*This research was supported in part by the University of Pennsylvania. The views expressed are those of the authors and in no way reflect those of the university.
For decades, waves of research and theory - as well as polemical writings of all stripes - have claimed that schools and society are failing either girls or boys. Some studies in classrooms have focused on the ways in which girls are often silenced, harassed, or undervalued. Other researchers have focused on how boys can be misunderstood, “feminized,” or chastened for natural exuberance. While these works have drawn attention to the fact that how we teach our male and female students can have serious implications for their experience in school and success later in life, much of this work has been contentious, and too little of it has been based on solid research.
Michael Reichert and Richard Hawley’s 2010 study of boys’ schools1 was one of the first large-scale investigations of what students and their teachers say about the kinds of lessons that work for male students. Drawing on their work, we recently completed a study exploring what girls and their teachers describe as the most engaging lessons for students in all-girls schools. Our goal was to elicit those pedagogical practices that succeed in engaging girls in learning, motivating them, and capturing their imaginations across diverse educational environments.
Through an in-depth analysis of more than 1,800 surveys completed by students in grades 6-12 and their teachers in 12 independent all-girls schools located across the United States, our findings provide guidelines for the kinds of teaching (inside and outside the classroom) that really connect with girls. The girls’ responses can be used to design the kinds of curricula that matter most to them. Here we focus on the responses of middle school girls and their teachers.
Effective Lessons for Middle School Girls
The teachers and students in our study described hundreds of inspiring lessons. Our analysis of their responses revealed the nature of their most effective and engaging learning experiences. Most important, teachers and students agreed about what works.
For girls, the most significant characteristics of engaging lessons are that they be clear, well organized, relevant, and collaborative. Within a learning environment that exhibits those qualities, girls respond well to having opportunities to participate in class discussions, engage in hands-on learning, complete (often in groups) multimodal projects, be creative, and participate in out-of-class experiences.
From our findings emerged a picture of students who respond to challenging lessons, assignments, and projects and to teaching that offers a rich variety of opportunities to approach subjects in a variety of ways.
Middle school girls in particular thrive when ideas are presented to them through multimodal channels that engage a range of skills. The multimedia lessons our participants described both employed technology and asked girls to use it. In fact, the girls responded to projects that required them to use a variety of materials, strategies, and approaches. They said they loved discussions, working in teams, and doing collaborative projects. They also described the engaging and meaningful experiences provided by carefully designed out-of-class activities. After proper academic preparation, they enjoyed exploring the ecology of local ponds, going to a museum to see the Colonial architecture they had been studying, or visiting local and national politicians to lobby for better conservation measures. They relished the opportunities for deeper learning as well as the bonding these lessons offered. The girls appreciated being encouraged to dig deeply into a topic and then being given the time to explore it in depth.
When they worked in small teams collaboratively to exercise their imaginations, to produce things, to affect their lives, and to influence the lives of others, they described remarkable, enduring learning.
Our participants also stressed the importance of relevance to the students’ lives and to the world. A key aspect of our relevance finding was that girls respond to lessons that encourage them to study their own ideas, lives, and families but also to lessons that teach them about the current and historical lives of women and girls around the world.
Uncovering the importance and effectiveness of those classroom qualities and learning experiences was a key part of our research. Our findings revealed something else as well: how central relationships are to girls’ learning across diverse pedagogical practices.
The Importance of Teachers
While our research focused on compelling and inspiring lessons, the largest single proportion of responses from students spontaneously described the importance of a teacher.
The girls eloquently described the impact of their teachers’ organization, knowledge of subject matter, ability to convey information, and passion for the material. They also place great value on teachers’ support, both academic and personal. It mattered that teachers provided extra help, showed faith in students’ capacity, and appreciated their struggles and achievements inside and outside of class. Girls described how much they valued teachers who held them to high standards and helped them meet those standards, and also knew about an athletic triumph or the birth of a new sibling.
The Importance of Peers
Our study reinforced the commonly understood notion that girls are highly relational, not only with their teachers but also with fellow students. This emerged in our finding about learning through collaborative projects as well as in descriptions of girls connecting on personal and deeper levels. Over and over, their narratives about powerful lessons were interlaced with stories about connecting to other girls and how that fostered learning. Connecting with other girls is both intellectually rewarding and emotionally satisfying.
Everything that emerged from our students’ and teachers’ descriptions of effective and engaging lessons fits well with a progressive style of teaching and learning. The qualities of lessons and the activities described - as well as the centrality of connections with teachers and peers - are completely aligned with what middle school girls need developmentally. This includes opportunities to develop meaningful relationships with adults and peers, and also to become more responsible for their own learning through hands-on exploration and other constructivist approaches.
Gender in the Classroom
One could certainly argue that the findings described are as true for boys as for girls. We agree. That does not mean, however, that gender is not central to what we have learned. It is important for teachers to consider students’ gender identity, including how girls see themselves as gendered individuals and how those around them respond to them as gendered people.
The girls in our study described numerous ways in which gender was extremely relevant to what and how they were learning. They were passionate about studying the lives of girls and women, including their own lives. Girls wrote about how particular topics resonated with them as young women. Such lessons involved current events, religion, and history and highlighted particular ways girls and women are affected by them. They thrived in safe spaces where they could examine the widespread exploitation of girls around the world and how opportunity structures often negatively affect girls.
They also loved exploring how being a young woman affects their lives more generally. Girls and teachers wrote about tackling awkward or potentially threatening topics (such as sexual assault) within the safety of an all-girls class.
Finally, knowing that both boys and girls can be subjected to stereotyping in school, it is not surprising that many of our participants wrote about how meaningful it was when girls were given the opportunity to confront and shatter stereotypes about things they weren’t expected to do.
These findings underscore many of the ways gender has relevance in the classroom and important implications for teaching. Both single-sex and coeducational schools need to recognize the importance of gender in learning.
Addressing gender in the classroom can mean different things, depending on the subject matter, type of lesson, and students one is teaching. In math and science courses, for instance, schools need to ensure that girls can see themselves as future mathematicians, scientists, and engineers. In a history class, this could mean exploring why so few women are represented in a textbook. In English, it could mean discussing how gender affects characters while encouraging students to consider how their own gender influences their reading of a text. These lessons should be carefully thought out and scaffolded.
Ideally, teachers should work together to address the ways and means of addressing gender in their pedagogy. Special arrangements may be required to provide safe spaces in coeducational settings.
Reaching Middle School Girls in the Classroom
Our study demonstrates that teachers who are clear, who connect to girls, and who make it possible for students to see the relevance of their studies to their lives will engage them effectively. Middle school girls are most likely to engage in lessons that include discussions, use multimodal pedagogy, are collaborative, and allow for hands-on learning. These are the lessons they find exciting, inspiring, and meaningful.
The lessons will be even more powerful within classrooms in which there are positive and deep relationships among students and with the teacher and in which the students’ gender is considered and addressed within the parameters of the lesson.
1. Michael Reichert and Richard Hawley, Reaching Boys, Teaching Boys: Strategies That Work - and Why. John Wiley and Sons. 2010.