Teachers 'unconscious bias' making Maori students fail

Maori students face an inherent bias, an academic says.
JOHN BISSET/ FAIRFAX NZ

Maori students face an inherent bias, an academic says.

A new study is blaming teachers for low achievement amongst Maori students, saying their "unconscious bias" is causing Maori to fail. 

The report Unconscious Bias in Education said teachers' low expectations of Maori children had led to decades of under-achievement.

A hierarchy was developing among teachers, so they expected the best results from Asian students, followed by Pakeha, Pasifika, then Maori, one of the study's authors Anton Blank said. 

Academic Anton Blank.

Academic Anton Blank.

"From the teacher's side, I think a lot of it is unconscious, it's not deliberate racism. All of us have these biases that effect our behaviour in lots of different ways ... this is a common human behaviour." 

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Under-achievement could not just be blamed on the home environment kids were coming from. 

"Teachers say the kids aren't achieving because of their home life, and issues with poverty and domestic violence, and those sorts of things ... but what we know in terms of achievement is that the important relationship is between the teacher, and the student.

"It's not fair to put Maori failure on to parents. It's the teachers who should be teaching them."

Blank said there was anecdotal research that showed a tangible disengagement between teachers, and Maori children. 

Teachers spent less time talking to them, which lead to students sitting at the back of the class.

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"We're more likely to engage with people who are like us, I don't think a Pakeha teacher is thinking 'I'm not going to talk to those kids" they'll unconsciously be attracted to kids similar to them." 

Blank said everyone had internalised stereotypes about other groups that affected interactions with them. 

"These stereotypes are socialised into us, through our family life, through the media, all these stereotypes about other groups are circulating."

The research also compared Maori and African-American students' experiences, and found very similar patterns. 

Successful ​interventions in the US had helped people recognise their own bias, and help them empathise with the diverse groups they worked with. 

While it would be uncomfortable, Blank wanted people to start the conversation in New Zealand. 

"I think one of the things we can do ... is change our language and not talk about racism ... and talk about bias. We all recognise we do have bias, and that, as a starting point, makes the conversation easier." 

Post Primary Teachers Association president Angela Roberts had not read the report but said if it found evidence unconscious bias towards Maori was a widespread problem then the critical question was what to do about it. 

Roberts said the key would be to create a safe culture of professional development to enable teachers to stop and engage with their beliefs.

Teachers were not solely responsible for unconscious bias, which was an aspect of humanity that would require a cultural shift over time to address. 

 - Stuff

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