“Of course, addressing the learning gap between boys and girls will require parents, teachers and school administrators to talk more openly about the ways each gender approaches classroom learning—and that difference itself remains a tender topic.”
— Enrico Gnaulati, Atlantic article, 9/18/14, “Why girls tend to get better grades than boys do”
This article mentions my research on gender differences in school readiness. It also draws attention to a couple of important ideas that are harder to work into a scientific journal article.
1. The learning environment–including adult expectations for children’s intelligence, performance, and behavior–shapes a lot of what students do. We all like the idea that we are in control of our actions. But lots of research shows otherwise. Especially for young children, their behavior and choices are largely determined by the opportunities around them. Sometimes these are called “affordances” which essentially means that the environment offers or affords certain choices and prohibits others.
I don’t have a pool in my house, so if I want to swim, I have to change my environment. A child who is never given a chance to play the cello, or to use oil paints, or to speak a certain language, can never show you what they are capable of in that area. The environment is just not set up for them to show you what they can do. And if some children–many of them boys–do their best work in a high-energy environment with lots of opportunities for movement, then they will look like failures in a system that requires docile, cooperative, and organized behavior.
2. The environment affects everyone. As far as I know, there are no exceptions to this rule. No group is less affected by their environment than others. A good example of how the environment can be manipulated to influence behavior is the studies on stereotype threat. This is the idea that the negative stereotypes that others hold about our group can affect our performance in a high-stakes situation where we care about the outcome. A long line of research has shown that every type of individual–no matter their age, gender, race or ethnic group, food preferences, toenail polish color, make/model of their car* can be made to worry that their performance on a test will be bad and that the bad performance will confirm others’ negative ideas about them and their group. All that is needed is a comment–a short little sentence–drawing the person’s attention to that negative stereotype.
*OK, I give in. The last few have not been studied.
In schools today, I wonder about the unexamined expectation that many teachers and parents have that boys will behave badly. I’ve overheard countless comments from teachers, future teachers, parents, and researchers like “boys will be boys,” “you know boys,” “boys are so much worse than girls,” and on and on. It’s true that boys are genetically more vulnerable than girls–males lack part of a chromosome that females have, after all–but these comments help perpetuate a socially-acceptable form of prejudice and disrespect. This anti-male mindset also adds fuel to the fire that burns away boys’ sense of self-worth and agency, their sense of belonging in this world. We don’t need more of those toxic messages for any group, even the group that has historically dominated society.
3. Gender differences are extremely difficult to talk about. I was appalled when I went from Dr. Gnaulati’s article, which offered constructive approaches to closing the “behavior gap” in gender, to the comments about the article. Almost immediately the individuals commenting devolved into anti-male and anti-female rhetoric and name-calling. I guess I was surprised because the research I’ve done in this area makes me forget how strongly people feel about their own gender’s legitimacy and the other gender’s faults. But this disrespectful set of comments also made me realize–we’re all flawed and we all get defensive when a group to which we belong is threatened. And, as the cast of Avenue Q well knows, we each have our own biases.
Maybe it’s too much to hope that we could set aside our defensive feelings and biases when figuring out how to support our children in school. Barring some apocalyptic event that wipes out one gender (which Carolyn O’Neal has written a novel about), our students will always need to learn to cooperate and respect women, men and the growing number of people who do not identify with either category. But even so, I will persist in trying to have the delicate conversation with an open mind, and a sense of respect for every child who is trying to learn in this tough world, and for the many wonderful individuals who are trying to teach them. We’re all in this together.
Even before I got divorced, I had trouble with holidays. Gifts – travel – lots of family visits in too little time – it could all be too much of a good thing. Or too much of a mixed bag (of mixed nuts…). And what’s more, those good things came tinged with a feeling of guilt, for feeling that way despite my blessings, or for being tired despite having plenty of time off.
Then my world turned inside out and I was single again, the “kid” again at the holidays. Instead of a carefree kid waiting for Santa, I was the woman without a husband. Without children. Just myself. So I had to figure out how to “do” the holidays. That first year, I had to reinvent the simplest things, like how to find gifts when I was too sad to like anything in the stores. Or how to enjoy Thanksgiving when I was too distracted to really taste anything.
I finally decided to just be myself. Even though “myself” didn’t feel like much. So instead of traveling by airplane on the busiest day of the year, I drove four hours over a beautiful mountain to see family in Charleston, WV, on Thanksgiving. That weekend, I rested and walked when I needed to. For the first time at the holidays, I tried to just be present, and good to myself – whoever that was. It turned out to be OK. All the worrying I normally did, the fretting over details and whether others were enjoying themselves – turned out to be unnecessary. Being present and good to myself somehow translated into feeling more present and more good to the others around me.
This Thanksgiving, I’m going back to Charleston, WV. My circumstances have sweetened considerably and I have energy to share. But rather than worrying and fretting and planning, I’m going to try to live more in the moment. Oh, and be myself. It sure is easier than trying to be anyone else.
SATURDAY MARCH 23 @ 10am
**Free** SESSION – VA Festival of the Book
Omni Hotel, Preston Room
Like to write? Hate to write? Want to write? It’s easier in a group! Come to our free interactive session. Learn how to create an effective writing group and get the support you need to have your voice be heard.
