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Think Tank

This Month's Think Tank Panel

September 2005

Topic: Do women learn differently? - A conversation

Intro

Curtis: This month's column is a little different than what we usually do. It is actually a preview of a discussion that Marc, Brenda and I will be hosting at JALT2005 in Shizuoka. The discussion is on "Teaching Women."

Brenda: In particular, we are looking at teaching in Women's Colleges and Universities.

As Curtis points out in his column, women's colleges in the USA are noted for producing a lot of really strong women: a third of the women on the boards of Fortune 1000 companies, 44% of female politicians, including people like Madeline Albright and Hillary Clinton. The list of Japanese who attended women's schools is also impressive. Former United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Ogata Sadako graduated from Sacred Heart (Shishin Jogakuin). So did Empress Michiko (she was valedictorian). Hisamoto Masami, a top rated TV personality attended Kinran Women's Jr. College. Designer Mori Hanae attended a women's university as did Chibi-Maruko-san creator Sakura Momoka. Even Ono Yoko studied music at a women's school for a time.

But of course, we don't want to look only at lists of famous people. We thought it would be useful, before the conference, to share some ideas about teaching women. We hope it will encourage other teachers to think about the issues and their own experiences.

Marc: And, of course, we hope to encourage people to attend the discussion (1 pm, Sunday, Oct. 9).(Full disclosure: I am, with Rob Waring, Co-chair of the conference so, in addition to being very interested in this topic, I'm obviously also interested in having a lot of people attend JALT2005.)

These are the specific questions we'll be looking at:

1. What exactly is a "women's university"?
2. Do women's schools offer any advantages for women?
3. Do women learn differently? How? What learning styles are prevalent? What should teachers (female and male) do?
4. Do gender-based pedagogies apply in co-ed schools and after graduation?
5. Where do we go from here?

Brenda: In my section, I look at some of the different learning styles and strengths that seem to be gender-based. Go...
Marc: And in my part, I share ways I've tried to make my teaching more appropriate for female students. Go...
Peter: Unfortunately, I won't be at JALT this year, but this is an issue that I am quite interested in (I even included it in my latest book!). In my part of Think Tank, I share some of my own observations. Go...
Chris: I won't be at JALT either. My Think Tank piece relates to teaching children. Go...

Curtis, Brenda, and Marc: We hope to see a lot of you at the JALT2005 discussion and look forward to hearing your ideas and experiences.

Curtis Kelly

It is currently fashionable in Japan to believe that women’s universities and junior colleges should all be made co-ed. They are seen as artifacts of the past, a carryover from an age when schools for women were delegated with preserving virginity and making good wives. In our day and age men and women work together, not separately, and the same should hold true in education as well.

Of course, there is some truth in this view, and a look at the traditional Tandai majors ­ childcare, nutrition, interior design ­ reflect our segregationist history, and yet, there is more to the story as well. If we look at the other side of the coin, that the "regular" schools are really educational bastions for males — bound to male-oriented traditions and pedagogies — then it becomes apparent that educating women with these pedagogies really means trying to make women, well…, more male.

“The simple answer is that women learn better when they study with (but are not necessarily taught by) other women.”

Consider this. Institutional education is ancient. Even the primary pedagogy we use today dates back to the 11th century when it was developed by monks to train young boys. But it was also exclusive. It was not until the last fifty years or so that women were even admitted to higher education, when they were increasingly "allowed" to attend male schools. This fact is significant. It means those lofty traditions of higher education ­ and means of disciplining, motivating, interacting and assessing ­ were all honed to fit men, not women.

Gender studies have shown that even from childhood, whereas men have a need for independence, women have a need for interdependence. Whereas men form loose social groups with easy entry and exit, women form tighter, smaller groups that are far more territorial and exclusive. Whereas men compete and seek status by displaying their accomplishments, women seek intimacy through use of metamessages, self-deprecation and intimacy. Therefore, it is no surprise that the traditional model of education brandishes the Bell Curve, competition, and sports club-like approaches to motivation. This is what moves men towards learning. However, a considerable body of research shows that traditional educational practices are not nearly as effective in moving women. So what is?

The simple answer is that women learn better when they study with (but are not necessarily taught by) other women. I apologize that the data I am using to support this view comes primarily from the US, where extensive research has been done on women in education, but the evidence is so convincing that it deserves examination. So how do women’s colleges in the US stack up against coed schools?

First of all, a woman who graduates from an American women's college is more likely to gain a higher degree of self-esteem, be more satisfied, and is more likely to pursue higher social positions after graduating. She is twice as likely to get a doctoral degree as her co-ed counterpart, and in doing so, more likely to enter a traditionally male field, such as law, medicine, or engineering. Whereas only 4% of US women college graduates came from women's colleges, 14% of the women on the Good Housekeeping list of Outstanding Women Graduates did. That percentage jumps to 30% of the women listed in Business Week's 50 rising women in business, and 33% of the women who are board members in Fortune's top 1000 companies. In politics the figure is even higher, 44%. 12 out of 27 women in congress graduated from women's colleges, and their number include names like Madeline Albright and Hilary Clinton. (Condoleezza Rice entered a co-ed college, but only after attending a girl's high school, St. Mary's.)

How do we account for this phenomenon? Research in education has conclusively shown that achievement is related to two factors: small class size and teacher contact. The second factor is the one we want to consider. In schools that were originally made for men ­ almost all co-ed schools ­ the individualistic, competitive dynamics result in men, who are better socialized to such environments, to take the lead, while women migrate quietly to the back. Studies have shown that men are more likely to interrupt in class, ask questions, and have their names remembered by the teacher. In fact, the percentage of women in educational institutions has an inverse correlation to their academic gains. The smaller the percentage of women, the worse they fare.

