A Swedish preschool is trying to create a gender-free environment for its young pupils. Should we try it over here?
THE MARK: What do you think of the Swedish “genderless” preschool that has shown up in the news recently?
ROSALIND BARNETT: I think the school is legitimately concerned that from a very early age kids are squeezed into harmful gender strait-jackets. The tendency to fit children into female or male “boxes” is pervasive. Once in their sex-specific “box”, kids are channelled into different “girl” or “boy” activities and behaviours. Although the school is trying to minimize this process, I don’t think their strategy is likely to have real long-term effects. After all, children are in school only a few hours a day, but they’re exposed to gendered messages all day and every day.
THE MARK: Should teachers be focusing on gender education as early as preschool?
BARNETT: Yes. There is evidence that by two years of age children already have some awareness of gender stereotypes. And, by the early grades they have incorporated cultural stereotypes linking sex to specific abilities (e.g., math is for boys). Moreover, evidence suggests that early learnings have staying power even in the face of counter-stereotypical evidence.
So, it is important for preschool teachers (and parents) to challenge very young children to think critically about and critique ideas about gender, before their ideas become too firmly established.
THE MARK: So rather than focusing on institutional changes, the teachers should be learning to recognize their own biases.
BARNETT: I don’t think it is an either-or proposition, but if I had to prioritize, recognizing teachers’ own biases would be number one.
THE MARK: There’s a scientific debate over whether there is a real, biological difference between the way young boys and young girls learn. Do you think there is a difference there?
BARNETT: There may be some learning differences, but the big story is the considerable similarity between boys and girls in a wide range of cognitive domains.
Claims of large gender differences are so pervasive and oft-repeated that they are assumed to be true. However, scores of peer-reviewed studies suggest that these claims are invalid. The fact that they are repeated over and over doesn’t make them true.
THE MARK: The opposite argument, of course, runs that even if there is a slight difference between the way boys and girls learn, the consequences of segregating them and teaching them different things would outweigh the benefits.
BARNETT: Let’s say there are such differences. Is the argument then that homogeneity is better than heterogeneity? We’ve fought lots of battles to have heterogeneous classes, with respect to race and socioeconomic status and so forth – so why would you now introduce the notion that we should have homogeneity with respect to gender in learning environments? Why would this form of segregation be deemed beneficial when other forms of segregation are not? What’s the rationale? Wouldn’t learning be enhanced if children who learned one way were interacting with children who learned a different way?
If homogeneity is good, then is the argument that we should then re-segregate classes by race?
THE MARK: What do you see as the major gender issues in education as it stands?
BARNETT: It is crucial to help teachers become aware of their own gender stereotypes. Without this awareness teachers can’t help but convey, albeit unconsciously, rigid cultural messages. These implicit stereotypes, which we as members of our society all have, affect our behaviour in myriad ways, including importantly how we treat young children.
There is also the need to counter the pervasive assumption that boys, as a group, and girls, as a group, are naturally very different and, therefore, need different curricula, teaching styles, etc. In fact, there is so much variation within gender that merely knowing whether a child is male or female tells you virtually nothing about his or her aptitudes, interests, or values.
It is also important to distinguish between innate and learned differences. Given boys’ and girls’ different socialization experiences, starting at an early age, gender differences in behaviour and interests are to be expected. The key question is whether those differences are “innate” or learned.
With today’s focus on brain differences [e.g., The Female Brain and The Male Brain by Louann Brizendine], people are all too ready to jump from observed gender differences to the inference that such differences must be rooted in innate brain differences. To date, there is scant evidence for innate gender differences of any magnitude on a range of cognitive and other abilities. Moreover, when gender differences are reported, they are due largely to differential and therefore modifiable (e.g., learning, encouragement, specific training). Thus, evidence of a gender difference is not necessarily evidence that the difference in question is innate.
Finally, teachers need to look beyond stereotypes and view each child as an individual. Some boys gravitate toward math, and so do some girls. Some girls excel in English, as do some boys. Some boys are athletic and so are some girls. Some girls prefer quiet activities and so do some boys.
BARNETT: Gender stereotypes are certainly loosening. Yet considerable research suggests that young children are still very stereotyped in their thinking and behaviour.
We can help minimize the harmful effects of such stereotypes by becoming aware of the ways in which we “automatically” encourage or discourage children’s behaviour based solely on prejudgements about what is or is not appropriate for members of their sex.
We can become better informed about the research in this important area so that we are less susceptible to media reports of large, immutable, and important sex difference. Moreover, we can then challenge those who make these claims to provide the scientific justification for them.