Making a Fuss: Quality Gender Education

One of the ways in which I make my living is observing pre-service teachers teach in US classrooms and one of the things that most surprises me is the ability of female students to become invisible.  As I observe the class, these girls sit quietly, sometimes staring blankly in front of them while the teacher teaches to the animated students who are nearly always boys. 

A key term that we use with great abandonment in education is ‘inclusion’. We often think of inclusion in terms of the learning styles that best suit our students, or making sure that ethnic minorities are kept in the picture.  However, we often forget about girls that are not making a fuss.  They come in. They sit down. They become invisible. As a silent observer I watch them as they sneak a look at a celebrity magazine under their books, or see their hands twitch as their thumbs move rapidly texting on silent cell phones.  One thing you can almost be sure of is that they are learning very little, and sad to say often without the teacher noticing. 

As teachers we know that we talk to boys more often in the classroom.  We know that, once students are not ‘doing anything’ it is easy to ignore them.  But ignoring the girls in our classrooms is detrimental to them and to society at large.  Countless pieces of research have indicated that the quality education of women is critical to the development and the successful future of individuals and societies.  However, women of all ages are bombarded by a plethora of messages that tell them what the ideal woman in like. 

Girls are not savvy about technology, they cannot do math, they are not logical. Girls are ‘sugar and spice and all things nice’.  They are candy coated, frosted, airbrushed creatures that adorn magazines and are famous for being famous. ‘If I only had a brain’ could be their theme song.  However, many of these ‘famous’ girls have taken the cool and calculating step to package themselves as ‘airheads’ because it sells.  Both men and women are attracted to their brand of nothingness.  They are rich they are famous or infamous and many of our girls want to be them.

Boys are of course are ‘techno geeks’ they love the logic of mathematics, they are tough, they never cry and the world is waiting for them to change it.  In the classroom they are often expected to be noisy, boisterous.  Just being boys.  But girls are expected to be meek and mild, gentle, quiet and ultimately this often plays out in our classrooms as wearing a coat of invisibility. 

In theories on motivation in education one of the best predictors of student motivation seems to be the role of possible selves in perceived competence and self-regulation of individuals. Possible selves are individuals’ ideas about what they ‘might become’, or what they are ‘afraid of becoming’ or what they ‘would like to become’.  They contribute to motivation by providing individuals with specific goals for which they can strive, and they motivate through providing emotional energy to pursue the goal. If girls are presented with figures of women that are distorted through the lens of media figures that are ‘perfect’ and that bear little resemblance to reality, then female students’ role models of present day possible selves are arguably being unnecessarily limited (Oysermann and Markus 1990). This seems very pertinent to the invisible girls present in many classrooms.  As teachers if we fail to notice that we are excluding fifty per cent of our students we and society at large will be held accountable.  We need to provide our female students with a quality education that gives them the opportunity to become visible in our classrooms.  Perhaps we should start by expecting as much from the invisible girls as we do from the visible boys.  If girls prefer group work, then introduce elements of group work and cooperative learning. If girls are said to like role-play and discussion, them make sure all your lessons have elements of these in them.  Put pictures up in your classroom of famous women that have made a difference to the world, but not just the pictures, talk about them.  Tell all your students that they can make a difference in the world in which they live.  Quality gender education is a large part of the recipe for educating future generations.  We need to start making a fuss.

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