Gender Bias in the Classroom: Current Controversies and Implications for Teachers

Article excerpt

Teacher must learn to recognize and eliminate gender bias, because it can limit students' ambitions and accomplishments.

Children develop their own ideas about gender at an early age, as evidenced by the clothes they wear, their dramatic play, their playground talk, and their classroom work. For example, following a theme on "elections," a 3rd-grade boy made the following entry in his writing journal: "The United States has not had a woman president because girls get a different education." This simple statement is indicative of deeply rooted social beliefs perpetuating the unequal treatment of girls and boys in school. Teachers' biases, intentional or otherwise, also send clear and harmful messages that are very influential as children form beliefs in their own abilities. Children's perceptions of gender roles are affected not only by overt forms of gender bias, such as being told they can or cannot do a task because of their gender, but also by the "hidden curriculum'--the subtle lessons that children encounter every day through teachers' behaviors, feedback, classroom segregation, and instructional materials.

Teachers must learn to recognize and eliminate gender bias, because it can limit students' ambitions and accomplishments (Sanders, 2003). This article will present a number of strategies that will help elementary teachers to reduce gender stereotypes in classrooms.

Gender bias persists in many elementary classrooms, and research (American Association of University Women Educational Foundation, 1992, 1999; Sadker & Sadker, 1994) has documented gender inequity in society. Teachers sometimes perpetuate male dominance in the classroom when they (often unconsciously) make males the focus of instruction by giving them more frequent and meticulous attention (Sadker, 2000). The harmful effects of gender bias and differential treatment on girls' self-esteem, self-confidence, and achievement have been the focus of numerous articles (Bauer, 2000; Sadker, 1999; Streitmatter, 1994; Wellhousen & Yin, 1997). These inequities are so pronounced that the comment from the 3rd-grade boy in the opening paragraph may not be that far off the mark: Girls do experience school in qualitatively different ways than boys do.

Are Differences Between Girls and Boys Socially or Biologically Determined?

Many educators continue to question whether girls and boys are indeed cognitively different and therefore need to be taught differently. Are gender styles and preferences biologically or socially determined? In her book The War Against Boys, Christina Hoff Sommers (2000) says the doctrine that boys and girls are the same and that masculinity and femininity are simply a matter of social conditioning does not hold up to careful study. She notes that progressive advancements in neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, genetics, and neuroendocrinology cast doubt on the social constructivist theory, indicating that the nature of boys and girls is genetically determined to some degree.

While Gurian (2001) acknowledges culture's powerful influence on children, he argues that there is a deeper, natural factor--developmental chronology and structural brain-based differences between females and males. Positronic emission tomography (PET) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans have captured gender differences in memory, processing, learning styles, and styles of intelligences. Other investigations (Richardson, 1997; Streitmatter, 1994), however, conclude that gender variations in cognition result from males' and females' different experiences, not from biological causes.

This debate continues to focus on two questions: Are females and males fundamentally different? And, if so, should they be treated the same or differently? In the meantime, feminist scholars continue to ask how this difference is produced and reproduced in the context of schools and schooling, and what can be done to battle inequity (Abu E1-Haj, 2003). …