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Teacher Bias and the Farm Fox SOLE

This post is about teacher bias. It’s also about foxes, dogs and Self Organized Learning Environments (SOLEs).

Teacher bias is a huge, and hugely unpleasant topic. At its worst, we see it manifested as classroom racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, nationalism, ageism, etc. Those extremes are comparatively rare, thankfully. But in the absence of those extremes, we become complacent, let our guards down. That’s dangerous, because unconscious learning biases are, for the most part, ubiquitous in schools. Stephen Lockyer defines seven types in an excellent blog post.

  • Status Quo Bias.
  • Confirmation Bias.
  • Attribution Bias.
  • Macabre Constant.
  • Publication Bias.
  • Cognitive Bias.
  • Observer Bias.

Whether you are a teacher, a student, a school administrator, a parent, or just a concerned citizen, it’s well worth considering how these biases affect our education systems and our societies. In this post, I will focus on just the three at the top of the list.

1. Status Quo Bias is a subconscious preference not to change: “This is the right way to do things, because this is the way things have been done up until now.” It drives lazy decision-making, and it’s central to why institutionalized education so often fails. It is attributable to all stakeholders, from ministries of education to classroom teachers and even the students themselves.

2. Confirmation bias is more subtle and insidious. It’s when teacher talk is loaded with the teacher’s personal beliefs or prejudices. This is an unavoidable aspect of communication that generally happens indirectly; the bias is insinuated by a particular phrasing, a tone of voice, or body language. Generally, teachers are unaware that they are manipulating students. No matter how well-intentioned, we all do it.

3. Attribution bias is assumptions people make about the behavior of others. A typical example in education is to equate high grades with intelligence, and poor grades with stupidity. Like confirmation bias, sadly, attribution bias is the norm, not the exception.

While teacher bias affects every classroom, “SOLE”s were discovered on the streets of Delhi, not in a school. They are teacherless learning systems, and should by definition be free from teacher bias.

If you are not familiar with SOLEs, they are a form of Problem Based Learning (PBL), defined by Sugata Mitra in the late 1990s, when he conducted the famous “Hole in the Wall” experiments in India. Computers were embedded in a wall at a convenient height for children. The local kids, many of whom were illiterate, couldn’t speak English, and had never seen a computer before, gathered around and started playing with the new machines. Learning through trial and error, scaffolding each other in peer to peer instruction, the children quickly progressed from zero to computer literacy.

They did this without teachers.

The “Hole in the Wall” experiments demonstrated that deep learning can happen in unsupervised groups of children. Mitra’s initial findings have since been reproduced and developed around the World by thousand of educators.

The basic structure of a SOLE is similar to that of PBL, (although SOLEs tend to be shorter, typically under 2 hours). Students are given a problem to solve in the form of a “Big Question”. They work in groups searching the Internet to find answers to the question, and then present their findings. That’s it! There is no instruction, and there are really no rules imposed by the educator or institution. There appears to be tremendous potential for the method; with access to the Internet, children can learn almost anything this way.

Sugata Mitra won the 2012 TED Prize for his ground breaking research.

One thing that separates this method from other forms of PBL is that SOLEs prioritize avoiding teacher bias. In SOLEs, teaching is not welcome; the students orchestrate learning themselves. The educator’s job is marginalized to facilitating self organization through technical support. In practice, that means preparing the environment: the room, the furniture, the computers, etc. (or in the case of online sessions, preparing a Zoom room), and ensuring students have internet access. The educator/facilitator also asks the students the Big Question and, at the end, calls on students to present their findings. The educator should not organize students or give them hints; he/she should influence them as little as possible.

Sugata Mitra calls this “minimally invasive education”, a phrasing borrowed from medicine. “Minimally invasive surgery” refers to operations that damage the patient as little as possible. Laparoscopy and robotic surgery are well-established examples. Minimally invasive surgery results in less pain, quicker recovery and fewer complications; it’s better for the patients and for the hospitals. Minimally invasive education can achieve similarly positive results; it’s better for the students and for the schools.

