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  • Writer's pictureEducating Gender

Education and Dissonance: The Gordian Knot

Alexander had to cut the Gordian knot

Potentially the greatest challenge in education is how do you understand the mind of someone who is learning something for the first time, something that you as the instructor already know? Or, how does a teacher remember what the experience is of not knowing something that they now know? There is a gap that exists between someone who has already learned something, practiced it, played with it, thought about it deeply and the person who is learning it for the first time. This is the dissonance of education. The job of the educator, through practiced techniques, methodologies and empathy is to create learning experiences which address this question so that the first time learner can learn well and be understood.

But what happens if the teacher is also placed into another more perplexing and challenging experience in relationship to the learner? What if that which the teacher has already learned was imbedded with problems and issues which were ultimately detrimental when the teacher learned it and she remains unaware of those issues? How does the teacher become so self aware and understanding of those issues that those problems do not get passed down to the next generation of new learners?

The standard example of this is the study of mathematics, particularly in the elementary school years. Many teachers opt into elementary school education because they were told, convinced, experienced math as a subject that was not “for them.” And much of this reality was forged by deeply held biases against women and their supposed biological inability to  do math. How does this elementary school teacher take seriously not only the instruction of math as a new subject for students but also one where she herself does not feel confident in or experiences great anxiety and the desire for avoidance? This is not about knowing something; it is about know it in a way where the emotional substance of that learning experience has been tainted, even perverted. does a teacher remember what the experience is of not knowing something that they now know?

And, in many elementary school classrooms, our boys experience a reverse struggle. Since a vast majority of elementary school teachers are women, upwards of 85%, and are mostly women who excelled and thrived in the humanities, because they were told that this WAS “for them,” how does a teacher create a gender sensitive environment where males can connect and feel comfortable, from a gender standpoint, with the acquisition of critical learning in reading and writing?

Teachers are not the only dynamic at play here which makes this particular Gordian knot so confounding and perplexing. Parents are much more likely to advocate and lobby for their sons to be placed in advanced math classrooms throughout their education than their girls, even when the girls show equal or better skills and grades in math and science.

For the teacher, this is highly challenging work. It is not just an issue of the knower versus the new-to-knowledge but the learned to the learner. This is the great integration of social and emotional and psychological and biological experience of development where the construct of gender plays such a critical role in a child’s education.

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Jason is flexible and attentive, yet remains committed to his high expectations of my work in tackling tough situations and tasks.  With a sense of humor and compassion for the rigor of a leadership position, he knows how to guide me with just the right amount of productive stress.  I appreciate that.

Daphne Orenshein - Elementary School Principal: Hillel Hebrew Academy

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