Gender Trouble (and better STEM teaching for everyone)
Updated: Nov 8, 2019
In the titular book, Judith Butler argues that gender is a performance that we put on according to the societal expectations we are surrounded by.
Performing 'being a scientist'
Whether or not you want to go that far, we do know that in STEM, boys perform better when they are reminded that they are boys: they perform the way they believe boys should, well. And if girls are asked to write their gender on the test paper, they perform worse: they perform as they believe society expects them to, and society expects them to suck at science.
Now of course, this doesn't mean that most teachers believe that boys are better at sciences than girls, or that many parents do either. But there is constant reinforcement from toy companies, advertising, distant relatives commenting on how pretty their nieces are, but how clever their nephews are, google (as ever, google 'physicist' to see what I mean), that maths and science (the domains of 'clever' people) require a Y chromosome.
Perception of 'being a scientist'
We also know, that lots of the initiatives aimed at getting girls into STEM are failing. Girls know that female speakers are brought in to raise their aspirations and they find it patronising. Many find 'girls only' events problematic: their moral compasses ask for equality, and they don't yet understand that the intention of affirmative action events is to achieve an equality which is absent. Anyway, the intention is irrelevant, it's the girls' perception that matters.
As a secondary chemistry teacher, I know it's too late to change many perceptions lots needs to be done between the ages of three and six to change the kinds of behavioural reinforcement with regards to gender that children receive.
So, what can we do as secondary science teachers to alleviate gender trouble?
Actuality of 'being a scientist'
The Institute of Physics has carried out a lot of research in this area, and their feedback is that girls are more likely to choose STEM subjects if they have confidence in their teachers: male or female. Given their societal preconception that they 'suck at science', their trust in their teachers to make learning possible is of paramount importance. Lo and behold, getting more girls into STEM is actually about making STEM teaching better for everyone, and getting more students into STEM, regardless of their gender.
Early this year, PISA published a report on STEM teaching which I found quite inspiring. Hidden amongst all the other data, was the finding that on problem solving tasks boys performed better individually, and girls performed better collaboratively. This did not mean girls hanging onto the coat tails of others, they fed off each other and were able to solve more challenging problems.
And how do researchers actually solve problems? As part of a team. In collaboration with others.
What do I tend to see when I'm wondering around science or maths lessons: students working through reams of problems individually.* In fact, the only time I tend to see students working collaboratively is on practical work with little to no problem solving aspect.
on problem solving tasks boys performed better individually, and girls performed better collaboratively
Since reading this, reflecting on my own practice, as well as carrying out a lot of observation in my department, I've come to think that embedding more collaborative problem solving in STEM is key to better teaching for everyone. Girls tend to enjoy it and perform better,, raising their confidence and boys develop important collaborative skills they will need if they are to become practicing scientists.
Collaboratively 'being a scientist'
Yesterday, I observed a lovely physics lesson. The group was four Year 12 students (three male, one female). The teacher showed them the clip below or a famous goal and the students had to work out a range of variables for the motion, including the initial velocity, the distance, the initial angle, the height, sketch graphs of the motion, etc. They needed to use a range of approximations and measurements to get started, and then suvat equations to find the rest.
It didn't matter that the problem was related to football. (Apparently the clip is sufficiently famous that they'd all seen it before). What mattered was they they spent the whole lesson working together and solving a difficult problem. By the end, students were relating it to projectile motion questions they had been working on in practice questions. There was some excellent debate about which variables they could measure most accurately from the video clip, and use to calculate those they couldn't measure. The video was on the big screen in slow motion, students were at the board playing with it to time it, using metre rulers to take some measurements, arguing about scales, using the dimensions of a pitch to work out distances, and more. In the hour, not a word was mentioned which was not about the problem.
I want to see more of this: after the lesson all of the students said they really enjoyed it, and wanted to do hard, collaborative problems more often. And that's what we need to hear in a world with a growing need for STEM professionals.
Practically 'being a scientist'
As anyone who knows me can attest, improving practical for students so that they are fully 'minds on', is pretty much my mantra. As scientists, we do practical work to find things out, and students should too. This is lesson time where we already have the students working together collaboratively, but they need to be problem-solving, not just following a recipe. I'm not going to write too much here, as I've said a lot before:
The problem-solving aspect does not need to be what actually happens in the practical. It might be predicting the effects of errors, and then working out which ones have the biggest impact. It might be making some initial observations, and then using these to plan the overall practical (we did this with Year 9 on extracting copper from malachite, aka copper carbonate and sand, a couple of weeks ago, instead of purifying rocksalt as their lesson on filtration - way more engaging). It might be deriving a relationship. With a little more time when planning, putting in the problem-solving is easy. Sometimes we get the level a bit wrong, but editing immediately afterwards, while it's fresh ready for the next group, or the next year, helps; and we become better at judging the level the more we do it.
Traditionally, STEM co-curricular activities have been great at providing these kinds of challenges, but first we need to get all students sufficiently interested to sign up.
Facilitating 'being a scientist'
Although I don't think more collaborative problem-solving is the only way to minimise the impact of gender trouble in STEM, I do think it a powerful one, which improves teaching and learning across the genders and individuals.
With all of this in mind, I've drawn up some goals for improving our provision of collaborative problem-solving in STEM lessons. We've been working towards these in my department since the PISA report, and we still have a way to go, but when I see lessons like yesterday's physics lesson, or wonder into practicals where students are excited because they have invested intellectually in the process, I know the effort is worth it.
One explicit problem-solving practical every topic, where the main focus on the puzzle itself, and the skills and strategies needed to solve it.
Each week students have the opportunity to do some collaborative problem-solving, either in a practical, or a small group doing a harder/larger problem than they could solve individually.
25% of problem-solving is collaborative (let's start there)
All practicals have an element of problem-solving built in to their design.
Design and review collaborative problems as departments, to improve resources once each half term.
Discuss collaborative problems which worked well in our classes as a department, to share best practice as and when people have something to report (but at least once every half term).
To infinity and beyond...
*I'm not claiming this is never important, it is clearly one of the necessary steps en route to mastery. Which is the pedagogical defence for the majority of the teaching that I observe.