Critical thinking – the bias battle | Cambridge English

Biases are often missed. They can be conscious or unconscious, but either way they affect our views and judgments when it comes to critical thinking. So what types of bias are there and how can we ensure our learners are aware of their own biases in the classroom?

If you read part one of this blog post, you’ll remember Tim Van Gelder and his article, ‘Teaching Critical Thinking: Some Lessons From Cognitive Science’. He believes that we all have tendencies that “corrupt our thinking and contaminate our beliefs”, so we must be aware of them and compensate for their influence. These tendencies are called biases and they impact our judgment of a particular person, opinion, or thing. They unknowingly can change our support or opposition of a particular subject matter.

For instance, if one of your students is always late for a class, you may assume that they are lazy and disorganised, even though you are not aware of the internal and external factors that may have contributed to this result. What if this student lives in an area with scarcity of public transportation? However, when it is you who are late, you expect people to attribute the reasons for that to external factors, like unexpected traffic or another unforeseen event. You fell prey to the ‘fundamental attribution error’, a tendency to attribute a particular behavior to unreasonable stereotypes, while attributing your own similar behavior to external factors.

So the natural question is “how do I identify these biases and what should I do to overcome them?”

Overcoming bias

In order to identify biases, we must first be aware of their existence. Then we can learn about each type of bias and conclude if we have that bias. Note that having biases does not necessarily imply that we’re bad people. We all have biases. They come from our upbringing, from our culture and society, from our education, and our life experiences, etc.

As for the number of biases out there, you will find answers ranging from 3 to… 197!

Just imagine explaining all of them to our students before we can even begin to talk about critical thinking. And yet, this might be one of the most important insights they can have in order to develop critical thinking. Biases can make us avoid information that does not align with our beliefs and make us see connections between ideas that do not exist. A bias can cause the perpetuation of misconceptions and misinformation.

Being aware of our biases

We can’t really think critically unless we are aware of our biases. But because there are so many of them, we have to make choices. Choose some of them and find opportunities in our lesson plans, group discussions, homework assignments, and other interactions with students to present these biases and talk about them.

Below are suggestions on how to incorporate the study of biases into your practice. They use examples from the pages of our book series Global Changer. And if you are asking yourself “Which biases should I choose to teach?”, that’s a question only you can answer. Look for the most common types of biases or make decisions based on those you have noticed in your classes. I hope you can apply these suggestions to your reality.

Example 1: confirmation bias

Let’s start with the one which is probably the most famous: confirmation bias. This is the tendency to only look for or believe in information that supports our opinion or affirmation.

This poster was taken from an activity (Tirado da página 66, Starter book) and can be assigned as homework. This suggestion has no connection to the activity in the book whatsoever.

I would start in class by asking students to discuss why some people like dogs, others prefer cats, and some like both. After students have shared their thoughts, ask them to choose one side (team dog or team cat). They can then do some research at home to find evidence to support the opinion that their pet choice is better. For example, if they choose ‘team cat’, they have to find evidence that shows that cats are better than dogs.

Likewise, if they choose ‘team dog’, they have to find evidence that shows that dogs are better than cats. But there is a catch: if they are ‘team cat’, they have to search the web using the following terms: ‘Why are dogs better than cats?’. If they are ‘team dog’, they have to search using the terms: ‘Why are cats better than dogs?’. They have to go through the results and find evidence to support their sides of the argument.

In the following class, ask them about the experience…

  • Why was it harder to find evidence to support your team when you use those search terms?
  • Are you able to find evidence?
  • Do you agree with those pieces of evidence? Why?
  • Did you find any evidence that supports the other team that you actually agree with? What was it?
  • Which search terms would be more impartial? Maybe try “the difference between dogs and cats or cats and dogs” or something like that?’
  • etc.

Finally, teach them about confirmation bias. Ask them to think of other situations in which this bias may be present.

