Researchers have started to explore gender stereotypes and are finding that more-equitable coed classrooms can have social and academic benefits for boys and girls alike.

Preschool teacher Jacque Radke started the school year at Kenilworth Elementary in Phoenix with a pretty typical bunch of 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds.

Some of the girls had started to form cliques and “no boys allowed” lunch tables, while Ms. Radke and her instructional assistant worried that one quiet little girl was getting shunted to the sidelines by the boys.

Generally, boys and girls become more polarized through their first years in school – the beginning of gender stereotypes.

While children of both sexes play together as toddlers, by the end of kindergarten, they spend only 9 percent of their playtime with children of the other sex, according to research by Lise S. Eliot, an associate professor of neuroscience at the Chicago Medical School.

“Separation by gender stereotypes is a fact of human childhood and is equally common among young monkeys and apes,” Ms. Eliot says in the 2009 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt book Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps and What We Can Do About It.

That early separation, she says, creates “two gender stereotypes that persist throughout childhood.”

But researchers at the American Educational Research Association’s annual conference, held in Vancouver, British Columbia, last month, stressed that while all children naturally develop gender stereotypes, classroom demographics and teacher practices can make a big difference in how and whether students develop sex-based stereotypes and prejudices.

Not ‘Hard-Wired’

In a meta-analysis of studies based on more than 7 million children in kindergarten through 11th grade, Janet S. Hyde, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found small average gender stereotypes in such areas as activity level (favoring boys) and ability to focus (favoring girls), but no significant differences in mathematics or reading comprehension and “no solid evidence that boys and girls actually learn differently.”

“You never hear a good, modern neuroscientist say the brain is hard-wired,” Ms. Hyde said. “In fact, it is characterized by great neural plasticity, so … any differences you see are at least as likely caused by differences in the experiences of males and females as to any kind of anatomical differences present from birth.”

Even if boys and girls don’t learn differently, classroom demographics can change how students learn, according to research by Erin E. Pahlke, an assistant research professor of social and family dynamics at Arizona State University in Tempe.

Ms. Pahlke analyzed the achievement of more than 21,000 pupils in the federal Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten Cohort, and found that as the percentage of girls in a kindergarten or 1st grade classroom increased, the reading and math achievement of both boys and girls at the end of 1st grade rose, too.

Moreover, boys and girls in classes near sex parity had better self-control than those of either sex in a class in which they were the dominant majority, 80 percent or more.

Ms. Pahlke said she was still digging into the reasons why gender stereotypes might be beneficial, but a few things jumped out at her.

For one, teachers reported classes with more girls as better behaved, which could translate into better interpersonal skills and more time on task for learning, yet she cautioned that girls do not behave better when they are the overwhelming majority in the classroom.

Teacher Modeling

Teacher stereotypes about student abilities may also be tempered in a more balanced classroom, Ms. Pahlke said.

Prior research has shown that teachers’ own beliefs about gender stereotypes—such as that girls perform worse in math, or boys in reading—can bring down their students’ performance.

“In a class where teachers see there are more boys in the classroom, and I would argue teachers are hyperaware of these issues, … maybe in a math class where they have more boys they say: ‘Oh, boys are better in math. I can use more-advanced-math approaches in my classroom,’ ” Ms. Pahlke said, “and it could work the other way in reading.”

Seemingly benign and insignificant practices, such as greeting students with “Good morning, boys and girls,” or seating students boy-girl-boy-girl, can have big and unintended consequences, according to other, ongoing studies of social labeling and group identity.

Rebecca S. Bigler, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, has studied how children develop a sense of group differences and biases, especially related to gender and race.

Both Ms. Radke, the Phoenix preschool teacher, and her instructional assistant Erica K. Flynn, said they routinely referred to their preschool classes by gender.

“Growing up, I’d always seen, oh, boys are in this line and girls are in this line, and I’d not thought anything about it,” Ms. Flynn said.

Yet even casually organizing students by gender or mentioning it in a way that gender stereotypes causes boys and girls to develop the idea that gender is fundamentally oppositional, in ways the teacher has not mentioned or discussed, Ms. Bigler’s and other research has shown.

“If you compare it to race, if you said to your 1st grade classrooms, ‘Good morning, whites and Latinos; let’s have the Latinos get your pencils,’ what would happen is you would go to federal prison,” Ms. Bigler said. “Labeling children routinely by race in your classroom is a violation of federal law, and, of course, you can do this routinely with gender.”

While infants as young as 6 months can differentiate people by gender, they can also differentiate by any number of other characteristics, from ethnicity to hat wearing, she said. They look to an adult’s behavior to decide which differences are important in a given context.

“Children can attend to any salient difference set out in their environment,” Ms. Bigler said. “Labeling is especially powerful,” she noted; using a noun description like calling someone a “hat wearer,” rather than saying “he likes to wear hats often,” makes the description seem more permanent and intrinsic in children’s minds.

In one series of experiments discussed at the research conference, elementary school students were separated into two random groups and given either red or blue shirts to wear for the duration of the summer session.

In some classrooms, the teachers were asked to hand out the shirts and never mention them again. In others, teachers were asked to use them casually to group students—asking students to form a red line and a blue line, using separate red and blue cubbies or asking, “Let’s have the red students turn in their books now.”

In some versions, the blue- and red-shirted pupils were put in separate classrooms… CONTINUE READING… 

Thank you to Education Week for the information provided in this article by Sarah D. Sparks.

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