But a strictly hands-off approach is often unnerving and counter-intuitive for educators. The SOLE classroom can appear chaotic, especially in the first few minutes of a session before self-organization becomes apparent. Individual students might look lost or, if not lost, they might be working inefficiently. They might be going off-topic, or covering ground that other students are already working on. Of course, teachers want to help in such cases; it’s an instinct. And it’s an example of Attribution Bias. The teacher might think: “Self organization isn’t happening as well or as quickly as I want, so the kids need my help” and also, egotistically “I’m not giving instruction, which is why the students don’t know what to do.” There is status quo bias at play here as well – disorderly classes are generally held by our education systems to be unsuccessful. The well-meaning teacher tries to fix the chaos problem with some kind of helpful hint that is unavoidably laden with Confirmation Bias.

In SOLEs, any teacher input, no matter how well-intentioned, is dissuaded. Educators must have faith that the students’ instinct to learn will instigate the self-organizing phenomenon that is social learning. SOLEs are the epitome of student-centered education.

SOLEs are anti-establishment. They are an insult to the comfortable traditions of teacher-centered education and standardized testing. But this leads to a problem; the stakeholders – students, parents, schools, school boards, and ministries of education across the World are used to those old paradigms, and there is strong resistance to change. It is wonderfully ironic that this learning approach is finding a place in schools, instigated by a growing number of educators pushing bottom-up education reform.

I have been using SOLEs to teach English in Japan since 2016. Currently, I am teaching/facilitating an online SOLE/English course at the Nagoya University of Art and Design. The students, shrugging off status quo bias, have welcomed the unorthodox approach, and they usually prepare and deliver superb English presentations.

Recently, I gave my class a Big Question about Balyaev’s domestication research: “What are the most important lessons of the Farm Fox Experiment?” Have you heard of the Farm Fox Experiment? It’s an extraordinary scientific endeavor that Soviet zoologist Dmitri Balyaev initiated in 1959. He wanted to know more about the domestication process that turned wolves into man’s best friends. He started with some wild silver foxes, and began breeding them. He selected friendlier ones for reproduction. After just a few generations, the foxes he was producing were tame.

The results were remarkable not only for their speed, but more importantly for unintended transformations. There were physical changes in the tamer foxes. New fur patterns appeared. Ears drooped. Snout length changed.

It proved that in canids behavior is connected to physiology at a genetic level. This led to more research, which continues to this day under Balyaev’s student, geneticist Lyudmila Trut.

After 63 years of research, the Russian team has made important discoveries in genetics, neuroscience, psychology and more. There has been a lot written about the experiment, from peer reviewed research to tabloid articles. There is plenty for students to learn. It is an excellent topic for a SOLE.

I have personally long been fascinated by the Farm Fox Experiment. As the educator/facilitator of my university SOLE class, it is my privilege to choose the Big Questions. I try to pick topics that are of general interest. This time, I was somewhat driven by personal interest and a confirmation bias, which I will explain a little later.

My students did not disappoint. They dove into online research and made a fine presentation. They gave me permission to publish the recording (below). Feel free to leave comments either here or on the YouTube page.

I am a dog person. My family has had dogs most of my life. We had a goofy German Shepherd puppy who was like a brother to me when I was just a toddler. After he died, my parents bought or adopted a series of great dogs – some mongrels, some purebred. As an adult, I have had only purebreds: a beagle, a dalmatian, and now a wheaten terrier named Shandy.

Isn’t she cute?! She’s gentle too. She doesn’t bite people, pee on the floor (not since she was a puppy anyway), or run off into the woods. Why not; why does she accept domestication? Genetically she’s a wolf! Balyaev’s work gives us the answer. She doesn’t behave exactly like a big wild wolf because she doesn’t look exactly like a big wild wolf. And backwards; she doesn’t look like one because she doesn’t behave like one. Shandy is a dog – a very specifically purpose-bred wolf. Her ancestors were carefully selected to be useful and harmless to humans, able to control their urges to bite, pee, and run away. The Irish farmers who created the wheaten terrier 2-300 years ago wanted an all-purpose farm dog and pet; they bred for behavior, and the result was a mix of physical and behavioral identity: soft blond fur, a mop of hair covering the eyes, skill at hunting vermin, and a warm personality.

The various dog breeds have been designed for specific needs by communities of breeders over long periods of time. Depending on the breed, that can be centuries. Herding dogs are a good example; there are many different herding breeds with highly varied forms, reflecting different traits and personality requirements. These dogs, from the Puli to the Australian Cattle Dog, developed over perhaps 1500 years. That is much longer than it took Balyaev to domesticate foxes, of course, and much longer than the basic transformation from wild to tame wolf.

