Girl Friendly Learning: principle and practice

In the GDST research, lesson observations and subsequent discussions with the teachers revealed that a gender-specific pedagogy was not high profile in their approaches. In many respects, there is a close parallel between their rhetoric and the reality of their practices, little mismatch between what they said they did and what they actually did in their classrooms. Thus in both their rhetoric and their practice, teachers placed emphasis on being enabled to teach, by the collaborative ethos established within the schools and by girls who were keen to learn.

Frequently, they took advantage of the girls’-only space to promote talk, to encourage girls to talk to each other about the topic under discussion, to stimulate exploratory dialogue and self-discovery in an environment which – for the most part – was free from ridicule and the fear of undermining self-image. Their lessons were characterised by a vibrant, interactive style, with a clear structure and varied, well-paced activities, which intrigued, challenged and made demands of the girls, and on occasions created quite intense and powerful contexts for learning.

Many of these characteristics, of course, could be said to be common to any classroom where really effective and demanding teaching is taking place. There is little direct hint here of gender-specific pedagogies, tailored to the explicit learning styles of girls. Indeed, Likewise, there was little in the approach of the observed teachers which indicated that gender-specificity was high profile; certainly the structure, dynamic pace and demands of the many lessons would not have been out of place in boys’-only or mixed classes.

These perspectives were reiterated and reinforced in the interviews with members of the Senior Leadership Team (SLT) in each school, where there was common agreement that boys and girls as learners shared more common characteristics than differences, and that the learning styles of boys and girls were not significantly different.

There is a paradox here, however, which needs more exploration and discussion, since there was a recognition by the SLTs in each school and evidence from classroom practice that the delivery of the curriculum in the classroom did differ, that teachers did recognise that there were subtle differences between how they approached girls and boys in the classroom.

One significant difference was the degree of reassurance offered by teachers. Whatever the subject it was noticeable that – however confident the girls appeared - they frequently sought more assurance and security by asking very many questions, some open, some closed, some high level, some low level. As a consequence, teachers took time and space to reassure, to reiterate, to clarify, responding openly and patiently to questions even when their reactions on occasions suggested that the girls were less confident in their own abilities than they ought to have been.

Sometimes, this involved teachers offering explanations in a different language, or using different analogies, or using more confident girls to recall previous learning and offer feedback and guidance to others. On other occasions, teachers used humour, mock exasperation (“it’s easier than you think, you know … you could do this last week”) and informal language (“come on, your ripping me off … I know you know … please tell me!” ) to demand more from the girls. Whatever the strategy, a range of strategies were used to respond to the learning needs of the girls, to establish secure and safe environments for learning

Equally, however, the teaching - learning environments in each school were far from cosy, easy-going, relaxed places. Whilst girls frequently asserted that they felt secure and supported in their learning, it was clear in their practices that teachers set out to challenge, to demand, to create learning contexts where girls could take risks and explore new ideas. It was clear that teachers were alert to the need to confront girls, to get them to gamble, to take chances, to dare, to acknowledge comfortably that making mistakes and facing difficulties is integral to learning.

In one school, this challenge had been tackled directly, through the introduction of a Critical Thinking course which had been formally introduced in Year 1 “to open our girls to new ways of thinking”. The course aimed to “encourage risk-taking, to draw girls out of comfort zones and areas where they are known to be strong and comfortable … pushing and challenging the girls to achieve more, to think more critically and analytically …in their approach to learning”.

Two lessons were observed, both based around challenging and open-ended themes, on one occasion considering concepts of correlation and causation, and on another occasion discussing notions of reasonable doubt and balancing weight and quality of evidence in arriving at a reasoned judgement. On both occasions, the teacher adopted a brisk and forceful teaching style, with very interactive use of the IWB which was linked in throughout to the girls’ own handheld screens. Questions were directed to individuals by name, and were demanding in their nature, requiring imaginative and lateral thinking, and repeated dialogue with the teacher and with each other.

A few girls clearly found the pace of these lessons, and the insistent, robust questioning, somewhat daunting, but many girls interacted willingly and with enthusiasm, and engaged in rapid responses with the teacher in ways which created real momentum to the lesson. This use of humour and informality created a context for risk-taking without loss of face encouraged girls to move beyond their comfort zones and take chances, and reinforced learning points without the fear of threat or rebuke.

It is worth noticing here, nonetheless, that in their discussions of pedagogy, teachers frequently made reference to what girls needed and to the attitudes and characteristics of girls: the need for security, patience, consistency and fairness, “a clearly set out routine”, “a clear summary of the lesson and a coherent set of notes”, “to develop a trusting relationship with the teacher”, “encouragement to have a go and risk it”. It is almost as though these characteristics of girls’ learning are so ‘taken-for granted’, so assumed, that they were almost sub-conscious and latent.

There is a dilemma here, then, and a paradox. At one level, teachers’ reflections suggested that they had not developed girls’-specific pedagogies, did not teach differently in a girls’-only classroom, or acknowledge that girls had different learning styles from those of boys. Classroom observations confirmed that a gender specific, girls’-orientated pedagogy was not explicit, and that – on the whole – classroom content and curricular focus was not gender specific. It seems unarguable, however, is that many of the observed teachers in these schools had adjusted their pedagogy, whether explicitly or implicitly, to context, to provide secure environment for learning whilst at the same time building in challenges which increased girls’ resilience and criticality.

All of this discussion, of course, has to come accompanied with warnings about the dangers of generalisations and stereotyping. Nonetheless, whilst it seems to be generally accepted across the schools that girls and boys do not have distinctly different learning styles and that the teachers in these schools do not consciously teach in gender-specific ways, over time they have adapted their teaching styles to accommodate and respond to the learning needs of girls, in girl-friendly ways.

This involves creating places for learning which are secure but also challenging, which place emphasis on collaborative learning rather than generating an overtly competitive environment, which stress interactive and cooperative modes of learning, and which encourage girls to work together on an issue or a problem, rather than in isolation. Crucially, however, there is no paradox in accepting that such approaches might also be boy-friendly; it is simply that the teachers in these school have, over time, through professional practice and discussion, evolved pedagogic strategies that cater better for the learning of the girls in these schools.

This analysis of these classroom observations suggest, then, that some teachers have evolved an organically different teaching style in girls’-only classes, which recognises the need on occasions to give girls space to reflect, consider and develop answers and responses, to challenge girls’ to risk more willingly, to encourage them to be more assertive and robust, to demand that they think outside the box.

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