Equity Cards in the Classroom: Using External Structures to Counteract Internal Bias
Everyone has internal biases. Even the most conscientious, “woke” person you’ve ever met is not immune from the subconscious messaging that permeates our culture. But teachers’ subconscious biases have serious consequences: they determine who gets to participate in class, who is seen as worthy of being challenged with thoughtful questions, and who gets recommended for advanced coursework.
The thing about biases is that even if you know they’re there, and you’re working hard to eliminate them (which we all should be), you won’t always be successful. A study – admittedly conducted in the 1980s – looked at teachers who were actively trying to overcome the anti-girl gender bias in math education.
Many of these teachers worked hard to make sure they were calling on girls frequently in their classrooms, or at least that’s what they thought they were doing. In actuality, they only called on girls about 35% of the time, but that felt like 50% to them! Their gut instinct incorrectly told them that calling on girls >35% of the time would disadvantage the boys. (See Strength in Numbers pp. 22–23 for more on this study.)
And remember, these were not average teachers; these were teachers actively trying to combat their own gender bias.
Can We Self-Regulate Internal Biases?
When I first read about this study, I was curious about how my own internal biases would be reflected in the classroom, so when a colleague needed to collect quantitative classroom data for a Master’s project, I jumped at the chance. I gave her a copy of my seating chart, and she sat in the back of the room taking note of which students were given the opportunity to talk. The class that she observed had a very diverse mix of students.
Unfortunately, she no longer has these data, but I remember the striking overall picture: I significantly favored calling on Black girls in my classroom. There was even one particular white boy who had had his hand up several times, and I went the entire period without calling on him once.
Essentially, I was so concerned with fighting gender and racial biases in math that I overcorrected. Now, given the long history of systemic oppression in this country, that’s not the worst outcome, but it does speak to a fundamental truth:
It is simply impossible for humans to fully self-regulate their own internal biases.
Thus, while it is of course important to interrogate and combat our personal biases, it is also important to employ external structures that prevent our internal biases from affecting our teaching.
Introducing Equity Cards in the Classroom
One of these external structures is the use of equity cards to randomly call on students. Equity cards are a stack of notecards with students’ names that you use to randomly select who answers your questions.
I like using equity cards because in addition to circumventing my own racial and gender biases, equity cards have the added benefit that I don’t have any idea which student is going to be called on when I initially ask a question. Thus, I end up asking deep and challenging questions of ALL students, not just the ones with previously high achievement.
This is particularly important because there is a substantial body of research on the different ways that teachers interact with “high- versus low-expectancy students” (see The Art and Science of Teaching pp. 166–167). Again, we can and should strive to believe that all students are fully capable learners – and shun terms like “high” and “low” – but it is helpful to have an external mechanism like equity cards to prevent a student’s past performance from influencing the quality and depth of questions that we ask them.
Making equity cards for all of your students is way too much work! Pass out a notecard to each student and have kids write their name on it, then keep the cards organized together by period with binder clips. Make sure you individually add-in anyone who was absent on the day you had students write their names.
Then, visibly shuffle the cards before you start calling on students at random so they know you’re not rigging the deck.
Some teachers prefer to use popsicle sticks or clothespins kept in a cup. Whatever works for you!
These equity cards are also great for assigning visibly random groups.
Caveats: Please Be Careful!
While I highly encourage you to consider using equity cards in your classroom, please be aware that there are many ways to implement this strategy that are actually counterproductive and downright harmful. This is something to be done with care and finesse, while constantly attending to the status inequities in your room.
Here are some concrete suggestions and things to watch out for:
This is not a “gotcha” to call on someone who wasn’t paying attention or an attempt to put students on the spot.
Let students know that you’re going to call on someone randomly, and then give them time to think.
Darryl Yong, a professor at Harvey Mudd who is deeply concerned with equity and access, wrote a blog post that has really stuck with me. In it, he argues for the importance of giving students individual think time before asking them to share with a partner.
I think about this post almost every day when I’m teaching. Before using the equity cards to call on a student randomly, I give students silent, independent think time, often with explicit instructions to write down some initial thoughts. I then have them share with a partner before I use the equity cards to randomly call on someone in front of the whole class.
By giving students both individual and partner think time, I lower the threshold for participation and make the prospect of being called on less intimidating.
If you don’t do this, students can find that the equity cards provoke anxiety. I had one student a couple of years ago who had been in my (regular, non-Honors) pre-calculus class, as well as my AP Calculus class the following year. She shared with me that she didn’t mind the equity cards in pre-calc, because the class was “chiller,” but that she hated them in AP Calc because there were so many high-strung, high-achieving students that she felt were judging her if she got something wrong.
I taught this student before I read Darryl’s post on think time, and I have to admit that I was not always careful to give students time to think before using the equity cards to call on them. In fact, I sometimes called on students almost immediately after posing a question!
Thus, when using equity cards to call on students randomly, it is important to:
- Create and maintain a classroom culture that celebrates mistakes.
- Give students plenty of think time (both individually and with partners or groups) so that they don’t feel like you’re putting them on the spot.
- Always be ready with a follow-up question to help scaffold a student who has been called on and still feels confused.
If students complain about the equity cards or ask why you use them, I think it’s a great opportunity to both talk about equity in your classroom and empower student voice and agency. I would start by listening to why they don’t like them – most likely you’ve been implementing equity cards in a way that makes students feel like you’re putting them on the spot (wait time is so important and so hard to maintain!).
Then, explain your rationale and work with students to brainstorm changes that would make the equity cards less intimidating. Would they prefer more individual think time? With or without having to write? Maybe they want to be able to share with a partner before you use the equity cards. There is no one way to implement equity cards well, so work with your students to find something that works for your classroom.
Calling on students at random with equity cards is something to use carefully, because if done wrong it can make your classroom more alienating, rather than more inclusive. That said, if done right, it can promote the idea that everyone in class has ideas that are worthy of consideration, and it can remove the teacher’s personal biases from the equation, allowing all students to fully participate.
We should all constantly work to recognize and eradicate our personal biases, but there are also concrete steps that we can take to externally prevent our biases from influencing who gets to participate.
Good luck, and let me know if you have any questions about using equity cards effectively!
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