While teaching English in Japan, I was asked to give a group of young Japanese junior high school students a crash course in American table manners. We pushed a group of desks together to form a makeshift table, and I created a mock table setting using books for plates and plastic tableware. I began modeling how to use a knife and fork to eat. About 30 seconds into my demonstration, a young Japanese boy raised his hand and asked, “Why do we have to lean over our plate to eat? We can pick up the plate and bring it to our face. We’re human beings with hands. Dogs and horses eat over their plates because they don’t have hands.” I was speechless and had no logical response. He was right. “That’s just the way it is,” was my only reply.
This young boy’s simple question about table manners caused me to step back and question my culture and understanding. How has my cultural upbringing affected my outlook? As an ESL teacher, I work with a lot of international students. In order to better connect with my students and know myself as a learner, it’s good to ask, “What other cultural and learning biases might I have as an educator and learner?” Awareness around these topics has the potential to lead to understanding.
Most of my students are visual artists. So when I began thinking about bias, I was reminded of Unflattening by Nick Sousanis. Nick does a great job illustrating a few of the main concepts from Edwin A. Abbot’s Flatland. Basically, our views and perceptions are inherently biased by our surroundings. A line cannot perceive a square, and a square cannot imagine a cube. Their notions are preconceived because their views are limited. This is important because limited perception hinders us from fully understanding our environment.
For example, as a white male living in the US, I think it’s pretty easy to take cultural bias for granted. Much of the environment in the US is geared towards my advantage. Peggy McIntosh’s White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack points out many circumstances which I overlook and simply don’t see in everyday situations. Peggy’s list reveals my biases and opens my awareness. This knowledge should help me have more compassion towards my international students that do not have the same luxuries.
In terms of learning biases, my views have been shaped by the educational system I grew up in. As a student, I never questioned why logic (math) and language (reading/writing) were considered more important than art or sports. That’s just the way it was. Then, I began reading Howard Gardener’s Intelligence Reframed and learning about his theory of multiple intelligences. Now, I know that as an educator I need to create lessons for various learning styles.
In a great illustrated sketchnote by RSA, Ken Robinson explains how the public educational system has biases built into it. Public schools were created in the image of the Industrial Revolution. Hence, he says the idea of “smart” and “non-smart” people is in the DNA of our educational system and, “many brilliant people are told they are not.”
Now, here’s the kicker. Knowing your biases is only step one. Understanding your biases is something else. Knowing and understanding are not the same thing. This idea is brilliantly explained in SmarterEveryDay’s video The Backwards Brain Bicycle. I can know I’m privileged because of my race and gender, but that does not equate to understanding the plight of others. I can know about various learning styles, but that doesn’t mean I understand how individual students learn. I can know about the historical bias in public education, but that does not mean that I understand how to remake it.
The task of understanding our biases is a lifelong process. As an educator, it is important to know my biases. However, understanding my biases is something I will continue to work towards. On good days, I will take a few steps forward. On other days, I may stand idle, and on a bad day, I may even take a step backward. Understanding takes practice and work. Every time I enter the classroom, I try to practice understanding and demonstrate that to my students. I don’t want to tell them, “That’s just the way it is,” ever again.