What Pain Teaches Us (Other than that Acupuncture Works)
As part of my physical healing from some mysterious and not-so-mysterious causes like major stress, I occasionally experience severe low back pain. The latest episode was the worst yet, appearing on Monday at the end of the work day. Like my body decided it was time to go home but my brain hadn’t yet figured it out.
Instead of waiting patiently, my body revolted. One minute I was washing dishes in the work kitchen, and the next minute I was sitting on the floor. I called my boyfriend to pick me up, then decided I could manage to drive home.
By the next day, I was unable to stand without assistance. I walked stiffly with my middle protected, like I was carrying a very fragile, very heavy rock. I couldn’t sit upright and instead arranged pillows in different formations to keep my back muscles from doing any work.
I’d like to say I handled it gracefully the entire time, but the experience wore on me. I thought about all the people who have chronic pain and wondered if this is what their lives are like all the time. My episode lasted 48 hours, from the time it started until I could get an acupuncture appointment for Wednesday, late afternoon.
In that time, I learned that back pain keeps more Americans out of work than any other health condition. A colleague said that he knows of no other physical ailment more distressing and debilitating than back pain. After two days of it, I agreed with him. I was irritable. My thoughts were addled and my responses felt threadbare.
At the same time, in those two days I was more present than usual. My thoughts were more often with my body – how to ease it out of bed, how to reach a cup of water, how to put on my socks – than with my plans or everyday worries. There was a minor crisis at work that barely fazed me, because I wasn’t thinking about it other than when I needed to. Two days of pain clarified and simplified my purpose. I wasn’t trying to solve any world problems through the power of rumination. I was simply hoping that I wouldn’t sneeze, which contracted my muscles where they hurt the most.
Despite my clearer mind, I was eager to see if acupuncture could help me return to more normal functioning. I was afraid to drive to the appointment, knowing that a single painful sneeze could send me careening into an immovable object. My friend picked me up and asked “Should we be going to the ER instead?” I said, “No, this has happened to me before. We’re going to the right place.”
In the treatment room, my acupuncturist, Bob, arranged another complex pillow formation so I could lie on my stomach without putting pressure on my low back. It took a pillow under my stomach and two piled under my calves to get comfortable. I realized that I’ve always taken for granted the work my body does while I’m lying down.
Bob used what felt like 12 needles. One on the inside of each lower ankle, the rest on the small of my back. Only two of them hurt going in, but not like the sharp, linear pain you’d imagine from a sewing needle. Instead it was like he’d released a small globe of bottled up sensation that burst when exposed to the air. When the worst one went in, I exclaimed, “Ooh! That was a good one.” Immediately I felt tension in my right leg, between the whole length of it, needle to needle.
——–> ——-> ——>
After about 20 minutes, almost all the dull ache and tension had subsided. I imagined myself hopping off the table like a little kid. But then when I moved to stand up, the pain was still there. When Bob asked how I felt, I grimaced, and he said, “You can be honest.” In a couple moments, my brain went from “hopes dashed” to “better to have no expectations” to “oh well.”
Then as I was putting on my socks, I noticed a subtle tingling in both feet. Like fairy dust had been sprinkled and the extra was falling off onto the carpet. When I stood up, at least half my pain was gone. I could walk normally. I could have driven home, but of course had no car. Another friend was waiting in the parking lot to drive me home, where I washed dishes and prepared my own dinner.
Today, feeling almost normal, I feel grateful for the pain – it lasted just two days. I feel grateful for my moments of being present, not worrying about economic collapse or widespread starvation. I feel grateful for my friends, my acupuncturist Bob, and my boyfriend who cooked for two days so I wouldn’t have to stand up in the kitchen. I feel grateful for my body, for its weaknesses and vulnerabilities. For its strength and endurance, and for the fact that wherever I am, my body is with me with all its energies and its pains and its mysteries, and that means that I am home.
Lately I’ve been writing, so I’ve been away from my blog. But today I read an old post by the recently deceased “information should be free” internet crusader, Aaron Swartz. It’s the best reason to blog that I have come across.
Though I’m not the type to post unedited, I agree with Aaron. Writing is part of my thought process. I’m now in the habit of writing when I’ve had a moment of clarity. Between post-it notes, two journals, a computer, and the occasional envelope, I try to capture the moments that seem most important.
I’ve heard that if the human mind had to process all available stimuli, we would go insane. We’re programmed to distill the most important information in any given situation. Malcolm Gladwell describes this with his book, Blink.
I just finished Blink and have to admit that I had to work to figure out his thesis. I think it was a two-parter:
1. humans make snap judgments all the time, which are often wrong
2. experts who make snap judgments based on their years of expertise are usually right, though because this knowing operates beyond conscious awareness, it can be difficult to articulate the reasons that they “just know.” (Sorry, the second part is rather lengthy).
For me the take-away from Blink is that we can work to cultivate thoughtfulness in the face of uncertainty and trust our instincts when we’re confronted with a topic or decision we’re greatly familiar with. Oh, and we should avoid stereotyping people or making up our minds prematurely – the old adage, “don’t judge a book by its cover.”
Regarding the in-between areas, of living in world that’s often confusing, sad, and unpredictable, I like to write as a way of sense-making. Or at least, acceptance-feeling.
Gladwell didn’t say anything about writing as a way to find peace in a troubled world. But then again, writing is what he does for a living. I bet he’d approve.