Gender Studies Helping Girls and Boys, Book Argues

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San Francisco

What began as a research movement aimed at improving educational opportunities for girls has in recent years yielded techniques to help both male and female students.

This evolution of understanding is at the heart of a new text on gender issues and education released here last week by the National Association of Independent Schools at the group's annual conference. About 3,200 teachers, school heads, and other administrators attended the group's four-day meeting.

In writing the book, Anne Chapman of Western Reserve Academy, a grade 9-12 private school in Hudson, Ohio, compiled research from hundreds of recent studies into 150 pages dealing with stereotypes, pedagogy, and attitudes A Great Balancing Act: Equitable Education for Boys and Girls that offers new educational practices based on this research.

"It's keeping the things that work for boys and bringing in the things that work well with girls," said Dory Adams of the Washington-based NAIS.

Ms. Adams helps member schools with gender issues.

Ms. Chapman, now the academic dean at Western Reserve Academy, is a former contributing editor to the journal Women's Studies Quarterly. She began her schooling at a coed elementary program in Hungary, then attended an all-girls school in England. Her first teaching job was at an all-boys school, where she was the only female instructor and was called "sir" by her students.

Her book goes beyond an examination of classroom practice and encourages parents and school administrators, along with teachers, to consider the effects of both what they do and what they don't do around boys and girls.

"Education is a seamless web," she said. "What happens in one subject's class affects what happens in another class, which affects what happens at home."

Throughout all these environments, Ms. Chapman said, children's role models must do a balancing act in recognizing the differences between boys and girls, but also knowing when it's healthiest to address those differences.

"My idea is you don't address this by suddenly treating both boys and girls the same," Ms. Chapman said. "You do it by modifying your actions to provide them more options."

Team Projects

Just as athletes benefit by training outside their own field of competition, recent studies show that practices designed to help girls learn are also effective for boys, Ms. Chapman said.

"The point is that educationally, what is disadvantageous for girls is often also educationally disadvantageous to boys," she said.

Researchers have found that many girls, for example, are more likely to assert themselves when working on team projects than when answering questions individually in a lecture. While that conclusion has prompted many teachers to use more cooperative learning techniques in their programs, Ms. Chapman said that boys also increasingly need experience learning through teamwork.

"The idea of educating girls in a separate way has never made much sense," she said.

Because students often enter high school with many stereotypes already ingrained in them, Ms. Chapman said it's important to reach them as early as the preschool level. By playing more with building toys, young girls may develop greater mechanical ability that later translates into heightened confidence in studying math and science, she said.

What's Left Out

In her book, Ms. Chapman also explains how teachers of very young children should try reading fairy tales and then turning the stories into parodies that focus on role-reversals for the male and female characters. By hearing versions in which, for instance, the Sleeping Beauty is about a man awakened by a heroic female, even young students can begin to see how the stories they read contain different stereotypes, she said.

"The idea of changing the outcomes and the outlines is to change the mind-set of possibilities," she said.

Although Ms. Chapman stresses the importance of paying close attention to what schools and parents include when they teach, she also said adults should be aware of what they leave out.

"In history classes, the numbers of men killed in wars routinely are mentioned, but the number of women who died in childbirth almost never are," she said as an example. "It's better to be conscious of what you're doing."

Ms. Adams of the NAIS said many teachers, parents, and school officials aren't taking advantage of the latest research.

"What happens in the culture can have just as much impact as the homework and formal classroom instruction," she said. "You wouldn't have to look far to find classrooms that are ignoring all the research that's been done."

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