New Internationalist

Mixed Messages

Issue 122

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EDUCATION [image, unknown] The hidden curriculum

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Mixed messages
Bias against women in school textbooks is still a very real problem. But there is another more subtle and largely hidden bias which may be even more damaging. Felicity Edholm explains.

FEMINISM has forced educators, parents and teachers to sit up and take a hard look at how the education system discriminates against girls. Textbooks especially have been put under a magnifying glass over the last decade in an attempt to clean up blatantly sexist language and stop the kind of stereotyping that pictures mom busily cleaning house and dad off at the office doing ‘real’ work.

But these ‘visible’ messages are only one aspect of the school curriculum. There are also invisible messages in the classroom which are buried in the way teachers relate to students and students to each other. These messages are so important that even if sex discrimination is purged from textbooks, social relations within the classroom may open another door allowing bias to enter.

The surprising thing is not that relationships inside the classroom are powerful but that they are largely unconscious. And they are unconscious precisely because they reflect the dominant social relations between men and women outside school. Though attitudes have shifted considerably with the recent growth of feminism, women’s primary destiny is still seen as mother and housewife. In that sense a woman’s true job is to look after the male breadwinner. Since women are generally subordinate they achieve little of importance in the public world of work and politics. And since they do not really count in the larger society they do not really count in the schools.

Despite this girls are generally more successful than boys in primary school. They are more competent, articulate, organised and take an interest in most subjects. Boys tend to be destructive, disruptive, unable to pay attention for any length of time, easily bored and disorganised.

But girls are not rewarded for this early academic success. Research shows that boys receive most of the teachers’ time and the lessons are geared to their interests. Teachers tend to know them better as individuals and spend a lot of time helping and encouraging them.

Teachers also say they find it far more rewarding to teach boys than girls. Boys are characterised as ultimately more intelligent and imaginative, while girls are labelled conformist and uninspiring. These differences are invariably explained by teachers in terms of biology, or ’nature’. As a teacher quoted in one UK study put it, ‘the girls seem to be typically feminine and the boys typically male.., you know, more aggressive . . . the ideal of what boys ought to be’. Behavioural characteristics are interpreted as intellectual characteristics according to the broader social stereotype. Inevitably both are accepted as natural and unchangeable.

What all this means from the pupils ’point of view is that the teaching environment and what teacher and student bring to the class are more important than the actual content of the lessons. Boys, acting in almost all ways counter to the teachers’ explicit demands, are rewarded — their aggression and disruptiveness are seen as natural and are not challenged so much as reinforced. Girls, acting in line with the teachers’ demands, perform well academically and are mostly attentive and interested.

But it doesn’t seem to matter since the teacher expects that kind of behaviour from girls anyway and puts all his time, his emotional investment, in the boys. Even those girls who act like boys and are rowdy. domineering and ‘unfeminine,’ find they are penalised both by teachers and other pupils.

One US study shows that when the behaviour of girls is reinforced, it tends to be for passivity and neatness, not for getting the right answer. Not surprisingly girls tend to give up on education and look for other ways to satisfy their social needs. It’s a common pattern and one which strikes a familiar chord in most women. Recollections like the following are not untypical. ‘During adolescence I simply changed my concept of success and worked just as hard at being feminine as I had done at being first in my class’.

By secondary school the silent lessons of earlier grades have taken their toll. The overall academic achievement of girls begins to lag behind boys. In Britain 60 per cent of girls leave school at age 16 without any educational qualifications. The sexes also begin to divide dramatically in subject choice with technical and scientific subjects dominated overwhelmingly by males.

The subtle but powerful pressures working against girls in primary school are reinforced and even multiplied in secondary school. Australian researcher Dale Spender has shown that boys receive on average 70 per cent of teachers’ time. When teachers made special efforts to compensate they still gave the boys nearly 60 per cent of their attention. In response the boys in the class protested loudly and even the teachers wondered if they hadn’t tipped the balance the other way.

British sociologist Michelle Stansworth says girls are increasingly ignored as they make their way through the lower grades. So by secondary school they have often become virtually invisible. Asked about his first impressions of a particular female pupil a sixth-form male teacher told Stansworth:

‘Nothing really. I can only remember first impressions of a few who stood out right away, Adrian of course, and Philip. In fact, it was quite a time before I could tell some of the girls apart.

Most girls have internalised the message which comes from both the teachers and the boys in the class. As a result self-esteem is low. Even when teachers recognise that a girl is bright, they find the idea of girls actually achieving anything difficult to imagine. In Michelle Stansworth’s study most male teachers found it impossible to imagine the girls doing any kind of job once they had finished their education.

The research on the structural sex bias in schools is tentative. Still, there is some feeling, given the overwhelming difficulties women still face in the world outside the classroom that single sex schools may be a step towards solving the problem. Without the presence of boys, girls are prepared to question, to discuss and to be successful. As a result, they are far more self-confident. But is apartheid really the solution?


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