The brilliant instincts of herding dogs demonstrate how specifically engineered different dog breeds are. In this video, a border collie is effortlessly demonstrating skills that a golden retriever would find vary challenging, and a wolf could not do. It took many generations of careful breeding to create dogs that would herd lambs and never attack them.

Have you ever seen a terrier trying to herd sheep? It’s pretty comical.

These days, each breed has an officially recognized standard. That is a set of guidelines to the breed’s appearance, (remembering that the appearance is related to how the dog should behave – if a dog looks exactly like it should, it will behave like the breeders intended). The standards are specific; for a purebred dog, the weight should be within a defined range, the shape of the ears should be just so, the muzzle length, the angle of the neck, the ration of chest width to hip, or tail to spine, etc., all are set down by national breed clubs representing communities of responsible breeders. Over time, the standards might change and develop as the breed is perfected.

]Some aspects of the standards are obvious. Sighthounds are tall and thin, bred for hunting at high speed, and for acting calm around humans. Terriers are stocky and powerful, bred for catching smaller prey that goes to ground. They are also friendly and playful with humans. Their looks suit their functions. At dog shows, tall, sleek, healthy sighthounds that are calm when touched tend to win, become champions, and get to procreate. Likewise, powerful, outgoing, energetic, healthy terriers tend to win. If a dog snaps at the show judge, it likely will never become a champion and a responsible breeder will not allow it to procreate. We can also see how dog shows support the efforts of breeders to perfect the breed; judges consider the fine details of the standard and select the best dogs to win. If a dog doesn’t look just right, there is a good chance it won’t behave just right, and again, a responsible breeder will not let it procreate.

In communities of practice, responsible breeders strive to create dogs that are in better health, have better personalities, and perform their functions better than the dogs’ previous generations. Over time, this leads to perfection of breed standards. The behavior comes first, and looks follow. Wheaten terriers are not bred to have blond fur; their fur is that color because it’s what matches their purpose. Shandy, who came from a highly responsible breeder, looks and behaves exactly like a wheaten should.

The bias that I mentioned above, the one that led me to choose the Farm Fox Experiment as a SOLE topic, comes from my admiration for breeders who protect standards. They produce healthy, beautiful dogs whose behavior is relatively predictable. Families that adopt these puppies get great family pets and working dogs. My bias is against breeders who ignore standards. Breeders of “designer breeds” such as teacup poodles and labradoodles are exploiting the ignorance of buyers by producing mongrels with cute-sounding names. The puppies are radical departures from established breed standards. Their behavior is unpredictable. They might bite. They might be unhealthy; they might have dreadful genetic diseases, like deafness, allergies, or susceptibility to cancer. They might cause loving families heartache.

Of course, genetics is not the only factor guiding a dog’s health and behavior. A bad environment can have as much an affect on a dog as bad breeding. There are naughty purebreds, even some violent, dangerous ones. And there are fantastic mongrels. But in general, as Balyaev and the history of dog breeding has shown us, breed standards really should be followed.

I wanted my students to learn about the Farm Foxes because it is a fascinating scientific, historical, political subject, that’s true: but in hindsight I saw my confirmation bias. I had hoped the question would likely lead them to the my conclusions. I was teaching, which is not how SOLEs are supposed to work; they are supposed to be free of bias. Naughty me!

On the other hand, every time I pick a Big Question for my students, don’t I make a choice? My humanity comes into play every time I make a decision. In the case of the Farm Fox Experiment, my confirmation bias was obvious: but with other Big Questions, all the other Big Questions I’ve asked over the years, bias must have been there too.

As humans, bias is part of who we are. Our strengths and weaknesses, our open and closed-mindedness, are our Ying and Yang. Frankly, at this point in our social evolution, there’s not much that can be done about it. Minimally invasive education, like minimally invasive surgery, requires some amount of intervention. These days, surgeons are able to repair hearts via pinhole surgery using a catheter; that’s a much better option than open heart surgery. But the operation is still invasive to a degree; they have to cut a hole for the catheter. Likewise, teachers can’t help but intrude upon their student’s psyches to some degree in order to be effective. When is it too much? I gave my students a biased Big Question, but I then stepped back and let them draw their own conclusions. You can see from their presentation video, the direction the students took was very much their own.

Teachers should show respect for students by being both communicative and honest. Inevitably, there is going to be bias in lessons, as there is in all communication. If we teachers are mindful of our own biases and if we promote student independence, we can minimalize our invasiveness.

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