In this exercise you’re taking an opportunity to introduce a type of bias. You’re also practicing critical thinking skills with your students. You’re asking them to listen to the reasons why people may have a different opinion, find something that they can agree with (even if it doesn’t support their views), notice how their biases influence how they get information about something, and how this bias impacts the discussion they were having.

Example 2: attribution (or attributional) bias

The attribution (or attributional) bias affects the way we determine who or what was responsible for something. We draw conclusions based on a person’s character because we don’t have the full picture of a situation, or we don’t know what’s really happening.

In this activity (Tirado da página 123, activity 1, Starter book) there are two user reviews: one is a man from Tokyo and the other is a woman from France. Again, this suggestion is not mentioned in the teacher’s guidelines and should be considered as an extra activity.

Organise students into groups. Tell them that some users on this website disagreed with Akira’s review, saying the apartment “was in fact pretty small”. It makes sense, as Akira mentions the bedrooms were small, the balcony was small, and there wasn’t a yard. How can that be big? Then ask the groups “why did Akira say that in the review?” and have them discuss his reasons. But before they start discussing, give each group a slip of paper with one piece of information. Each group will receive a different piece of information. The information could be something like: “Akira is young/ is a man/ is Japanese/ lied.”

When students are done discussing, invite volunteers to share their answers and reveal which piece of information they were given. Ask the groups if that information influences their answers and, if so, how? Then ask questions to show to students that they don’t really know Akira, they haven’t been to the apartment, and they didn’t have enough information to make a judgment. For example: “how many times has Akira used the services of Air BnB? How many countries have they been to? What reviews have they written? How expensive was this apartment? Where was this apartment?”… and so on.

And then reveal the right answer…

Akira is from Tokyo, one of the most populated cities in the world and where the cost of living is very high. This causes most people to live their entire lives in small apartments because they are affordable. He spent his whole life living in a tiny apartment, so when he stayed in a hotel overseas, every apartment seemed to be bigger than the one he was used to, especially because there is even a balcony with many plants. And then explain attribution (or attributional) bias to students and ask them to think of other situations in which this type of bias may be present.

Teaching bias and critical thinking skills

By following this step-by-step process, I believe we can talk about bias with our students and increase the chances of them incorporating critical thinking skills into their lives.

1) Choose a bias.

  • Search for a list of biases and read the basic definitions.

2) Learn about it.

  • After you choose the bias you want to teach your students, read about. You must understand how this bias is created and how it presents itself.

3) Identify opportunities to use this bias (book, class activities, homework, etc.)

  • When you understand a bias, you’re more likely to think of opportunities this bias will present itself in your classes. It could be used as a warm-up activity or as a complement to an activity tin your court book. You can add it to a discussion activity or assign it as homework, etc.

4) Create conditions so that this type of bias will be present without students knowing about it.

  • This is very important. You have to create the conditions for biases to rear up their ugly head, so to speak, in a ‘natural way’, even if you have to use inputs or guide students with questions.

5) Reveal the influence this bias had on students.

  • Once the activity is done, draw your students’ attention to the effect the bias had on them.

6) Formally introduce the bias.

  • Name the bias, explain the idea behind this bias, and provide some extra examples.

7) Transfer that knowledge to other situations.

  • In order to make sure your students got it, ask them to think of other scenarios, situations, in which this bias may be present. They may even give testimonials about how such bias has affected their judgment or behavior.

So, what can we take from this?

If you are a critical thinker, you probably will take everything I said with a grain of salt. Do your own research, think about what I said and showed to you today, reflect on the benefits and throwbacks of using this approach and reach your own conclusions. I hope this article gives you some insights so that you can find a way to incorporate the study of bias into your classes.

Watch the full webinar on this topic, here:


Read about Critical Thinking, download lesson plans and watch a short video on the topic, in Cambridge researcher Jasmin Silver’s critical thinking blog post. Or, read part 1 of this blog post, ‘A deep dive into critical thinking – what is it and how is it taught?’ to hear more from Mauricio Shiroma.

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