One may express amusement at the thought of the existence of a true correlation between physical appearance and/or demeanor and students’ academic achievement. While it lacks sufficient empirical evidence, the claim may hold some truth. Good looking students do perform better at school, and conversely, students who under-perform are often untidy and “poorly maintained.”
The connection between physical appearance and/or demeanor and academic achievement is indirect, in that there are other variables at work to make the former possible. Being humans, teachers are naturally inclined to be attracted to good looking students. This attraction results in increased attention, frequent constructive feedback and role/power sharing by the teacher. Consequently, these positive behaviors increase a student’s motivation to learn and achieve.
Obviously, this is not the situation we want to have in schools. Every student, whether “attractive” or not, has the right to having undivided attention, constructive feedback and opportunities for role/power sharing from the teacher. Most students under-perform because one or more of the abovementioned elements is missing in the learning process. It is a teacher’s primary duty to provide such an experience to students. Making it happen for all students is a challenge that needs to be addressed.
Bias and favoritism
Despite the fact that humans naturally succumb to personal biases resulting primarily from interpersonal attraction, teachers need to be conscious about their responses to every child. Responding to people based on “attraction-at-first-sight” may work for others but should not be entertained in a learning environment. When a teacher does not deliberately shun such an experience, he or she invariably engages in favoritism, which may manifest itself through various forms of discrimination that arise from stereotypical thinking and prejudiced feeling toward students.
Favoritism is a quality that shatters the trust students have in their mentor. Learning is severely affected when there is no or lack of trusting relationship between students and teacher.
Overcoming natural tendencies
One simple way to work against the attraction-at-first-sight effect is to get to know students by spending more time with each one of them (within instruction and school time). This works because it is not just a matter of mental choice but involves concrete actions toward removing whatever stereotype or prejudice a teacher may hold toward a student or a group of students. All of us are familiar with the experience of not liking someone at first sight; however, as time passes and we get to know that person, we suddenly realize that our pre-conceptions based on our attraction-at-first-sight instinct were wrong. The same could be applied with students. Research in social psychology have established that familiarity with people facilitates and enhances interpersonal attraction in a significant way.
But where does a teacher find time to get to know more about each student when they are handling twenty to thirty students at one go?
The 2×4 technique
The 2×4 strategy allows a teacher to interact with a pre-selected student for two minutes, for four consecutive weeks. This is ideally done just before the class begins or ends. Each day of the week could be dedicated to one child. The teacher could cover a total of five students in each 4-week slot, and then move on to the next set of five students. The teacher should use his or her judgment and ethical guidelines to choose appropriate subjects to talk about, giving emphasis to getting to know students better.
The 2×4 exercise would allow the teacher to check for and clear misconceptions about students, particularly the ones the teacher was not keen on knowing in the first place because of the attraction-at-first-sight effect. More importantly, this strategy allows both the parties to identify similarities and celebrate the same to become a closely knit learning organization.