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Developing girl-responsive educators

Written by: Ali Monzo and Bridgette Ouimette
9 min read
Alison B. Monzo, Director Of Programs, Center For The Advancement Of Girls, The Agnes Irwin School, USA
Bridgette Ouimette, Founder And Co-CEO, Advancing Girls, Llc., USA

In teacher preparation programmes, educators are often taught how to adapt their instruction for various types of learners; this includes modifications for both gifted students and those learning English as a second language, and how to create instructional interventions for students with learning differences. In some professional development and teacher preparation programmes, educators explore the development of culturally responsive teaching methods for students of low socioeconomic status and students of colour, knowing that their life experiences will impact their reception of learning. Gender, however, is a dimension of student identity that remains largely unexamined through existing educator professional development and in the research literature.

Male and female students are not so fundamentally different that a gender-differentiated teacher training programme in itself is warranted; however, teacher professional development should address some of the nuances of gender as a social construct that impacts learning. Learning is not inherently gendered, but schools are microcosms of a world that is gendered. Students are subjected to gender bias through various facets of the learning environment, including from their teachers and the curricula. As a result of exposure to such biases, girls may fail to ascend to leadership positions when they enter industry, despite outperforming boys academically (Voyer and Voyer, 2014), and gender-based barriers persist. Thus educators must be trained to identify and dismantle the sources of bias and discrimination that girls inevitably encounter.

Training in girl responsiveness for educators should include an understanding of the best instructional strategies and classroom climate suited for girls, promotion of the representation of women in the curricula, integration of co-curricular interventions, and awareness of the implicit biases that we all hold that put adolescent girls at a disadvantage.

Instructional strategies for girls

There are a variety of instructional strategies that educators can employ that are particularly effective for girls. For example, educators can encourage girls to participate more and interact more with the teacher (Parker and Rennie, 2002; Younger, 2016) by placing an emphasis on collaboration instead of generating an overly competitive environment.

Professional development for girl-responsive educators should also address teachers’ prowess in strategically designing both formative and summative assessments. Given girls’ risk aversion and susceptibility to perfectionism, it would behove teachers to adopt assessment strategies to combat these tendencies (Booth and Nolen, 2012). Teachers assessing formatively can employ questioning strategies that build girls’ risk tolerance and confidence, such as requiring students to ask questions or allowing them to choose which questions to answer. For summative assessment, teacher professional development should include designing open-ended tasks and making feedback associated with summative assessment routine, so that it is non-threatening.

Classroom culture

Fear of failure is at the root of academic risk intolerance in girls. Cultivating a classroom culture in which academic risk-taking is encouraged, especially through equitable participation and the normalisation of failure, will yield more positive outcomes for girl learners.

Girls are also highly relational, and therefore collaborative tasks that enable ownership and accountability may in turn help girls to build confidence in their contributions to the group and may further promote risk tolerance and growth beyond girls’ comfort zones.

Curricula

Teacher professional development should emphasise the evaluation of curricula and resources that may promote stereotypical ideas about gender, as schools can be agents of reinforcing gender stereotyping. This reinforcement occurs through mechanisms such as the use of textbooks that use gendered example sentences, describe females’ appearance at higher rates than males, and use masculine pronouns in examples to correspond to stereotypically male professionals (Macaulay and Brice, 1997). Teachers must become aware of these mechanisms and model how to interrogate them for students. Teachers may confront gender biases and the socialisation of gender roles by considering how course materials portray both women and men. There are opportunities for teachers to represent women in ways that are not gender-stereotypical, such as using examples of famous female scientists or elected officials. Additionally, teachers can develop original curricula that depict the status of women and girls globally through current events and in historical contexts.

Teachers can also promote the engagement of girls in maths and science courses, disciplines that are often constructed as masculine (Riggers-Piehl, 2018), by using examples that are gender-neutral versus those that seemingly appeal to boys’ interests and further gender stereotypes (Parker and Rennie, 2002). Additional strategies that promote gender equity in the curricula include the use of texts that feature female protagonists, instruction on the existence of gender stereotypes and the adoption of tools for identifying and criticising them. Southworth et al. (2020) have developed a microcontent analysis (MCA) tool for educators to assess existing gender biases in their textbooks, acknowledging that many texts reinforce women’s marginalisation and the predominance of white male leaders. Southworth et al.’s (2020) MCA Guide and Toolkit is an example of a professional intervention that may help to reduce the occurrences of stereotype threat among female students. By evaluating existing curricula, educators can become more responsive to the biases that girls encounter in the classroom and thus support girls in confronting systemic barriers to their success.

