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Gender stereotypes and their impact on children’s metacognition

Written by: Gemma Jackson
13 min read

Evidence suggests that the use of ‘metacognitive strategies’ can be worth the equivalent of an additional seven months’ progress when used well (Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), 2018). The implementation of effective metacognitive strategies develops learners who are able to think about their own learning explicitly, meaning that they exhibit the qualities of a self-regulated learner.

Zimmerman (2010) gives a helpful description of what a successful self-regulated learner looks like:

“These learners are proactive in their efforts to learn because they are aware of their strengths and limitations and because they are guided by personally set goals and task-related strategies. These learners monitor their behaviour in terms of their goals and self-reflect on their increasing effectiveness. This enhances their self-satisfaction and motivation to continue to improve their methods of learning.”

Whilst there has been a considerable amount of work on the benefits of employing metacognitive strategies in the classroom, there seems to have been less attention given to the barriers that may prevent learners from effectively applying these approaches. More specifically, it is worth considering the impact that gender stereotypes may be having on learners, with a particular concern for the aforementioned importance of awareness of their ‘strengths and limitations’. Generally, a stereotype could be defined as a widely held, overly simplified view of a person, based entirely on a group that they belong to. Therefore, gender stereotypes are preconceptions about a person’s attitude and ability, based on their biological sex.

Gender stereotyping could be argued as being so deeply ingrained in society that most are unaware when they serve to reinforce such ideologies. Therefore, this article will explore the influence that teachers might have on children’s ability to self-regulate their learning by ensuring that gender-specific stereotypes do not cause a barrier to progress.

The gender attainment gap

Last year’s figures published by the Department for Education (DfE) show that girls are outperforming boys across all subjects assessed at Key Stage 2. Save the Children (STC) previously reported that this gender gap is evident in every local authority in England and has changed very little in the past decade (2016). It could be argued invaluable to consider the impact that teachers might have on this disparity, and consideration of barriers around self-regulation for all children could therefore be worthwhile. If, as previously stated, metacognitive strategies can result in value-added progress, and the promotion of such strategies in the classroom appears to be on the rise, there is surely worth in questioning how these approaches might address the gender attainment gap.

Perceived gender roles in the classroom – the difficulties with self-concept and cognition

Parents, teachers, culture and the media regularly communicate gender expectations and it is therefore unsurprising to learn that self-views are often formed ‘via processes of social learning’ (Butler, 2014, p. 6; STC, 2016). Regarding approach to learning, then, Sousa (2011, p. 186) agrees that it is likely that ‘cultural forces’ have a greater influence on attainment than brain differences between sexes. Assuming that children are aware, even subconsciously, of gender stereotypes by school age, it is important to consider the impact that this might have on their cognition. Pervasive stereotyping, and the reality that self-concept is strongly gendered (Oates, 2015), could result in children feeling that their abilities are static, beyond their control or limited by their gender, thus suffering ‘stereotype threat’. A familiar and key theme in Dweck’s work on mindset is that children who view ability as fixed are more vulnerable to difficulties. It would be unlikely to surprise most teachers if a child in the classroom reported that boys can ‘do’ maths and girls can ‘do’ English. Having an openness to experience has a powerful impact on children’s achievement, and research by the National Union of Teachers (NUT, 2013, p. 26) extends this to warn that ‘the influence of gender stereotypes limits the range of experiences many children will engage with’. Here, links with self-regulation are clear. Motivation, alongside metacognition, is cited as a key factor of self-regulation, and the EEF (2018) state that it is ‘impossible’ for children to be metacognitive without the motivation to engage. Children who are, even subconsciously, aware of the stereotypes relating to their gender may struggle to find the motivation to embrace opportunities beyond what they perceive to be appropriate or attainable. Teachers must be acutely aware of such situations in the classroom and make every effort to encourage all children to expand their experiences as regularly as possible.

