Stepping out of the bubble

    Published: 15 March 2018

    So, we’ve just had International Women’s Day, and despite my best intentions to stay away from social media ‘discussions’, I found myself drawn in to a few relating to issues surrounding equality regarding ‘abilities’.

    In the discussions I was often quite shocked about the views out there still surrounding ‘ability’ and gender stereotypes. The points raised were in the wider context of gender equality, but were often very much related to the discussions we have when talking about growth mindsets and what makes us good at some things and what gets in the way of us being good at other things.

    We know from numerous studies into how we learn and what makes some people better at or more interested in certain things than others, that we are very much a product of the environment we have grown up in. Behaviour and passions modelled by adults in our lives or the positive emotions we start to associate with activities and so on all play an enormous part in affecting our willingness to invest time/effort and also our expectations of ourselves. Yet there still seems to be a pervasive feeling out in internet forums that perceived traits and stereotypes relating to gender and ability/interests are somehow different.

    In her excellent book Delusions of Gender, Cordelia Fine explores the development of gender traits or tendencies through a two tribe model. This can also offer explanation of gender differences throughout childhood and into adulthood.

    It would be reasonable to suppose that if we had two groups or tribes that had been spoken to, and treated differently their whole lives, that they may end up behaving differently than one another. Imagine if Tribe A had received praise based on passivity, sweetness, being quiet or pretty, and had been surrounded by messages reinforcing the idea of their delicacy and weakness. Tribe B, on the other hand, had been subject to language that reinforced their strength, robustness and so on, and had praise relating to their curiosity, their activeness and physical abilities. It would make sense to think that Tribe B may end up being more physical in their recreation and play, where Tribe A may shy away from being rough, or that Tribe B may do more of the ‘active’ activities that get them praise, where Tribe A may tend towards more ‘passive’ ones that prompt their praise. It would then follow rationally that members of Tribe B may get better at those activities than Tribe A, not because of a genetic disposition, but quite simply because they do them more often.

    Well, of course, countless studies have been done of the language and praise that children are subject to, from the greetings cards they are given, to the images and wording on clothing, to parent reactions, to pre-school and school contexts. Girls are far more likely to be told to be careful than boys. (This reminds me of one of the studies done in this area, where mothers are asked to set a gradient for their baby to crawl up. What came out of the study was a bias towards assumptions about what boys are capable of – the mothers of boys were more likely to make the gradient steeper than those of girls, regardless of there being no motor skill or strength difference between them at that age). Boys are far more likely to be given superhero, warrior or science/engineering (trains and so on) based things. There is another interesting study where a baby is dressed in typically ‘girl’ and then ‘boy’ clothing and put in a waiting room. It is the same baby but the comments it receives from people in the waiting room are different when it is perceived to be boy or a girl.

    It is no surprise that, given the reminder from Aristotle that we are what we do, and excellence being a habit, girls may grow to believe they are weaker, and what matters is their appearance and so on. But more than that, there is the effect of stereotyping in academic domains. Fewer girls do choose the chess club or STEM subjects – things that are seen as traditionally male areas. These things matter. We live in an age of far greater gender equality than we would have had a hundred years ago, but there is still far to go.

    But, this blog is not just about gender. The points above apply to all children and the learning process. A child with lots of early encouragement of reading, who has a love of reading modelled by adults at home and develops subsequent positive emotional associations with it, is enormously likely to be motivated to read and have the learning benefits that go along with that.

    The idea that beliefs about ourselves and our capabilities may be affected by external factors such as language, praise and the opportunities we are given is at the heart of what we have been trying to address over recent years in work on mindsets and meta-learning. The key messages in there are ones that I believe are fully appreciated within the education world – particularly so when I reflect on the many wonderful schools I have worked with in Hertfordshire – but maybe isn’t so widely known outside of our education bubble – and that is what worried me after my experiences contributing to these social media discussions. What if what we are doing in school isn’t getting out there? What if our work on raising the expectations we have of children, and critically, that they have of themselves, only goes so far in terms of influence? What if we are not changing the societal ‘norms’ that actually contribute the most to a child’s self-belief?

    I have been fortunate to have been able to explore ‘mindsets’ and how we learn with parents at a few schools, but I wonder if we need to be thinking about how we can ensure the research and messages are shared with all our parents and then hopefully it would get out into the wider world. Parent workshops, like the ones I have been involved with are one way, but could we be thinking about different ways of getting the message out there. Another strategy worth investigating are open afternoons. Here, parents would be able to observe and experience growth mindset language and praise being used. They could even watch a clip like 'The Story of Austin’s Butterfly' with the class and partake in a discussion about the language used, the process and what we could learn? Or, what about parent book groups with texts such as Dweck’s Mindset, Gladwell's Outliers, Coyle’s The Talent Code, Stobart’s The Expert Learner or Syed’s Bounce? Or similarly, afternoon TED talk/YouTube video sessions where parents can watch and discuss together? I’d be really interested to hear what has worked in your school with sharing messages with parents and the wider community.

    So, maybe my engaging in social media ‘discussions’ is a small way of challenging the assumptions or norms out there, but it doesn’t feel all that effective in terms of a meaningful impact on the audience. I feel we need more ways to raise the profile of these fundamental principles of child development outside of our bubble.

    As a little added, but related note, I am sure many of you are members of the Chartered College of Teaching, but even if not, schools should hopefully have received the Wellcome Trust supported second issue of their wonderful journal Impact. It is devoted to the science of learning with insights from neuroscience and cognitive psychology including lots of ideas to support growing learning behaviours and growth mindsets in our schools. An enormously recommended read!

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