“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.
It’s starting to feel like a long time that I’ve been alive. When I was born thirty years ago – though if we’re being precise, it was 33 years, in 1981 – my mother was 30 herself. She was a single mom and we moved in with my Grandma Ada Grace, mother of eight and schoolteacher again. Again, because Ada went back to teaching shortly before her husband Duncan Cameron, my mom’s beloved father, died of brain cancer at age 53, in 1971.
Nine years before that, my mom was a little girl of twelve leaving Escanaba, MI, to put down roots with her family in Greenville, MI, where I mostly grew up.
Some years before that, before her birth in 1950, my mom was only a hoped-for daughter, existing in the future of Duncan and Ada’s growing brood. They’d begun their family in World War II with three sons who saw little of their father at first, because when he wasn’t able to be with my grandmother, he was off somewhere fighting and experiencing stories he’d never tell, and getting what turned into brain cancer.
Before that, in the war years of the ‘40s, this country was still able to rally around a common good, and get it together to save metal and fuel so the soldiers overseas had what they needed to fight a clear and true evil that was trying to take over everything.
Before that, things are quite fuzzy because the primary sources in my life, the ones who are left, don’t speak much of those days, the Depression days of emerging efficiencies and still lots of people growing their own produce and learning to sew.
Before that – not long before that – women had just got the vote and found it difficult to be more than teachers, nurses, and secretaries. That world is unimaginable to me now, here in these United States, even though the same world exists today for millions of women. It’s just that they live elsewhere, six to twelve time zones away. They live under cover, under secrets, under the control of the power hungry, and they are stronger than I can ever imagine, and braver than I can ever believe.
My grandmother bore eight children, and when her husband Duncan died, half their brood was still at home, all the ones after my fourth-born mother. When my Grandpa Duncan died, their youngest child was twelve.
What did my Grandma Ada feel, think, and say, when this happened? We know what she did: she kept teaching, and she somehow scraped them by. They had the house and plenty of space and it was walking distance to school, and people didn’t need all the stuff of today, the stuff that keeps us working and driving, preoccupied and indoors.
Was she grateful that she could teach in the 1970’s, given that the last time she taught, she’d had to keep it secret that she’d married my grandfather? (In the 1930s, a married woman in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan was a pregnancy waiting to happen, and the teaching contracts prohibited marriage.) Did she think on those years ago, or did she wonder only about the now, about her new responsibilities as head of the household, and which bill would be highest that month?
How much and how deeply did she miss her “Dunc,” the man she loved ‘til her death, at age 91, in the same big house he bought them in little Greenville, in the Lower Peninsula of Michigan?
When I was small, that house was everyone’s rock, all us cousins who visited in the summers, the fruit of Duncan and Ada’s eight. My grandmother decorated in green, blue, and brown – drab Nixon florals that didn’t get anyone too excited, but which also weathered the years. My grandfather was a handsome man, I could see from his portrait hung above a green leather chair, and I thought of it always as his chair. I would go and sit beneath him and feel love emanating from above and from my grandmother, on the sofa across from me, where she watched TV after reading to me and bringing me soup.
Did my grandmother ever wish for early death, to see her Dunc again? Or did she wish against Fate, that he could meet all of us grandchildren who came after he passed, and it was most of us?
She loved us enough for both of them, making us meat pasties from scratch, sloppy Joes and potato salad, foods I loved, even though she said she couldn’t cook. She shooed us out to play and there was that one time – the only time I can recall – when she was cross with us. It was for fighting and being unkind. A clump of us sat in front of the TV, sniping away until she said, “You stop that, you kids! I’m tired of you being mean to each other.”
Did Ada think at night of her Dunc? Did she think of when she would see him again? Because she had her own kind of faith, in the Episcopals and the Democrats, and the notion that the poor deserved some help. She’d lived in a world where everyone was poor, and it was no one’s fault, not due to anyone’s being lazy. To the contrary, in her world, everyone had worked hard and still: poverty.
My Grandma Ada waited to see Duncan and talked more about him as she aged, spending 30 and then 40 years without him in that big house, making us food and shooing us outside. After my cousins and I grew up, she cooked for only herself, loading oatmeal with prunes, bananas, and nuts each morning. She liked ice cream and always had Tin Roof in her freezer, and she was never afraid to eat ice cream with you. She never called anyone fat, except herself, and not very often, because she wasn’t.
I inherited these gifts from my grandma: four metal mixing bowls, a serving tray engraved with a map of the world, an embroidered jewelry box, a diorama of her first-grade classroom that the other teachers made for her retirement.
And the priceless ones: Thrift. Hope. Love.
With thanks to Mary Cameron Mitchell for fact-checking this updated post. Mary writes: “Fact check #1. My dad died in 1971 at age 53. My mother had gone back to teaching before they knew he was ill. There was a teacher shortage and my dad encouraged Ada to apply. Fact check #2. Ada wasn’t fired from her first teaching job for getting married or being pregnant. The contract stipulated that marriage would result in a termination of her job.”
Jewelry box, serving tray, mixing bowls | photo by CE Cameron