IN the wake of International Women’s Day, revisiting the various ways in which we can ‘break the bias’ may take us to the foundational years in a primary classroom where stereotypes are established as early as when children learn to walk and read.
Students are often callously described as ‘slow learners’ and ‘struggling readers’ often by well-intentioned teachers looking actively for ways to help them out. While the tips and techniques they come up with may help the students, what might benefit more is an awareness of the impact of categorisation. “The boys understand mathematics concepts more quickly so I ask them to help the girls out,” explained one teacher, while talking about her classroom methodology. Such hard-wired beliefs are problematic on many fronts. A research report by Carnegie Mellon University, published in the Science of Learning journal in 2019, debunked the myth that boys are comparatively better at math.
Is it possible that believing the myth that boys are better at mathematics becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy? Isn’t it true that expectations set the tone and benchmarks for learning?
This is just one of the demons that plague our education system. At every level and, indeed in the best of schools, several myths abound that need our focus and revaluation.
Myth number one: Children who come from an ‘educated’ background will necessarily perform better than those who don’t have the privilege of such a background. Whilst the benefits of parental education cannot be denied, there is no reason for children from other backgrounds not to be able to learn if given the opportunity and support with sound pedagogy. Teaching skills are called to action when learners require differentiated or customised approaches.
Teachers have a duty to ‘break the biases’.
Myth number two: Students need to be told to study. Often, this is extended to gender categorisation as many assume that girls are naturally driven while boys need to be ‘disciplined’. Many teachers and parents, in all earnestness, draw up schedules for children, and follow up constantly to ensure compliance. The reality is such an authoritarian approach creates resistance, panic and withdrawal from learning. Students who do well generally study due to intrinsic motivation, derive joy from planning their own study patterns and feel a greater surge of achievement when their efforts pay off. Most students study on their own when they see value in learning, and teachers can help students by creating meaning and interest at the outset.
Myth number three: Girls are more helpful than boys. Many teachers prefer to trust girls with classroom chores because of decades of socialisation that has taught us to assume that girls are more helpful. Boys not only lose out on important life skills, they also feel less valued in the classroom when girls are chosen over them to perform certain roles. The classroom then becomes a reflection of a societal culture that gives girls domestic tasks and sends boys outdoors for more adventurous experiences.
Myth number four: Girls will eventually give up on studies to raise a family. In secondary schools and higher education, there is still a lot more attention diverted to boys’ achievements while girls carrying on with their academic journey is considered a bonus and not a necessity. The result is a continuation of economic dependence for girls, and excessive pressure on boys to shoulder the financial burden for their families.
Myths and stereotypes can be intensely damaging for a student’s academic career and continue to impact their self-perception way beyond school life. Students come to believe what they are told or ‘drip fed’ through their school journey. While teachers have immense power to shape perceptions within the classroom, they also have the responsibility to try and ‘break the biases’ that they encounter.
None of us are free from bias; we live with deep, structural beliefs and values that inform our choices and behaviour. Whilst we cannot unearth the many layers of biases, considering the impact of our words and beliefs on others may be a good starting point, and this is especially pertinent for teachers who are responsible for the foundational development of students. Daily snubs and insults may be unintentional and often come from other students. A simple example is when girls with short hair are told ‘you look like a boy’ or a boy is told he walks like a girl. Such statements quickly become habitual. Students who take such statements seriously are told to ‘toughen up’ and this starts a process of ‘normalisation’ that clouds over the school culture. The emotional discomfort caused is quickly forgotten by the larger group but may have far-reaching consequences for the student’s ‘sense of belonging’ and psychological safety in school and their space in the world at large.
Published in Dawn, March 14th, 2022