Learning from New Research About Women

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The new scholarship on women provides a powerful model for addressing the needs of young people who are disadvantaged by race, gender, or class.

Indeed, this resource--already at work in some schools--can reorient teachers' understanding of all students' learning needs: It offers new information on students as learners; it opens for re-examination the knowledge base of the disciplines; and it enables students and teachers to join together in the construction of new knowledge.

Recent research has shed light, for example, on women's ways of knowing. An established model of learning--based on studies conducted with men--suggests, for example, that college students typically move from a dualistic conception that knowledge is either right or wrong to a relativistic understanding that all knowledge is constructed. This evolution depends on students' development of a capacity for detachment--an ability to assess objectively conflicting authorities and systems of thought.

In studies conducted by the psychologists Blythe Clinchy and Claire Zimmerman, however, most college women showed an additional capacity. While they were able to think and act with objectivity, they also acted out of a need to understand the opinions and beliefs of other people. They seemed to step into, not back from, situations--to see and respond to others in their own histories and contexts.

Other studies--using more diverse groups--have verified and expanded these findings about women's multiple approaches to knowing. This work establishes links between women's ways of knowing, ideas about themselves, and responses to questions of values.

Broadening our understanding of different experiences of knowing, these discoveries also invite us to examine just how a body of knowledge--an academic discipline, for example--is constructed. How are such models developed? And--since all psychological models are based on human experience--who is included, who left out in their development? Why is any one model valued more than another?

The scholarship on women's learning repeats a pattern found in other fields: Attention to the lives of women has not simply uncovered new facts but also revealed the construction of knowledge in the disciplines of history, science, and literature.

Explorations in these areas can empower all secondary-school students. For example, as diaries, letters, and other artifacts of women's lives come into view, students and teachers can reconstruct American history.

The fresh perspective is not simply a matter of social life being placed next to the usual study of politics. Rather, old ideas are reviewed in the light of new data; a new set of concepts may be defined. The notion of Manifest Destiny must be reconsidered as individual destinies are found--in a photograph, a diary entry, the line of a quilt's design.

Discoveries may concern not just women but others on the margin as well. One teacher in an urban high school had her students interview their grandmothers about their childhoods, in their diverse times and countries; the class and the teacher together created a history of childhood.

By asking high-school students to engage in such inquiries, we enable them to study history in a new way. And they become critical and creative participants in the construction of knowledge, not simply passive recipients of information.

In science, beyond yielding new sources of data, the current attention to women reveals different ways of conceiving and conducting the scientific process. Barbara McClintock, for instance, winner of the Nobel Prize for her work in genetics, has claimed that she talked to the Indian corn she studied--that she had to let it reveal itself to her.

According to Ms. McClintock's biographer, Evelyn Fox Keller, this method reflects the scientist's assumption that the complexity of nature far exceeds the capacities of human imagination.

To be a scientist is to pay attention to the particular, especially the exceptional. The important thing, Ms. McClintock asserts, "is to develop the capacity to see one kernel [of corn] that is different, and make that understandable. If something doesn't fit, there is a reason and you find it.''

The goal, then, is not to fit particular data to a pre-existing schema, but rather to see difference as the starting place of a new creativity. Ms. McClintock's work suggests a wider repertoire of approaches to knowing than our standard practices might acknowledge or allow.

While gender-related, different approaches are not gender-exclusive. As Ms. McClintock readily avers, she does science the way everybody else does. But she does something else as well--and her methods are different enough that she has been forced to spend years in relative isolation from the scientific community. This "something else'' alerts us to different ways of thinking and acting that may be shared by males and females alike.

For example, the developmental psychologist Carol Gilligan in 1982 challenged the prevailing definition of morality as "justice''--the view that moral problems arise from conflicting claims about rights and are resolved by applying principles of fairness.

In listening to people--especially women--talk about making moral choices, Ms. Gilligan discovered that beyond the notions of rights and fairness, a concern for others and a desire to resolve problems with the least possible disruption of relationships often influenced such decisions. She suggested that models of morality include considerations of "care'' as well as "justice.''

My research has confirmed that men and women use both approaches in making ethical choices.

These modes of framing and resolving moral problems point also to different ways of viewing learners. On one hand, "autonomous'' knowers are concerned with the construction and application of general ideas. They use objective methods, seek the logic of consistency within an argument, and can find in an oppositional stance a way to sort out truth. "Interdependent'' knowers, on the other hand, look for a "narrative'' of relationships and motives that confirm or deny believability.

While men and women alike have access to both modes, the predominance of one approach or the other can have profoundly different consequences for teachers and students. In our recent study at the Emma Willard School in Troy, N.Y. (See Education Week, April 27, 1988), Ms. Gilligan and I found that adolescent girls use these approaches in ways that affect their everyday behaviors as learners.

For example, a history teacher at Emma Willard was dismayed by a question he was asked in a class on American political systems. Having discussed a deal struck by Northern and Southern Democrats, the teacher was marveling at how the system worked to bring about compromise. But a student wondered, "How could the people involved have known to trust the bargainers and believe that their agreement would hold?''

The distressed teacher thought he had not been sufficiently clear. But a colleague suggested that in fact the student had heard his presentation as a "narrative''--a story of relationships between people--not as an exemplar of compromises that make the American political system work. She was asking about the logic of believability, not about the logic of systems.

This alternative framework can help teachers join with students in the enterprises of knowledge and interpretation. Through collaborative explorations, they can move together toward common goals. And as they define new bodies of data, they can see older ones as constructions also, not as established truths.

Attending to women and their experiences enables teachers--and all of their students--to discover new knowledge, to participate in the construction of a discipline, and to share an expanded repertoire of approaches to knowing and learning.

Vol. 07, Issue 35, Page 32

Published in Print: May 25, 1988, as Learning from New Research About Women
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