The Surprising Difference That Gender-Neutral Classrooms Can Make by Sarah Sparks in Education Week, May 9, 2012 (via Marshall Memo 436)
In this intriguing Education Week article, Sarah Sparks reports that while boys and girls naturally play together as toddlers, by the time they reach kindergarten they are spending only 9 percent of their play time with children of the opposite sex. Girls might have a “no boys allowed” lunch table and boys might exclude a quiet girl from their games. “Separation is a fact of human childhood,” says Lise Eliot, a neuroscience professor at Chicago Medical School and author of Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps and What We Can Do About It (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2009). The tendency of young children to sex-segregate creates “two separate cultures that persist throughout childhood.”
But that doesn’t happen in all classrooms, reports Sparks. While children naturally develop gender identity, she says, “classroom demographics and teacher practices can make a big difference in how and whether students develop sex-based stereotypes and prejudices.” Janet Hyde of the University of Wisconsin-Madison has found that although there are small gender differences in preschool children’s activity level (boys tend to be more active) and ability to focus (girls tend to be better at this), there is “no solid evidence that boys and girls actually learn differently.” Hyde is emphatic: “You never hear a good, modern neuroscientist stay the brain is hard-wired. In fact, it is characterized by great neural plasticity, so… any differences you see are at least as likely caused by differences in the experiences of males and females as to any kind of anatomical differences present from birth.”
• Classroom demographics – Erin Pahlke of Arizona State University/Tempe studied 21,000 early-childhood, kindergarten, and first-grade children and found that gender parity in classrooms improves behavior and achievement:
- In classes with approximately similar numbers of boys and girls, there is better self-control among all children.
- Children in classes in which one or the other sex is the dominant majority (around 80 percent) are less self-controlled – and this is true for girls as well as boys.
- When there is a higher percentage of girls in a class, reading and math achievement improves for boys and girls.
• Teacher actions – Teachers’ beliefs about student abilities play an important part, says Pahlke – for example, thinking that boys are better than girls at math. In a class with more boys than girls, a teacher might unconsciously think, “Oh, boys are better at math. I can use more-advanced math approaches.” And the same might be true with giving more-demanding reading assignments in a majority-female classroom.
Also, common classroom practices like addressing students “Boys and girls” and lining them up separately causes children to develop the idea that genders are fundamentally different, say Pahlke and Rebecca Bigler of the University of Texas/Austin. “If you compare it to race,” says Bigler, “if you said to your 1st grade classrooms, ‘Good morning, whites and Latinos; let’s have the Latinos get our pencils,’ what would happen is you would go to federal prison. Labeling children routinely by race in your classroom is a violation of federal law, but, of course, you can do this routinely with gender.”
Bigler says that very young children can tell male from female, but they can also see lots of other human differences – for example, ethnicity and whether people are wearing hats. Kids tune in on how adults talk about differences: “Labeling is especially powerful,” she says – for example, saying that a man is a “hat wearer” makes the description more permanent and intrinsic in children’s minds than saying, “he likes to wear hats.”
Researchers had a group of summer-school teachers randomly distribute red and blue shirts to their students and require that they be worn every day. In some classrooms, teachers didn’t refer to the shirts at all, while in others, teachers used them to group students – for example, lining up by red shirts and blue shirts or “Let’s have the red students turn in their books now.” Bigler reports that in the classrooms where teachers routinely referred to students by shirt color, even though teachers weren’t saying that one color was better than the other, there was stereotyping and prejudice among children. In classrooms where shirt color wasn’t mentioned, that didn’t happen.
This and other experiments lead researchers to conclude that the casual, unconscious use of gender to address and organize students in primary-grade classrooms has a major impact on children’s behavior. They enter preschool playing pretty equally with either gender, but they rapidly move toward self-segregation, playing overwhelmingly with their own gender and becoming less comfortable with children of the opposite sex.
Laura Hanish of Arizona State has found this leads children to behave in more gender-stereotyped ways, with boys playing farther away from teachers and becoming more aggressive with each other and girls playing closer to teachers and interacting in more “female” ways. “As girls play with girls,” says Hanish, “they start to become more skilled in the interactional styles and patterns typical of girls and less skilled in the interactional styles and patterns associated with boys. You start to see increasing segregation. Children develop a fairly limited set of interaction skills: less understanding, appreciation, respect of one another. All of that can translate into a host of problems across classrooms. It can translate to less effective interactions across academic tasks, harassment, bullying.”
The Arizona State researchers created the Sanford Harmony Program to try to change these dynamics and implemented it in several schools, focusing on two critical transition grades – preschool and fifth grade. Teachers got professional development on the impact of gender labeling on children. “It was an eye-opening thing realizing how many times I was inadvertently categorizing the children… based on whether they were boys or girls,” says preschool teacher Jacque Radke. “There was personal self-awareness that came out.”
Throughout the year, Radke and her colleague Erica Flynn did not use gender to address or organize their students. Each Monday, children were paired with a new “class buddy” of the opposite sex, and every day, buddies did an activity together – art, music, active physical games, etc. The classes also had direct instruction in social skills such as listening, sharing, and cooperation. Researchers found that children in the gender-neutral classrooms were more socially competent, less aggressive, less exclusionary, and showed better social skills toward both boys and girls. Teachers reported that students were better behaved and better at following directions than those in traditional classrooms.
“Every Monday, they’re excited to come in and see who their new buddy is,” says Radke. “What we began to see was on their own, they would sit with their buddy for the sit-down, read-aloud activity… Not every buddy partnership works well, but I resisted the temptation to change it, because there were a lot of odd couples that ended up working well.”
Cliquishness also declined, said Flynn, and students became more likely to play together, cooperate, and help each other. “Before, there was a lot more arguing,” she says. “Now, we’ll hear them say ‘Good job’ or ‘It’s OK’ – really supportive words. It’s like they’re kinder to each other.”
In addition, some small-scale bullying that occurred at the beginning of the year – telling a child he was not a friend or she couldn’t sit with a group – completely vanished. “I truly believe that as the children engage in structured buddy activities, they are learning to know each other, and this connection is reflected by growth in their patience and tolerance as they interact together throughout the day,” says Radke. “Not hearing that [bullying] language is a huge change in our class.”