Implicit bias may influence assessment results of SEL in a multicultural group of students

Germinaro, K. ., & Jones, J. M. (2021). Diversity in outdoor education: Discrepancies in SEL across a school overnight program. Journal of Experiential Education.

A rich body of research documents positive connections between outdoor education and the social emotional learning (SEL) of children and youth. A related area of research receiving only limited attention relates to the intersection of SEL, outdoor education, and culturally sustaining pedagogy (CSP). To be “culturally sustaining,” pedagogies need to allow and support students “in sustaining the cultural and linguistic competence of their communities while simultaneously offering access to dominant cultural competence.” This study addressed this gap in the literature by examining SEL growth across a multicultural group of students who participated in an immersive outdoor education program designed to reflect culturally responsive teaching (CRT).

Sixty-nine students from several different schools in Washington State were involved in this study. They all participated in a multi-day School Overnight Program (SOP) offered by an environmental education center in the Pacific Northwest. The CRT approach used by this program incorporates multiple cultures, celebrates similarities and differences, and encourages students to engage cross-culturally. The program is also intentionally designed to promote SEL. Researchers used a SOP-specific instructor rubric as the primary tool for assessing participants’ growth in SEL over the span of the program. The rubric – which was developed in consultation with the program staff – was framed around four social emotional domains relating to Living and Learning in Community: communication, collaboration, peer interaction, and decision making. SOP instructors used this rubric to rate their students’ skills at the end of the first full day of instruction and again immediately after the students departed the program. Of the 69 study participants, 49.3% were white; the other 50.7 % were coded as students of color.

Instructors’ ratings of students’ SEL skills across the four domains significantly increased from pre- to post-instruction. There were differences, however, between the ratings of white students and students of color, with the white students receiving higher ratings. In the communication domain, the differences between the white students and students of color were statistically significant. There were two subcategories in the communication domain: group engagement and community expectations. Of these, statistically significant differences between ratings for white students and students of color were found only in the group engagement subcategory, not in the community expectations.

According to the researchers, the differences in group engagement ratings between the white students and students of color may be partly due to implicit bias of the instructors. Two suggestions for addressing this concern are offered. First, create an objective definition of group engagement. This definition would avoid using such words as “appropriate,” since this term leaves room for implicit bias. Second, give students a voice in creating rubric standards. Metrics co-designed with students are more likely to reflect individual versus cultural norms and thus less likely to be influenced by implicit bias. Implementing these and other suggestions offered by the researchers may be helpful in creating more positive learning experiences for all students.

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