I have been a strong advocate of teaching boys and girls differently for a few years now. My reasons for pushing gender-based learning are neurological and cognitive – boys' and girls' brains just work differently. And we have begun to realize that, because of the way traditional schools work, boys are getting a raw deal. They are more likely to fail a year, far more likely to be diagnosed with a learning problem, more likely to suffer from low self-esteem because of their underachievement and less likely to go on to university. This is a world-wide crisis which has been well documented.
At my school this year, we have separated boys and girls in Grade 9 and the results so far have been amazing. The boys' class I teach is a revelation: filled with newly confident and engaged young men.
And then a gently revolutionary colleague named Colleen Walls planted this thought: 'In telling girls they are more compliant and easier to manage, are we not reinforcing the stereotype that women in general need to be this way?' That is, when we teach girls, most of us note how much more diligent, compliant and measured they are. They study better, are less disruptive and can manage their work and time better.
But what if this view of girls actually socializes them into being this way when they leave school? And what if this kind of gender stereotyping is the worst thing we can do for girls? I have no doubt that we need to be doing more for boys in our classrooms, but I now also believe we need to be doing more for girls too.
Says Kevin Stannard:
“Schools must subvert gender stereotypes and encourage 'disruption' to ensure girls' academic achievements translate into career success.
…Across the world women are outperforming men at school and at university, and yet this superiority is not translating into sustained success in the world of work. From politics to the police service, men outstrip women in terms of salaries and representation at the top of management.
… What if the very strategies that bring women success at school also stand in the way of career progression? In the words of US businesswomen Whitney Johnson and Tara Mohr in the Harvard Business Review: “The very skills that propel women to the top of the class in school are earning us middle-of-the-pack marks in the workplace.”
… As Johnson and Mohr point out, work isn't school. They propose that “disruption is a proven path to success” and suggest that girls adapt their school behaviour: figuring out how to challenge and influence authority; preparing well but also learning to improvise; finding effective forms of self-promotion; welcoming a less prescribed career path; and going for being respected not just liked.
What does this all mean for how we teach girls? Honestly, I've had to have a rather serious rethink about how we teach boys and girls. I still believe that they do need to be taught differently, but I now believe that where with boys, it is the teaching methodology which matters in getting them more engaged, with girls it is the hidden philosophy behind our teaching that matters. In teaching young ladies our overarching message needs to be to encourage them to be less compliant and more adventurous, to take more risks and to challenge authority. We need to convince them that their strategies for succeeding in school might not be what they need to be independent, successful young women in the world of work.
Or we could just change the way school works altogether.