Treating students differently

Education research seems to be teeming lately with the idea of the “threat of stereotype”, whereby women in particular don’t do as well on tests not because they are incapable but because they are faced with prejudice. If people think I’m going to do poorly, why work hard, or so goes the logic.

This article from the Daily Beast, which outlines much of the research on such ideas of late, struck me for its mention of how students are treated differently by their teachers.

In a study published last year, psychologist Howard Glasser at Bryn Mawr College examined teacher-student interaction in sex-segregated science classes. As it turned out, teachers behaved differently toward boys and girls in a way that gave boys an advantage in scientific thinking. While boys were encouraged to engage in back-and-forth questioning with the teacher and fellow students, girls had many fewer such experiences. They didn’t learn to argue in the same way as boys, and argument is key to scientific thinking. Glasser suggests that sex-segregated classrooms can construct differences between the sexes by giving them unequal experiences. Ominously, such differences can impact kids’ choices about future courses and careers.

I don’t teach single-sex classes, but in my principles classes, I’ve noticed that the men seem to ask questions–and answer questions–in a way that encourages debate. While women are perfectly willing to raise their hands when they have the right answer, they’re less likely to disagree with me or ask a question that seems to critically engage the subject matter.

Thankfully, this seems to diminish a little in upper division classes, where I see both men and women engaging the ideas and critiquing what is set before them. So at least anecdotally, I’d argue that all is not lost by middle school. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work harder to get women to engage critically at every level.

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