Learning to Read Gender Relations in Schooling: Implications of Personal History and Teaching Context on Identifying Disempowerment for Girls

By McCaughtry, Nate | Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, December 2004 | Go to article overview

Learning to Read Gender Relations in Schooling: Implications of Personal History and Teaching Context on Identifying Disempowerment for Girls


McCaughtry, Nate, Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport


The purpose of this study was to examine how one secondary physical education teacher understood gender at her school and how that understanding developed. Theoretical perspectives on feminism and the nature of teachers' knowledge guided the inquiry. Data were collected through 20 teacher observations and 60 interviews over 4 months and analyzed using constant comparison with frequent member checks to facilitate accuracy. Three main findings emerged. First, this teacher identified two aspects of the broader school culture, which she believed sent students, particularly girls, gendered and patriarchal messages of social positions. Second, she described a number of practices in the traditional physical education program, which she believed contributed further to girls' disempowerment. Finally, this teachers' stance in the political structure of the school both constrained and enhanced the development of her understanding of gender. Findings are discussed in relation to feminist theoretical stances and feminist teacher knowledge development.

Key words: feminism, patriarchy, postmodern, teacher knowledge

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Since the advent of public schooling in America, gender has been a central issue in curriculum theory and teaching. Early conversations on gender centered on identifying womanly traits and constructing women-centered curricula, developing the practical skills needed to perform duties as wives and mothers (Kliebard, 1995). Over the years, discourse on gender and schooling has shifted dramatically. More recent conversations tackle issues such as biological essentialism, educational equity, and schools as institutions of gender production and reproduction. Feminist literatures, for example, now seek to identify mechanisms, practices, and underlying ideologies in schooling that reinforce those in the broader society. Analyses have included gendered messages in curriculum materials, teachers' differential attention to boys and girls, growing competition in schools, and the lack of attention to multiple ways of knowing and moral development (Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, & Tarule, 1986; Gilligan, 1982; Noddings, 1992; Pinar, Reynolds, Slattery, & Taubman, 1995).

Conversations about gender in physical education have also grown more sophisticated. At first, discourse centered on biological differentiation and limiting girls' physical activity (Hall, 1906; Vertinsky, 1992). With Title IX, conversations shifted to sex-role stereotyping, equity, and girls' empowerment (Chepyator-Thomson & Ennis, 1997; Ennis, 1998; Geadelmann, 1980; Vertinsky, 1992). More recently, feminist analyses have viewed sport and physical education as social practices in which gender is enacted and embodied (Armour, 1999; Nilges, 1998; Oliver, 1999; Oliver & Lalik, 2004; Wright, 1995; Wright & King, 1991). Each of these more sophisticated gender analyses has broadened our ability to understand the social milieu of physical education, become better prepared to recognize inequalities and disempowerment, and craft more relevance and socially just teaching practices.

The strategies for social and educational change offered by sophisticated feminist analyses have been equally beneficial. United States theorists in education and physical education have generally offered two sites of change for the transformation to more equitable and critical schooling practices (Giroux, 1988; Vertinsky, 1992). First, they have suggested that broader institutional policies and practices end, such as some gender-segregated classrooms, differential curricula, and school-sponsored beauty pageants, (Christian-Smith, 1987; Oliver & Lalik, 2004; Vertinsky, 1992). Second, and most important for this study, they have often claimed that teachers offer the best opportunities for change. Giroux (1988), for example, advocated that teachers be viewed as "transformative intellectuals," who recognize oppressive classroom practices and work to promote equity, socially critical dialog, and openness to diversity. …

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