Girls, Boys and Bias: Tactics for Teaching Equitably

Illustration by Kate Moore.

Illustration by Kate Moore.

I remember my elementary PE teacher used to call on students to demonstrate the skill we would be learning that day.  He almost invariably chose boys to demonstrate skills during our football, basketball, and baseball units. But he would choose girls during our gymnastics and dance units.  I don’t think his intentions were malicious. I think he was trying to pick students who would be able to show a particular skill and he made assumptions based on our gender. But after a while some of us got mad. We felt our interests were being assumed because of our gender and we wanted the freedom to move beyond those assumptions.

For all the changes in civil rights and gender equality in the last 100 years, our boys and girls still seem to come through our educational systems with different experiences and different opportunities.  While our girls are attaining higher and higher percentages of awarded degrees, they still underperform boys in STEM courses and hold far fewer higher-ranking positions in the workforce. And while our boys continue to outperform girls in STEM courses and are more likely to be praised for speaking up in class, they are more likely to be suspended or considered a problem child in class, and in all non-STEM fields are underperforming girls.

The statistics around gender differences in education raise many questions, the hypotheses to which inflame many emotions. How do we still treat boys and girls differently? Are our expectations unintentionally different for each group? Are the different outcomes in STEM because of inherent differences or because of socialized differences?  You can see how these questions can lead to heated debates.  

One area of debate is whether there are appropriate ways to treat boys and girls differently, and whether that treatment—rather than inherent differences—can lead to different outcomes.   For example, we created “Take Your Daughter to Work Day” to encourage young girls to imagine the careers they could have, and we have special running clubs to encourage girls to be healthy, strong, and empowered. Is that different in a problematic way?

Underlying all of these statistics and hard questions is a desire to give all of our young people equal opportunity to learn, grow, and succeed. We may not know yet exactly how to systematize and codify that equality. We may not have cracked the nut on why our boys are falling behind or how to get girls in STEM. We may not know if or when our treatment of boys and girls should differ.  But one thing we know makes a difference for every single student is a meaningful relationship with their teachers. And that is something we can focus on.

Meaningful Relationships

Regardless of the gender of our students, we can look at them and say, “I know you can succeed and I’m not going to let you fail.”  When we say that to our students (even if it’s silent), it gives us a profoundly different lens on them. It can help to wipe away our biases or preconceived notions; it’s not “there’s a girl, and there’s a boy, and there’s a problem child, and there’s a nice girl,” it’s “here is a child who can have a successful, happy life.”

As we get to know our students, as we learn their interests, their strengths, their weaknesses, their vulnerabilities, we will learn what each of them needs from us. Our students will be coming to the classroom with their own preconceived notions and their own insecurities. The girl who never speaks up in math might be shy under that kind of public scrutiny. We need to find other ways for her to engage and explore the concepts.  The boy who is acting out might have experienced an embarrassment on the way to school and only have a “tough guy” model of how to handle his emotions. We need to let him know that he cannot be disrespectful to his learning community but even more clearly let him know that we will not embarrass him. It is ok for him to experience a setback and his class is here for him.

This is where the whole class becomes a community.  Building meaningful relationships with our students also means building bonds of responsibility and respect to each other. We can set this norm: In our class, we don’t let each other fail. You got the answer wrong? No big deal, let’s work it out.  You had a hard morning, man, we get it. We are here for you.

Regardless of a student’s gender, if we start to see each and every one of our students as an individual with interests and skills, and when we build a learning community that feels responsible to one another, the relationships we form with them will illuminate new possibilities and new ways of seeing themselves. They will start to see themselves not as a label - shy girl, wimpy boy - but as you see them: as a capable, curious child who can have a successful life.

Michal Eynon-Lynch