When I was in high school, I remember once being told by a new teacher that she had to take a different approach to teaching us because we were an all boys class. She continued to explain that she had to treat our class more harshly than any class at an all girls high school, simply because we were another gender.
At the time, I took her word and believed that my class would be subjected to a stricter manner and harsher teaching methods because, as boys, these were the “necessary changes” to be applied in order for us to learn. I had almost forgotten this brief occasion when the topic was brought up with a girl in my tutorial last semester. She believed that her classes in high school were taught too delicately, claiming sexism against students in either all boys or all girls high schools and explaining that students in co-educational high schools were the only students taught fairly. The exchange got me thinking: do teachers really change the way they teach based on the gender of a class? And are students from single-sex schools facing sexism from these teaching methods?
Professor Raewyn Connell from the University of Sydney Faculty of Education and Social Work believes that there is no bloc difference in teaching styles or methods, but says that there are situational differences. “Some of the high school curriculum is de facto segregated,” she says. “For example, many more girls than boys are enrolled in drama, more boys than girls in engineering-related subjects, and team sports are mostly segregated. On top of that there is diversity among teachers, of different generations, backgrounds and gender beliefs.”
Natalie Devenish, a long time teacher who has taught at all boys, all girls and co-educational high schools, is one of many educators who believe that teachers change their style and manner depending on the gender of their students. Ultimately, she suggests that these changes boil down to the ways in which students of different genders behave in class.
“It comes down to your ability as a teacher to create an environment that allows the students to be engaged in the learning,” she says. For all boys classes “you are more aware of the need to control the boundaries for learning and make sure the students are listening to instructions. There is a greater need to shift the activities every 20 minutes and monitor the work that has to be completed.” Whereas girls tend to be more easily motivated and tend to complete the tasks required “with less monitoring and prompting”.
Angela Ferla, a co-educational high school teacher, doesn’t believe that there is a distinction in the way boys and girls are taught. “In my opinion teachers alter their teaching pedagogy according to the needs of the student rather than gender specifications. Social expectations between each gender may mean that teachers take different approaches with each student, but they wouldn’t assist one student over the other solely based on these sex differences.”
For example, Ferla has noticed that boys have shorter attention spans and adapts the class accordingly, but doesn’t believe that she treats them any different. “I think it’s a good thing that everyone is treated as a unique being with different characteristics and ways of doing things. It’s the job of a teacher to facilitate an environment for learning, and this is why different approaches are fundamental to teaching quality.”
Laura Sharp, a Western Sydney University secondary education student, believes that there is a gender bias in teaching. “There are many preconceived notions that girls and boys behave different with learning styles, group work dynamics, being disciplined and how seriously they take their work,” she says. “Teachers hold onto these ideas, influencing their teaching methods and behaviour towards students in the classroom.”
Sharp believes that teachers pay more attention and give more time to educational development of boys over girls. “I’ve noticed that teachers give more extensive feedback and praise to male students in the classroom, despite finding that girls evaluate criticism and feedback to assignments more than boys. I think teachers are tougher on boys than girls with classroom management, especially as male students become more disruptive and less attentive when taught by female teachers, and don’t take discipline seriously.”
“Of course different methods of teaching are appropriate depending on the learning style of the student,” says Sharp. “But that has nothing to do with the gender of the student and more with their own personality and intellectual development.”
Sharp herself has experienced instances where her methods of teaching have changed based on gender biases. “I find that I have a more calm and nicer tone of teaching when it comes to girls, and have been more tough on boys in a few cases.”
From a student perspective, it seems as though students see a difference in the ways teachers treat them based on gender. One 2012 thesis from Notre Dame University in Sheishin, Japan asked 113 students and teachers from junior and senior high schools if they believed there was gender distinction in the way boys and girls are treated. The students felt that teachers believed they taught and treated students of both genders equally, but students felt discriminated against, claiming that boys were taught more strictly and girls more kindly.
Taking the study into consideration, it is truly difficult to discover if teachers are treating boys and girls differently in single-sex schools, or if students feel discriminated against simply because they haven’t seen how other students are treated. These studies and complaints by students mean that teachers must acknowledge that all students have different physical and emotional aspects, but strive to teach a class of boys the same way they would teach a class of girls, and vice versa.
Sharp however, has developed her view on how boys and girls should be taught. “I used to think it was a great thing but now I’ve realised in the long run, it is not. Boys and girls should only be taught differently based on their learning and behavioural development, and their own individual needs, not on whether they happen to be this gender or that.”
Originally published in BULL Magazine, September 15, 2015.