Gender in the classroom

All kids deserve the chance to learn to their full potential, but unconscious stereotypes can get in the way. Here’s what can be done about it.

Presented in partnership with Plan International

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Illustration: Melissa Cheung

It’s 2016. We have gender parity in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet. We know that “girls can do anything” and that it’s OK for boys to wear pink. And yet, if Arwyn Carpenter’s kindergarten students in downtown Toronto are at all typical, gender roles are still alive and well, and a big part of our kids’ experience at school.

“Right now, most of the girls are drawing flower patterns in the sand, and they’re talking about who can make the most beautiful flowers,” says Carpenter, as she watches them play outside during afternoon recess. “The boys are running back and forth to the water fountain with buckets, getting ‘gas’ for the gas station they’ve made in the sand and pouring the ‘gas’ down the slide. Oh, and now some of the girls have run over to join the boys.”

As Kevin Davison, a Canadian researcher in gender and education who currently teaches at the National University of Ireland, Galway, explains, gender can be described as the social and cultural beliefs we attach to being male or female. “We’re all gendered, and we all live our experiences of gender every day,” he says. “There’s nothing wrong with that—we’re not aiming for some ideal of androgyny.”

What we are aiming for, though, are classrooms and schoolyards where all students can learn to their full potential. Too often, however, gender stereotypes—and their real-life applications—get in the way of that. Whether boys are seen as, and therefore conditioned to be, less empathetic, or girls grow up falsely believing they aren’t innately good at math and sciences, we all lose out.

The good news is that we can disrupt those stereotypes and their consequences. Just look at girls’ gains in sports, leadership roles, and math and sciences over the past couple of decades. Gender differences in math performance, for example, “have more or less evaporated until the very end of high school,” says Lise Eliot, a neuroscientist at the Chicago Medical School at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science. If we can change learning environments to create more equal outcomes in math, then there’s no reason we can’t change them to create more equal outcomes, period.

Making a difference
And yet, schools often treat boys and girls as though they’re different species. One of the most obvious examples, especially in the early grades, is “gender splitting”: when teachers send “all the girls, then all the boys” to put on their snowsuits, or ask for “a couple of strong boys to help lift this heavy bench.” Even addressing students as “girls and boys” reinforces the idea that there are two (and only two) distinct types of people in the classroom and that they should act and be treated differently.

Other gendered classroom practices can be more subtle, even unconscious, says David Sadker, who co-authored Failing at Fairness: How America’s Schools Cheat Girls with his late wife, Myra Sadker. Their research shows that at every grade level, teachers tend to pay more attention to boys in their classes, calling on them more often and asking them harder and more complicated questions than they do girls. This is especially true in math and science, where teachers (likely subconsciously) expect boys to be more capable. If a girl falters when answering a question, teachers are more likely to repeat it and then ask another student, usually a boy, to provide the answer. When boys falter, however, teachers give them extra time, reframe the question or break it down into a series of simpler problems. And while boys are disciplined more frequently and harshly, they also get more praise and feedback, while girls’ work is lauded for its appearance rather than its content. Teachers of subjects perceived as “feminine,” like language and arts, conversely, spend more time engaged with girls. Research shows these patterns persist from preschool right up to graduate school.

Teachers also rely on so-called “target students”—often white and male—who ask more questions and typically call out answers, to keep the pace of the classroom going. And they will use gender as a classroom management strategy, seating, for example, an unruly boy next to a quieter girl, a tactic that subtly pushes girls to take responsibility for boys’ behaviour rather than asking boys to exert more self-control.

It’s essential to note that teachers aren’t consciously choosing to privilege (or punish) one gender over another. “Often it’s so subtle or ingrained that it’s invisible,” says Davison. “Part of the solution is becoming aware of these behaviours so we can change them.” Some teachers videotape themselves to track whether and how they treat boys and girls differently, and then change their behaviours accordingly—for example, waiting longer to let girls answer in science class, making an effort to call on quieter students or being sure to give both girls and boys constructive praise about their work.

Imposing a sense of order
Teachers aren’t the only or even the major force shaping gender in the classroom. Kids themselves are heavily invested in gender norms and rules.

“Little kids really want to figure out the world and understand where they fit into it, and gender is a huge part of that,” says Eliot, who wrote Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps—and What We Can Do About It. “They’re also good at opposites, and they see gender as an opposite”—a belief reinforced by TV, ads, clothes, toys and even their parents.

