“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.