand?
  • Passed on a student because they remind you of someone who you’ve had a bad experience with?
  • Looked through a pile of CVs for familiar names?
  • Found you’ve picked success or failure for learners based on their gender?
  • Automatically ruled someone out because of their age?

All of these can be conscious decisions, but far more worryingly, could be examples of your Unconscious Biases at work and could be affecting your learners without you realising.

So, what is the solution?

First of all, learn about what your Unconscious Biases are – either through some online assessments and interpreting them yourself, or attending training to help you identify them.

However, and this is a very big but, that is only the first step, because whilst you may walk away with an insight into some of your Unconscious Biases, the story does not end there.

You are rewiring your brain and remembering to think differently for the first few days (whilst it’s fresh in your mind) is a good start. But to rewire the schema causing the unconscious bias takes time and practice. You need to revisit your biases every time you are making decisions that could be affected by it. Any quality training in Unconscious Bias will include ongoing support or even a support group for the attendees because in the following months is when the work is really done.

Even with extended courses that go far deeper into the origins of Unconscious Biases it is important that change is embedded into practice. I know some people who write themselves post-it notes on their screen, others who change the short-listing questions for courses, teams who have set up wider training and conversations about the subject. Whatever will work in your situation, it is important that within the context of diversity in the modern education system (and wider world) that Unconscious Bias becomes a conscious conversation.

Richard Daniel Curtis, CEO of The Mentoring School

Richard is an internationally renowned behaviour expert, his company, The Mentoring School, offers one-day and weekend training in becoming aware of your unconscious biases.

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