Jamieson and Harkins (2012) found that telling girls about a gender difference in attainment prior to taking a maths test hurt their performance. Telling females that they could do well (Van Loo and Rydell, 2013) or that there was no gender difference (Franceschini et al., 2014) increased their performance. Although these studies involved adult participants, it is suggested that sexism becomes most pervasive in middle school, meaning that stereotype threat might also be prevalent. Consistent research has confirmed that expectations about ability can be self-fulfilling. The EEF (2018) highlights that children approach any learning task with knowledge of their own abilities. It is vital that the metacognitive knowledge that children bring to their learning is factual and not influenced by stereotypical inaccuracies. Again, it would be fair to suggest that children’s self-belief in their abilities can impact considerably on their motivation to use a metacognitive approach. Teacher reflection is crucial here to ensure that equality of expectation is communicated in the classroom. Challenging stereotypes may be possible by remaining aware of the need not only to have high expectations for all children, but also to verbalise these for the benefit of their self-belief. It is important to take time to consider: do examples of children’s writing read to the class usually belong to girls, is it suggested that the boys will enjoy the messy science experiment, are the boys always the ones to carry the class ball out to the playground, and are the same expectations for handwriting communicated to the boys as they are to the girls? These are just a few examples.

Interestingly, a number of studies have found that simply activating gender stereotypes, such as referencing gender before a task, can impact attainment. It could be suggested that teachers, although perhaps unintentionally, reinforce gender differences regularly, such as when alternating boys and girls in lines. Given that potential triggering is often situationally unavoidable (e.g. male and female bathrooms), it is crucial that teachers are proactive in challenging gender stereotypes. A number of research studies have suggested that explicit teaching about sexism can help to decrease stereotype effects. This is worth consideration for practice as it is important to question the possibility that many teachers challenge barriers less often in relation to issues such as gender, due to the wide societal acceptance of such stereotypes and the seemingly more pressing importance of other forms of prejudice. It is important to note that, in many classrooms, issues of gender inequality are explored when children learn about the suffragette movements or consider ‘what a scientist looks like’ as examples. Whilst these conversations are, of course, important, they often focus on the negative impact of gender stereotypes on females and challenge issues such as the lack of girls studying STEM subjects. In terms of metacognition, perhaps it would be worthwhile for teachers to reflect on how they might explicitly challenge stereotypes that identify girls as conscientious learners and boys as ‘just being boys’.

Indeed, supporting all children’s development equally means, in addition to challenging societal stereotyping, that one must be prepared to question their own biases. Reichert and Hawley (2014, p. 27) express concern that Western societies have generated the assumption that ‘boys are inherently school averse’. The NUT (2013, p. 6) reported that ‘many teachers’, on reflection of their own practice, realised that they treated boys and girls differently and ‘in ways that served to reinforce stereotypes’. Work that investigated children’s ability to interpret non-verbal behaviour found that they could accurately predict the sex of children being taught by observing only the teacher. These environmental cues, or even gender biases, may be enough to activate inaccurate ideas about children’s own abilities, thus negatively influencing metacognition and stifling motivation.

Masculinity pressures

Whilst considering the impact of gender stereotypes for this paper, a mixed-age class was observed over a number of weeks. These children were simply observed in a naturalistic approach and the only variable controlled was the selection of children based on ability. The class was a mix of the highest-attaining children from a Year 3 cohort and the lowest-attaining from Year 4. The variation in observable characteristic traits amongst the boys in the class was considerable, with a very clear difference between the stereotypically gender-typical behaviours of the older and the atypical behaviours of the younger boys. Notable in the class observed was that the Year 3 boys appeared to have somewhat rejected their expected, gendered stereotype. Whilst this was only observed with a very small sample size (a class of 30 children), it raises interesting questions for future research. Stereotype pressures may restrict children’s working memory at the learning stage (Appel and Kronberger, 2012) and interfere with encoding information (Taylor and Walton, 2011), so it could be suggested that those boys not distracted by masculinity pressures are cognitively more able to learn. It is important that teachers are mindful of the stereotype pressures that exist amongst peers and the possibility that children’s behaviours are a result of such gendered expectations (Didau, 2016). As already mentioned, children’s ideas about their own ability can be influenced by gender stereotyping, which in turn influences their ability to regulate their learning. Equally, what children believe is expected of them, based on stereotyped roles in the classroom and in society, can influence their approach to learning generally. Summarising this idea, Skelton et al. (2007, p. 10) believe that the only theory that cannot be challenged in explaining the gender attainment gap is that children’s constructions of what is ‘appropriate, relevant and meaningful for boys and girls produce different behaviours that impact on achievement’.