Interrogate implicit biases

Professional development for girl-responsive educators should encourage the identification and interrogation of individually held biases by sharing personal experiences and therefore acknowledging the role that gender plays in all our lives (Kuriloff et al., 2017). Gender bias permeates many facets of school environments. For example, in science, mathematics and social studies classrooms, males often receive more attention from teachers in terms of help and greater criticism related to their work (Kelly, 1988; Koehler, 1990).

Teachers’ implicit beliefs about gender and ability can limit girls’ potential. In mathematics courses alone, teachers are less likely to question whether or not a girl is in a course that is too easy for her compared to their male peers (Riegle-Crumb and Humphires, 2012). The gender gap in maths performance increases when students are assigned to maths teachers who hold stronger gender stereotypes, which causes girls to underperform in maths and self-select into less demanding courses. Maths teachers’ biases can influence girls’ high school course selection, foster low expectations about their own ability and lead to a lack of confidence in male-typed domains. Carlana (2019) found that by the end of middle school, girls are more likely to consider themselves bad at maths if they are assigned to a teacher with stronger biases. When assessing students’ mathematical ability, biases against female students were revealed, with biases largest against black and Hispanic girls (Copur-Gencturk et al., 2019). While individually these instances may seem like subtle reinforcements of gender inequality, taken cumulatively they effectively maintain practices that hurt girls.

Schools could consider providing training that interrogates stereotypes and biases, and should embed opportunities to develop empathy and understanding around the unique challenges encountered by women and girls. Teachers can take self-assessments, such as the Implicit Association Test (IAT) (Greenwald et al., 2011), to develop self-awareness of biases in girls’ abilities that may negatively impact girls’ academic success and, consequently, future professional success.

Co-curricular interventions

Schools should create co-curricular programmes that address the challenges that girls face as a result of their gender. The lack of visibility of women, from the political stage to the business arena, contradicts the message to Generation Z that they can ascend to the height of leadership, especially given the critical nature of modelled behaviour on adolescent development (Bandura and Huston, 1961). This concept has permeated every aspect of their lives, and still girls remain sceptical of their own leadership potential (Hinkelman, 2017).

By providing formal girl-responsive leadership training, educators can impact the long-term trajectory of the girls whom they teach (Jacobs, 2020). These programmes can provide opportunities to develop and practise critical leadership skills, such as public speaking, conflict resolution, effective or assertive communication, negotiation, problem-solving, goal-setting, networking and self-advocacy. These skills could also be honed by developing a leadership course as an optional lesson or by integrating this skill development into student council or athletics training. Regardless of the student’s position in their school, developing the skills and competencies of a leader will instil confidence that will serve girls well beyond the formative years of their schooling.

Additionally, research supports the creation of mentoring programmes and relationships, especially for girls (Bogat and Liang, 2005). Forming meaningful, sustainable and trusting relationships with near peers or adults provides girls with the necessary support to navigate the challenges of being a woman in the world. Teachers ought to be trained to utilise existing connections through alumnae networks and other community connections, in order to help girls grow their own network.

Schools can also leverage strategic partnerships with colleges, universities, community organisations and corporations to create transparency around the challenges that girls and women face, especially in industries where women are underrepresented. This can be activated through guest speakers, field trips or other mechanisms to sustain connections with organisations, to supplement or enrich the curriculum. Teachers should be encouraged to identify opportunities to integrate community-based partnerships to benefit girls.

Conclusion

Despite the lack of scholarship on this topic, those working directly with girls have the potential to impact their trajectory. By implementing gender-responsive instructional strategies, creating opportunities for connection and skill-building outside of the classroom, and engaging in reflective practices, educators can create positive change in their school communities.

There are limitations to the study of gender-responsive pedagogy and it is an area of research that is still ripe for development. As educators, we can create an academic experience that better supports girls, with recognition of who they are as learners and with consideration of the unique challenges that they encounter due to their gender identity.

It is important to acknowledge that gender is further nuanced by the intersection of race, socio-economic status, religion and other identifiers. Intersectional pedagogy is an evolving practice and, as educators committed to doing what is best for our students, it is critical that we challenge ourselves as practitioners to understand the ways in which we can hone our skills to better meet the needs and identities of girls.

By exploring our own biases, looking critically at the ways in which we teach, as well as how we cultivate a gender-responsive classroom, and designing additional programming tailored to the unique needs of girls, we can ensure that all places are ones where girls can thrive.

References

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