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'Girls' and 'boys' in the classroom

March 11, 2008: Education plays a vital role in shaping, questioning and reinforcing the identities of boys and girls in addition to clearing their perceptions on gender relations and equality. The early school years of a child are particularly important in this regard. They are at a critical age at this time, identifying themselves as a part of a specific gender group along with gaining certain beliefs, perceptions and expectations from society. In the process of forming gender identity, children find themselves under pressure from peers, family as well as society at large to conform to the exercising gender stereotyping.

There is empirical support that people have certain expectations from females in the early years. This support is primarily been found in the literature on gender stereotypes (Ben, 1974; Eagly, 1978; Martin, 1990; Ruble, 1978).

However, schools have the responsibility to question the processes that promote unequal gender relations and to adopt practices that help break stereotypical images of man and woman regarding their roles and responsibilities in society.

Within the school, the teacher's role is important to break the gender stereotyping of boys and girls. However, the schooling process often reinforces the already existent stereotypes that we see around us in society but do not question. Marshal (1997) rightly says that classrooms are the microcosm of society and distorted pictures of gender stereotyping are reflected in the classroom. The teacher's role is very important in this process of reinforcement of gender stereotyping.

Gender stereotyping in our country is most often fostered by teachers in the classroom. The language and the teaching strategy used in class with the goal to increase gender equality within the classroom is proving harmful for the gender construction of the students. One such practice I saw on my visit to a private school in Karachi to analyse how gender construction is taking place within the school environment. In class two, the teacher ensures equal gender participation by alternating between male and female students to work problems on the blackboard. "We need a girl to work the next problem," she says.

Using gender as a label for students and organising the classroom can lead to negative consequences. Moreover, I observed that teachers use gendered terms in the classroom - boys, girls, men and women - without thinking about their impact. Research suggests that such language draws children's attention to gender instead of important characteristics of each other such as their personalities or skills. Specially in English-medium schools, the teacher constantly uses "Him/Her" or "He/She" while teaching and verbally interacting with the student in the school. This practice of using "He/She" or "Him/Her" in verbal and written English is considered the "gendered inclusive" language.

However, there are some physiological empirical studies which suggest that constant and intentional use of such language instead of bridging the gender gap further widens the gap in the minds of the students. This may also lead children to believe that teachers are intentionally signaling the existence of important differences between the genders. Finally, such gendered beliefs infused in the minds of young children bring deep-rooted psychological and emotional impact on their gender orientation during the school year.

Few efforts have been made in the Pakistani context to understand and know what kind of beliefs and perceptions teachers have about girls and boys and how these impact classroom teaching practices.

Conducted by Bernadette L. Dean, Rahat Joldoshalieva and Abid Hussainy on the government, private, urban and rural schools of Karachi, The Role of Schooling in Constructing Gendered Identities is a recently published research in an international journal. The study suggests that teachers have gendered bias perceptions about boys and girls. Such perceptions have an evident impact on their teaching practices, resulting in the stereotyping of children's personality.

The findings of the study suggest that the teachers believe that boys are naturally intelligent whereas girls must work hard to succeed. They believe that boys' IQs are higher than girls' and, therefore, they learn much more quickly than girls. They claimed, "The IQ level of boys is better as compared to the girls despite the fact that they live in the same environment, are exposed to the same media and study in the same schools. The girls, despite the fact that they live in the same environment, are exposed to the same media and study in the same schools, are not as smart as boys."

The teachers' beliefs consequently influenced their classroom practices. Such biased gendered beliefs impact their classroom practices, keep girls on task in the classroom, gives them homework and insist that they work hard to achieve good results. The study findings further suggest that teachers think that boys are more confident and girls are deficient in confidence. Girls were described as more cooperative and less competitive than boys.

Teachers also felt that boys competed in all spheres of life while girls were generally cooperative only competing on academic tasks. The teachers believed that gender roles and responsibilities are fixed: men have to earn a living to support the family and women were responsible for home making. Even if girls went out to work, it would still be their responsibility to look after the home as women are known to be responsible for it. For preparing the girls for their future responsibilities in the school they are assigned the task to clean the rooms, the findings suggest.

Moreover, the boys understood their main role and responsibility to be the breadwinner and that of girls to stay home and take care of the children. They see education as a way of preparing them for this role.

The findings of the studies are adequate to suggest that girls and boys while even studying together are being prepared for different roles and responsibilities stereotypically associated with both genders. These findings are being supported by Sadkar (1994) who suggests that sitting in the same classroom, reading the same book, listening to the same teacher, the boys and girls are receiving a very different education. However, research suggests that generally teachers are not even aware of their biased gender teaching habits. They simply teach as they were taught themselves.

This research study is an eye opener for those sitting in the power echelons of the education department and are responsible for the making and implementing of policies. While the government makes high rhetoric that women are being empowered in all spheres of life, young girls and boys are being gendered stereotyped by the teachers.

Therefore, it is highly recommended in the research report that school leaders (head teachers and teachers) and staff should be educated about genders and the importance of schools in promoting gender equality.

In order to make themselves gender-fair, all schools should have a gender policy (dealing with physical infrastructure, teacher substitution and leave), an implementation plan and monitoring strategies. Teachers should choose textbooks that are gender fair, use variety of instructional strategies to accommodate different learning needs and styles, and use gender-friendly language. Moreover, all teacher educators should be gender sensitised through re-orientation courses and "Gender in Education" should be the core of all courses in education programmes for teachers.

However, with reference to the priorities of teacher-training institutes, very few are focusing on the inclusion of a "Gender in Education" course. Therefore, our policy makers, educationists and political leadership should come forward to address the issue of gender stereotyping in schools, so that half of our excluded population may also play its required role in the process of development.

By Shafqat Hussain (Dawn)
The writer is former lecturer of Pakistan Studies
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