As previously touched upon, it is worth noting that ‘metacognitive strategies’ could be argued as more stereotypically suited to females than males, given the ideas discussed thus far. Hattie’s (2009) meta-analyses of psychological variables report that females outperform males for agreeableness. Similarly, Butler (2012) suggests that females tend to regard effort highly and respond to mastery goals, meaning that their approaches to schooling might ‘match teachers’ images of the ideal student’ (p. 24). Notable in the class observed, the Year 3 boys were extremely positive in comparison to the older boys. What could be implied is that the younger boys were less concerned with peer expectations, therefore attending to their learning with motivation and openness to evaluate their progress explicitly – important factors of metacognition. The ‘agreeable’ attitudes of these boys appear to correlate with academic success, although challenges in controlling other variables would make this difficult to confirm. Furthermore, what cannot be concluded from suggestions of agreeableness is whether teacher bias results in higher assessments for those ‘ideal students’ or whether it is in fact the child’s attitude that is facilitating their progress in school. There is, of course, a possibility that both may occur in a bi-directional sense. A recent study by Bidjerano (2005) reasoned that, although robust gender differences were observed when investigating children’s use of metacognition strategies, these could be a function of the stereotypical belief that girls are expected to organise their learning and appear more conscientious about their progress. That is, the girls in this study were perhaps more comfortable to explicitly use and report on the use of such strategies. Important to consider, then, is the possibility that taught strategies of metacognition in the primary classroom are not consistent with the way in which boys believe they should learn. Male stereotypes, and the pressures of masculinity, might cause barriers to learning. Indeed, Stahl (2015) observes that boys in particular find it difficult to deviate from accepted group norms in classroom situations. This is again something that teachers might benefit from remaining aware of, given previous discussion of the gender attainment gap. We cannot have classrooms in which boys believe that it is okay for them to remain disinterested in their learning, based on the idea that it is not appropriate for them to appear otherwise.

The gender attainment gap – what about brain difference?

With regard to basic needs, boys and girls have the same requirements. However, the suggestion that the brains of boys and girls have structural, developmental and processing differences means that their needs may vary in terms of facilitating cognitive progression. If reliable neurological evidence exists that justifies teaching boys and girls differently, then differentiation by sex would not necessarily indicate gender bias but a response to the needs of the learner. There is, however, research showing more cognitive variation within gender than between it (Hattie, 2009), with some going as far as to state ‘brain difference’ (Halpem et al., 2007, p. 30) as the weakest argument for single-sex teaching, stating that there is no data regarding brain structure or function to suggest that boys and girls learn differently. In summary, there appears to be very little certainty around the educational value of comparing girls’ and boys’ brains. Researchers at Yale propose that the ‘seductive allure of neuroscientific explanation’ (cited in Fine, 2011, p. 171) is the reason why brain research is used to explain the gender gap and, agreeing that neuroscience is not progressed enough to make assertions about education, Fine (2011, p. 167) warns that making ‘crude comparisons of male and female brains’ simply reinforces gender stereotypes.

Teachers as ‘disrupters’ of gender bias

The NUT (2013) warns that children are facing the most pervasive, least acknowledged stereotyping in the gendered expectations that surround them. Unfortunately, gendered stereotypes are ‘rammed home’ before children even reach school age (Oates, 2015), meaning that removing these potential barriers to learning is a challenging issue. However, whilst Penner (2014) suggests that it is unreasonable to strive to make school the one social institution free from biases, it is important to note that children’s school experiences are ‘disrupting, beneficially, gendered perceptions’ (Oates, 2015). The teacher’s role is crucial in disconfirming all children’s destructive self-concepts and removing any limitations that they feel bound by, whilst maintaining an understanding of the social pressures that they face. In communicating consistent equality of expectation, the teacher has the critical responsibility of refusing to accept that children are restricted by their gender. Boys are underperforming – we see this year after year – but it is unlikely that ‘boy-friendly pedagogy’ is the solution. What is important is a classroom culture where children understand that their abilities are far from predetermined and therefore have the motivation to plan, monitor and evaluate their learning confidently and explicitly. Children must feel that they can approach learning openly, without feeling that they are limited by the expectations of others or the pressure to conform to a particular stereotype. Given the extensive evidence that metacognition and self-regulation have a high impact on progress (EEF, 2018), it would be interesting to see how this might contribute towards closing the gender gap. Whilst it is absolutely right that girls are being championed to push boundaries and challenge expectations relating to their sex, can we be equally sure that we are supporting boys in the same way?

References

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