• Educating Gender

Describing Students as Learners: Saying Too Much and Too Little at the Same Time


In workshops I run for teachers in schools and graduate education programs, I ask teachers to do a simple language exercise. I give them a list of the following student descriptors and ask them to separate the words into two equal lists, one for girls and one for boys. I give them only 30 seconds to do this exercise. I want to eliminate, as best I can, their prefrontal lobes from over engagement.


The words are:

Sweet

Energetic

Clever

Caring

Careless

Collaborative

Gifted

Hard working

Kind

Active

Capable

Smart

Intelligent

Cooperative

Talkative

Advanced

Neat

Physical

Inattentive

Silly


Here is how teachers and educators typically divide the list.


Girls are:

Neat

Intelligent

Kind

Hardworking

Silly

Collaborative

Caring

Sweet

Talkative

Cooperative


Boys are:

Clever

Physical

Careless

Energetic

Inattentive

Advanced

Capable

Smart

Gifted

Active


The two words which cause the most debate in these training sessions are “sweet” and “silly.” Sweet boy or sweet girl seem to be interchangeable, until approximately 3rd grade and then boys stop being sweet. Girls can be silly and sweet until high school! Quite a way to describe a young adult.

The two issues with these words for teachers in describing their students is only indirectly related to gender. What eventually becomes most problematic about these words is that firstly, they have nothing to do with education. They do nothing for anyone in terms of understanding what kind of learners we are discussing. The other critical piece is that they have nothing to to do with showing an understanding of the student being described. These words represent broad categories of judgement, rather than a refined understanding of actions and behaviors which either outline a successful developing learner or the attributes which are getting in the way of that occurring.

As a school administrator, I read teacher narratives three times a year which will go home to parents as part of their report card process. I am easily reading 2000 narratives a trimester, many of them a page long for each student. Sounds like an arduous, unenviable task? I love it! Whereas teachers get to know, primarily, the students only in their classrooms, I get to know everyone. I am invited to watch the ups and downs, the highs and lows of every single student in the school. The list of words above, plus several others, are formally banned by me when teachers write narratives, and they are not allowed to use these words when we discuss, in sometimes highly sensitive student support meetings with parents, teachers and counselors, a struggling child. Teachers believe that leading with a kind thought about a student struggling with behavior or academic issues sounds like, "he is such a sweet boy." I have had one parent actually turn to the teacher and say, "I'm not so sure about that: otherwise, we wouldn't be sitting here." (You gotta love honest parents.)

The pull toward gender categories is so fierce, that active, consistent steps need to be taken with teachers to break these patterns of thinking and then practice and execute how these thoughts are ultimately expressed in language.

Initially, teachers pull their hair out looking for alternative language. Then, we work through, together, a process of detailed note taking over the course of a trimester. Simply put, they open a doc, make headings for each student, and begin to write down observations as events occur in real time. The results? Authentic stories about students learning, and showing (not telling) what these children are truly like in school. The process of eliminating these words also forces teachers to know their students in a much deeper, richer sense.

But the most challenging issue with this list is that it defaults to gender bias. I have discovered that when teachers do not have specific understandings or language to articulate and describe their students, they gravitate to language which puts students into a gender box. Studies have shown that people actually are more likely to group information by gender type, gender schemas, rather than what would be considered the category type. Also, when engaging memory systems , small children will remember pictures and illustrations of activities that fall into stereotypical gender consistent models. "...individuals' cognitions about gender influence their perceptions of the world and themselves. Gender schemas influence attention, perception, and behavior, and they can be self-reinforced through selective memory."* (See source below) This tendency is not just a question of finding specific language, but a reflection of deep biases in thinking we all have, reinforced by years of training, and the never ending cycle of being part of institutions, such as schools, which reinforce these understandings. Parents are comfortable with this language, for the most part, because it is exactly that: comfortable. They like to hear that their girls are growing up to be girls and their boys to be boys, even if the ramifications are actually far reaching and damaging to their educations and beyond.

The more that teachers utilize this default language, the greater the problems and discriminating attributes become. Do I think that teachers do this on purpose? Absolutely not. Teachers do not have the intentionality to do harm in this arena. But this tendency is what I call, and will discuss later, one in a number of micro-confirmations, that work to silo children by gender. The pull toward gender categories is so fierce, that active, consistent steps need to be taken with teachers to break these patterns of thinking and then practice and execute how these thoughts are ultimately expressed in language.

*Hyde, J.S. Facts and assumptions about the nature of gender differences and the implications for gender equity. In S. Klein, Handbook for achieving gender equity through education (p. 27). New York: Routledge.

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