Small bias, big impact
Eliot has studied male and female brains extensively and has found virtually no difference between the two. Infant’s and children’s brains, she says, display only “a few subtle biases.” For example, toddler girls acquire language about a month earlier than boys, while boys excel at spatial navigation.

These subtle biases, however, are magnified and reinforced over time through the messages kids pick up from the world around them, making it all but impossible to tease apart nature and nurture. Eliot, for example, points out that parents—even those who profess to treat their sons and daughters the same—read and talk more to girls than boys, and are likelier to label the same negative emotions in baby boys as “anger” and in girls as “fear.” These small differences can have a big impact, as Eliot notes: Even by four months, baby girls are already somewhat more sociable than boys, making more eye contact than boys of the same age, because their brains have been given that much more practice with these social skills. While we don’t know for sure what’s nurture and what’s nature, what’s clear is that the mere assumption that boys are “hard-wired” to be less communicative and more emotionally distant becomes a self-fulfilling—and, if you think about it, tragic—prophecy.

Similarly, parents tend to underestimate their girls’ physical prowess, but not their sons’. Parents and teachers will often encourage boys to take more risks and roam more freely than they do girls—which, unsurprisingly, helps to develop boys’ spatial skills, whether that’s on the soccer field or in the lab. What’s more, kids tend to want to play with peers of their own gender—and when they do, they reinforce stereotypes, says Eliot.

What’s the solution?
Are single-sex schools or classrooms the solution to gender-based inequities? In a word, no. In 2014, researchers analyzed 184 studies from around the world comparing single-sex versus coeducational schooling and found no advantage in separating boys and girls at any grade level.

Instead of separating the sexes, Eliot suggests teachers orchestrate activities so that all students have opportunities to interact and to practise a range of skills—from reading and building empathy to catching balls and constructing forts. That might mean bringing pairs of boys and girls together for daily one-on-one “buddy time.” It could mean creating so-called “unstructured play” so that on one day the activities relate to building and spatial awareness, and another day on pretend play or reading. It also wouldn’t hurt for parents to organize coed playdates and to become conscious of the ways they may treat sons and daughters differently.

In other words, perhaps the best classrooms and curricula for all kids are the ones that play to everyone’s strengths. It means looking past stereotypes to encourage kids to discover who they are: kindergarten boys who like Frozen; their female friends who want to play “gas station”; the child who hasn’t decided whether to go by “he” or “she” or something else. As Davison points out, we can acknowledge and work with gender differences while also finding creative ways to challenge them.

In a unit on bridges, for example, most of the boys in Carpenter’s class had taken the lead on gathering materials, building and testing out stability. To engage more of the girls, the teacher introduced an empathy factor, a social context for bridge building. The class read a book about how P.T. Barnum took his elephants across the Brooklyn Bridge to test its strength. “We talked about ethical conditions of having elephants in the circus and then the girls were very interested,” she says. “It seems that once the girls had a reason to care about the bridge, they were right in there, working co-operatively with the boys to build bridges together.”

How to fight gender stereotypes at home
You treat your daughter the same way you treat your son, right?

Maybe not. Dozens of experiments show that adults—even the ones who swear up and down that they’re gender-blind when it comes to kids—actually view children’s behaviour through gender-tinted glasses. When told that a group of infants they’re observing are boys, for example, adults will describe them more often as angry or distressed. When informed that they’re girls, adults will describe the same babies as happy and socially engaged. One study asked parents to estimate how steep of a slope their 11-month-old infants could crawl down: Moms of sons got it right within one degree, while those who have daughters underestimated their kid’s ability by nine degrees—even though there are no differences in infant boys’ and girls’ motor skills.

Can parents take off those gender-tinted glasses? Not necessarily: Gender isn’t something we can simply opt out of. But we can make an effort to notice, and adjust, some of our all-too automatic responses to gender. Here are some ways to do it.

  • Encourage physical adventurousness with girls. Play rough-and-tumble and tickling games. Let your baby daughter climb to the top of the stairs or the slide. See how far she can get before you offer help. Try to stifle the constant parental urge to call out, “Be careful!” Try replacing the warning with, “Look at you go!”
  • Engage emotionally and verbally with boys. Make eye contact, cuddle, sing, talk about feelings, read books. Find books and toys that appeal to boys but also have great emotional content, says Eliot.

A version of this article originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of Today’s Parent, p.45.

Read more:
Can we please stop using “girl” as an insult?
Does your child challenge traditional gender roles?
Transgender kids not confused about identity: Study

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