2016 Speaker Series Presenter Jason Okonofua Discusses Implicit Bias in Classrooms

okonofua1Students lined the seats, the walls, and even the floors of the Dewey Conference Room of the Barus Building on Tuesday, Oct. 18 to hear Stanford University Assistant Professor in Psychology Jason Okonofua present, “”When Bias and Threat Persistently Interact: A Holistic Approach to Understand the Lingering Effects of Stereotypes.”

Dr. Okonofua began with a live demonstration of implicit bias, asking the audience to guess how many triangles were in a figure he displayed. Audience answers varied from three to eight, but the real answer was zero. As the sides of the triangles were incomplete and unconnected, they were not making complete shapes. Our brains, Okonofua explained, are wired to take in information and fill in missing gaps. We humans tend to categorize, to favor our own, and to make judgments without having complete information.

Implicit means having no awareness; an automatic, involuntary response. Teachers have so much on their mind while controlling classrooms that they can be susceptible to implicit bias.

There’s a black escalation effect, Okonofua stated. U.S. suspension rates of black students more than tripled between 1974 and 2011 (from 3.3% to 11% of all black students each year) because of tough policies on subjective behaviors such as insubordination and defiance. Black students make up 14% of the U.S. student population but 40% of its suspended population. Discipline problems are consequential, hindering teacher control, disheartening them, and promoting student disengagement as well as increasing dropout and incarceration rates. Bodies of research show a clear correlation, Okonofua confirmed in response to a question from an audience member, between school suspension and incarceration. He later revealed that there is hard data from the Department of Education showing that suspensions are consistently higher for black students than students of any other racial group. Okonofua, who works with the Criminal Justice system, reported that blacks represent only 16% of the American population but make up 44% of the American prison population. Punishment becomes steeper after two or more infractions, which is a similar escalation effect to school suspensions. Students from racially stigmatized groups worry they will be treated unfairly, and thus they are less likely to comply, less likely to engage, and less interested in following teachers’ directions.

Discipline problems, he continued to an audience of future educators and leaders, create poor student/teacher relationships. Disproportionate discipline arises through stereotypes (often a racially-guided perception of inherent bad behavior) and threat (students with apprehensions of unfair treatment based on the color of their skin are more likely to defy their teachers).

Okonofua outlined a theory of disrespect with a working model of the recursive process in which a stereotype can offset a teacher/student relationship. When a hypothetical student named Darnell misbehaves, a hypothetical teacher named Miss Smith responds with discipline, which will escalate a racially stigmatized mindset, causing Darnell to give up and act out and Miss Smith to respond with more and more severe discipline. Students sent to a principal or other administrator are then labeled troublemakers and become even less likely to develop a positive working relationship with teachers.

“Is student behavior based on race?” Okonofua wondered, and in order to answer that question he held a discipline study in which 190 teachers tracked how they responded for misbehavior. At a sample junior high in the Midwest, anecdotes of student infractions were labeled with stereotypical “white” names such as Jake and Greg and with stereotypical “black” names such as Deshawn and Darnell. The student misbehaviors were classified as disturbances (minor, subjective misbehaviors rather than objective, series infractions such as drugs or weapons). Teachers were asked to respond about feeling troubled and initially reported equal feelings of trouble and equal discipline for the “white” and “black” names. However, when asked to describe a “troublemaker” and asked to describe a black student, study teachers gave the troublemakers and the black students the same descriptions.

Next, teachers in the study were told there had been a second infraction by the hypothetical black or white student – this time, insubordination/willful defiance. They were re-asked the original questions, but this time the teachers were significantly more troubled by the black student behavior and were significantly more likely to discipline the black student more severely than the white student. (The scale, Okonofua explained in answer to a query, was between 1-7 for “not at all severe” to “extremely severe.”)

There is evidence of a causal relationship between race and teacher-perceived behavior. Teachers who had been asked how likely they were to label a child a troublemaker were more likely to do so if the child was black. What is it about stereotypes that affect perception? Why do they escalate over time? To what extent is behavior indicative of a pattern? The teachers in the study thought there was more likely a connection and consistent pattern of bad behavior with black students and were more likely to suspend black students than white students for the same behaviors.

okonofua2We all can have implicit bias, Okonofua said; it’s beyond our control. For example, study subjects were told to imagine they were a police officer and were shown photos of people with guns. The subjects were given very little time to make a decision to press a button, determining whether to shoot the person or not. The subjects were quicker to shoot black people than white people in the study – even if the black people were unarmed. The results were the same when the study was done with black students. Bias affects all of us.

The test was run on actual LAPD officers for comparison. The officers were faster to recognize blacks with guns than white with guns, but they made fewer errors than civilian test subjects in “shooting” unarmed people.

Okonofua also referenced a 2008 Science magazine article in which test subjects were shown clips of the first five minutes of various prime-time TV shows (Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, CSI, Scrubs, etc.). These interactions between people were stripped of the audio, and then one person was covered up in each scene. With a hidden character and the sound removed, test subjects who watched the altered clips filled in the missing gaps in their minds and expressed anti-black and pro-white biases. They consistently rated the white characters as behaving more positively than black characters, even without having sound and full visual to confirm their ratings – reinforcing how implicit bias affects us all.

