issue 182 - April 1988
Pops and bubbles
Making science girl-friendly is important for
the future of us all. Mary Randall reports on the
changing face of science teaching.
Feminine science is like practical metaphysics or theoretical knitting: hard to imagine. Science seems hard-nosed, impersonal and authoritarian, and to involve a typically masculine form of thinking that makes girls shy away from it. But science is going to have to change, not only to attract girls into its professions, but also because this masculine mode of thinking can produce some very dangerous people indeed - people who are so locked in the logic of their discipline that they become immune to their own and other people's humanity, and the well-being of the earth. Fortunately things have already begun to change. Since 1981 there have been four international conferences on Girls in Science and Technology. And teachers all over the world are examining the ways science is taught in school to explain the missing female in the world's power-centres of knowledge.
According to researchers at the Girls into Science and Technology (GIST) project in Manchester UK, the traditional mixed-sex science classroom is a microcosm of the world outside. The boys commandeer the apparatus, boast about their knowledge (which is often scantier than they make out), snub the girls, compete endlessly for the teacher's attention, devote themselves to being first in everything as opposed to co-operating with the others. Most important of all, they behave as if the science lesson is itself an exclusive male club. Many girls put their hands up tentatively, to answer questions or make suggestions. But - in this male bear garden - they soon put them down again, unless especially encouraged. And mostly in the past they have not been encouraged.
Many teachers still believe that girls are 'not naturally talented' at science. That this is a self-fulfilling prophesy was demonstrated by an experiment in which teachers were asked, under some pretext, to mark science homework done by unknown pupils. In fact the pieces were identical, apart from having either a girl's or a boy's name attached. Overwhelmingly those with boys' names were given higher marks. Small wonder that girls lack confidence in science, and perform better in all-girls schools.
But teachers' expectations are not the only hurdles the potential girl scientist must face. In practical work with equipment the girls tend to be timid. Boys have often had plenty of experience with plugs, circuits and mechanisms of all sorts before coming to school at all. But most girls are not encouraged to experiment with such things nor given the kinds of toys which develop these skills. Joan Solomon, an Oxford-based researcher, found that giving girls extra practical experience with apparatus increased their confidence with basic theoretical concepts.
But the biases in science teaching go deeper. Textbooks, for instance, use typically masculine images in illustrations and examples. And teachers pander to the boys' interests by emphasizing the slight risks which sometimes accompany classroom experiments, rather than the precision, care and control - which are essential in the laboratory but which are less exciting to the boys. So it is the loudest pops rather than the most beautiful bubbles that the teachers comment on when pupils are making hydrogen. The boys like the pops but the girls like the bubbles. In fact it has been proposed that the beauty of natural phenomena may be one reason why girls do like biology and why many notable women scientists have chosen to work in astronomy, microscopy and crystallography.
Physics, mathematics and chemistry appear to occupy an icy world of abstraction and relentless logic that is totally removed from normal human concerns. It is a world which, during the nineteenth century, was thought to exemplify pure intellect. And pure intellect was thought (by men) to be loftily removed from the inferior earthly concerns of females. Not surprisingly, it is physics, mathematics and chemistry that girls particularly shun.
According to the Manchester researchers, girls show a clear preference for biological sciences. This is partly because of the aesthetic aspect already mentioned. But more relevant is these subjects' intimate connection with life and people and their association with people-orientated professions like medicine.
Yet the other sciences can be related to subjective experience and to everyday concerns. One teacher beginning a course on optics, for instance, encourages pupils to concentrate on their experience of light, and to express this in painting, poetry or photography, before she embarks on teaching its formal laws and equations. Another uses the sensory awareness of the muscles, bones and nerves of the arm as a basis for understanding the operation of forces, levers and pivots.
But change must not stop at the classroom. This more feminine approach to science is now beginning to be seen as important for all scientists, especially those who may become professional specialists. It might engender a sense of social responsibility which might, in turn, have averted some of the more monstrous developments in modern science, such as biological weapons. In fact it has been suggested that the ethical uses of science should be a compulsory part of any science curriculum.
Leaving aside the question of why it is not already part of the curriculum, it may be that simply grafting on a dose of ethics is not the best way to develop a caring and responsible attitude towards humanity and the planet But there is disturbing evidence that some boys who gravitate towards science early on are particularly authoritarian and rigid in their thinking. Their choice represents an escape from just those emotional and spiritual concerns that underlie social responsibility.
John Head, a researcher at the Centre for Science and Mathematics Education at London University, has investigated this further by giving children a sentence completion test. Asked to complete a sentence beginning 'When a child will not join in group activities...', 14-year-old boys specializing in science gave very cut-and-dried answers: 'he must be stupid' or 'he deserves to be unpopular', for example. The other boys, and the girls, provided far more complex ideas, with suggestions for how the child might be integrated. From this and other research it seems that science often attracts people who are anxious to switch off all other aspects of thought.
Presented as objective, precise, all-knowing, science provides a perfect hidey-hole for people who are afraid of the confusing uncertainties of their fluctuating inner feelings and their relationships with others. From this and other research emerges a picture of a type of adolescent boy whose outlook is simplistic, authoritarian and exploitative. He retreats into traditional science. But this does nothing to help him mature. On the contrary, his intellectual capacity is matched only by his inability to express his feelings or respond to those of others. By contrast, girls who choose science early have been found to be more mature because they have made an unconventional choice, often in the context of some long-term goal.
Harvard University researcher, Carol Gilligan, reports that girls appear to process information in a different way from boys. She suggested that girls tend to combine information from a much wider range of sources than boys do. This means that any single event is perceived to be enmeshed in a complex web of experience, of feelings, sensory awareness, empathy and practicality. This quality may lie at the heart of their alleged intuition and preference for interpretive rather than absolute knowledge - as well as their dislike of hard science.
This kind of complex understanding that many girls have can be encouraged in boys partly by enriching their school experience. In practice this means new modes of teaching science and insisting that boys continue with arts, literature and social studies. They need to be reminded of their humanity. Otherwise we will continue to produce scientists who choose to develop nerve gases as an escape from the stunning beauty and emotional complexity of real life.
Mary Randall is a freelance writer specializing in education.