What do you think of when you hear the word Africa? Syria? Britain? I imagine, if you really consider it, certain images or connotations came to mind that helped you feel an understanding of the place mentioned. This is natural and part of the process of how we make sense of the world around us.

For example, I have never been to Japan but I imagine it as follows:

  • mountainous landscapes, based on my experience of martial arts practices
  • a diet of mainly rice and fish, based on studies that say people live longer due to this.
  • people of a shorter height than those in Britain.

Some of my thoughts about Japan may be generally correct. Some of them may be shared by you. However, have you ever considered how we build up understandings of something we’ve never experienced? Our mind’s are like a big filing system, creating webs of related information about all manner of topics. With so much information to process about the world around us, it is inevitable that errors in our ‘filing system’ will occur, leading us to make generalisations or assumptions that are incorrect. This is where stereotyping occurs.

Stereotyping isn’t necessarily a bad thing; generalisations can help us at a superficial level until we are able to add to that particular web of understanding. A bias becomes an issue when views or experiences on a small scale are used to make judgments and assumptions for a majority, and also when it leads us to feel so secure in our understanding that it offers a false, fixed sense of knowledge.

How then, do we help learners become aware of stereotypes and bias? And more importantly, why should we? Firstly, our learners need to be made aware that judgments get made. Without understanding this, it’s a challenge for them to understand how people come to those judgments.

An activity you could try to help learners see their stereotypes in action is to use a basic pared matching activity like the one I’ve provided in the downloadable activity sheet. In this activity, learners match descriptions of people to pictures.
Challenges arise as learners discover that there’s overlap and contradiction built in. Some of the pictures can be used to with more than just one pictured person.

From this learners will be faced with the possibility that there isn’t a right or wrong answer and as we gently guide their discussion, they’ll learn how to discuss their reasoning in a structured yet comfortable way. Depending on the level of your students and where you teacher, it may be that you can bring the experiences and backgrounds of others into the discussions too.

Why is this important? That one’s simpler; because it reminds us we’re all unique people, with different interpretations, thoughts and feelings.

Download activity sheets