In response to an audience member’s question, Okonofua confirmed that an experiment is being run on only female test subjects. He added that a Yale study had found a greater implicit bias effect for boys than for girls. Statistically, black boys are suspended at higher rates than any white boys, white girls, and black girls. Black girls were suspended at six times the rates of white girls. The darker their skin, the higher the rate that black girls were suspended.

An audience member wondered, why not use IETs; what if the teachers’ reactions to the vignette in the earlier-referenced study wasn’t showing bias but rather responding to statistical reality. Okonofua responded that bias is part of reality; reaction to behaviors is still skewed. IETs are too obvious and throw off data, because the teachers in the experiments would have been less concerned with responding honestly and more concerned with how they appeared.

What, Dr. Okonofua asked, can we do about bias?

We can shift from a fixed to a growth mindset. For example, if you fail a test, you shouldn’t feel that you’re bad at math; you should feel that you did badly on one test but can study to do better on the next. Students need motivation to want to improve their grades, and adults need awareness of implicit biases to want to improve relationships with students. Is it possible to shift a teacher’s mindset?

It takes effort to reduce the biases people have and act on. When Michelle Obama gives a good science speech, people’s perceptions of both blacks and of women become more favorable – but that effect lasts only 5-60 minutes. How can we reduce the effects of implicit bias?

In a teacher mindset experiment, teachers engaged with an article in which half of the treatment messages were on good student/teacher relationships while half were on how punishment was critical for student self-control. All teachers were then asked how likely they were to label a student a troublemaker, and those in the first group were markedly less likely to do so. Teachers with an empathetic mindset are less likely to involve a principal for discipline and more likely to work with the student to find out why the student misbehaved and to find a solution that’s conducive to better behavior.

Regarding the student mindset, Okonofua continued, how do they respond to differences in teachers’ responses? Half of them read about controlling the student (threats, detention, etc.) while half read about treatment (teacher working with the student on a solution to the problem). Students in the first study demonstrated more respect for the teacher and more motivation to behave well and follow the rules. Teacher mindset controls responses to behavior, which can affect and change students’ mindsets and behavior.

In an interactive intervention experiment, Okonofua demonstrated, teachers were told that relationships were important and that is was good to emphasize with students, as misbehavior was an opportunity to nurture the teachers’ relationships with students. Teachers were encouraged to think in different ways.

Psychological intervention, Okonofua reported, created a 50% reduction of all suspensions across districts – an impressive amount given how difficult it is to change perceptions. The largest predictor of suspension was whether the student had been suspended the previous year, so intervention was beneficial for all students. Black and Latino boys were the most likely suspended across all groups, and Okonofua is researching girls right now. Black girls are suspended at higher rates than other races, but at much lower rates than boys are. Research is still being conducted, but the data appear to show that girls are more likely to reach out to and bond with teachers than boys.

Student perceptions of respect from teachers and administrators is higher when the teacher has had intervention. This is even among students who had previously been suspended. By shifting a teacher’s mindset, a whole school environment can be impacted. Students can maintain respect with all teachers.

A student brought up Glenn Loury’s theory on behaviors. (In 1984, Loury published “A New American Dilemma” about lagging academic performance for black students.) Okonofua responded that research shows black students valuing education as much as, and in many cases more than, their white counterparts – but there is a breakdown in what they want to happen in school and what happens.

Another student wondered how available Okonofua’s research is to teachers. He has some studies from the National Academy of Sciences that are not yet publicly available and various articles in psychological science magazines that are. He needs to replicate his studies with larger samples and in the context of neighborhood incomes, whether the schools are racially stigmatized, and other factors. This year they are conducting two different scenarios with different content in AB testing. The pilot test will be run and outcomes looked at, and next fall there will be a huge randomized trial involving many states (Florida, Texas, Arizona, New York, Massachusetts, and more) to provide diverse samples. On treatment, the first step was seeing if we can shift a mindset, and those studies were based on hypothetical situations. Now, Okonofua is going back and conducting an IET with all teachers in the spring.

Someone else wondered about the ethics of a process designed to increase teacher empathy, noting that empathetical doctors are more likely to burn out over time. Okonofua responded that that will be part of the AB test – tracking the consistency of the effect, comparing intervention effects on long-time versus new teachers, and following up years later with all teachers. Pre-service teachers, he noted, could be immersed in the context to understand how students feel versus how teachers react to misbehavior.

Finally, Okonofua is working with virtual reality to create an immersive environment in which an avatar is placed in two situations. In one, the avatar experiences potential unfair treatment based on its race. In the other – and to demonstrate, Okonofua invoked a “cyberball” game online in which two other people playing “catch” with the avatar eventually stop passing it the ball and ignore its attempts to participate – the avatar is a teacher ignoring a student who is trying to answer a question. The discouragement created by those “cyberball” and classroom situations, even manufactured in virtual reality, is powerful. Research shows that teachers are less likely to focus on minorities academically, making less eye contact and calling on them less often to answer questions (similar to the experiences of female students in science classes), leading to discouragement, issues, and labels.

Education Department Chair Kenneth Wong, Dr. Jason Okonofua, and Assistant Professor of Education Andrea Flores

Education Department Chair Kenneth Wong, Dr. Jason Okonofua, and Assistant Professor of Education Andrea Flores

Okonofua can be contacted through his website, http://www.jokonofua.com/. He thanked Jennifer Eberhardt, Gregory Walton, Carol Dweck, and David Paunesku for their collaborations in his work.