Of course, we are talking about Japan in this Think Tank, not America, but it seems the differences apply in this educational milieu as well, at least, that is what I have come to believe after teaching 20 years in Japanese women's colleges. One particular thing I have noticed in class, that still amazes me, is how different graduates of women's high schools are. Regardless of the academic standing of their high schools, they tend to be far more active, confident, and expressive than women who came from co-ed schools. I can only account for this difference by assuming the women coming from girls' schools had more opportunities to express leadership than their co-ed peers.

Another thing that I have noticed, especially in relation to my Japanese counterparts, is that the gender of the teacher is not a good predictor of how woman-oriented their teaching is. Many of the women educators I have worked with, including feminists, have been the most fervent in applying male-oriented educational techniques, presumably because they were socialized by male-oriented pedagogies themselves in college, and maybe had a harder struggle than their male counterparts.

Well, my fifteen-year long fascination with gender in education has led me to dabble in developing a woman-oriented pedagogy to use in my own college classes. I won't go into detail here, but let me highlight a few key points: Of primary importance, women are more likely to be relational and global learners rather than analytical. That means they are more likely to be motivated by relationships and a nurturing atmosphere than by test scores or competition. They study better in pairs and groups than by themselves, and one angry scolding in the classroom, even if they are not on the receiving end of it, can quickly douse their interest in class. They do better with global concepts than with details, and do the best when the learning tasks focus in on their areas of interest, such as relationships or travel, and allow them to incorporate their visual or verbal strengths.

Indeed, there is much more I could talk about in regard to teaching women, such as how they gain "voice," the importance of "intimacy," or why I have class parties at the beginning of the semester rather than at the end, but I'd rather hear what you have to say.

Before that, however, let me comment on the sub-title "Helping Women Succeed." When you read it, how did you process the word "succeed"? In terms of social status? Income? Test scores? If so, ladies and gentlemen, you might still be thinking with the traditional male gender bias our societies promote (although I truly hate the fact that we must describe these two orientations in terms of gender). If you also included "forming rich relationships," "being appreciated," and "giving to others," then you are probably already on your way through the next great paradigm shift, one that will reshape our thinking about education in fundamental ways.

Now, your observations, please.




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Marc Helgesen

My part of this conversation started a few years ago when Curtis sent me an email with a bunch of data on women learners ­ some very similar to what he has written here.

This made me think. Here I am, teaching in a joshi dai (women's university). ) I consider myself a feminist and am in a department with a feminist/empowerment bent. I certainly want to do whatever I can to help my students become strong women, intellectually, emotionally and in terms of skills.

“Was I teaching women? Or was I just teaching and the people in the room happened to be women?”

But Curtis' email was a wake up call. I wanted to support my students, but I hadn't really thought about the difference between the way they process information and the way to present it. The students are women. Was I teaching women? Or was I just teaching and the people in the room happened to be women?

So I did what you would probably do. I went online to see what I could learn about women's learning styles. I read a few books. And then I went into my classroom to work/play with some ideas.

Here are a few things I did, and I do, to make my classes more valid for my students. Two points I ask you to remember as you read them. I will be talking about some generalizations (social orientation/ learning styles/ competition). Anyone who talks about learning styles is quick to point out that these are generalizations, not concrete, unchanging labels categories. I am not suggesting that all ­ or even most ­ women fit in a given style, merely that many do. So this is something I should be aware of. And, since many are in other groups and styles, I should be aware of the other possibilities as well. And no one is "all X all the time." Students need variety.

Second, many/most of the ideas have to do with giving the learners more power about how they get information, practice and learn. I don't think this is at all limited to women. I'd guess many are just as valid for men. But I don't teach men. You decide if the ideas work in male or co-ed classes. (I'd love to know what you think ­ post on the message board).

So, here goes.

Information:
Perhaps the clearest thing we know is that many women are very social. They like connecting with other people. (check out this information from National University of Singapore)

Action:
We rearranged our conversation classroom. There were 60 desks in the room. We managed to get rid of 12. We rearranged them into 12 "islands" or "pods". The students look at each other, not at me (the pods are perpendicular to the front of the room. This makes it easier for the students to talk to each other (and this is a conversation class ­ that's what we want). It also makes their little group of four central. The role of room arrangement in making a class "student centered" is real important. We also put art on the walls (unusual in a university classroom), and have coffee and tea, aroma therapy burners and background music. We try to make the room feel like a communication space, not just a classroom.

Competition vs. cooperation:
Many sources, including women's media, suggest that women prefer cooperation to competition. I've used games and contests in my classes for years. Did I have to give them up?

Action:
I basically eliminated competition. I still use lots of games, but competition is often in conflict with cooperation. So I have essentially gotten rid of competitive activities. We often do the same games I did before, we just don't bother with points. Or, at least, the competition is optional. ("Let's do this game. If you want to do points, do x. If you don't want to mess with that, fine.")

Please understand that this no competition thing is not some "peace/love/dove/tree hugging/somewhere to the left of California" thing. It is practical. Competition tends to make students go for speed. Short and fast. As an English teacher, I sure don't want those. Also, if women are more social then men, "fast" speaking turns is probably a mistake. Give them time.

I mentioned at the beginning that I don't think everyone fits into categories. I am not suggesting that women don't compete. One student in my department is the Tohoku Women's Karate champion. Another just won the prefectural 1st year students' English speech contest. I have others who are on the basketball and lacrosse teams. And in class, we (the other students and I) recognize these things and cheer them on. But it is more like celebrating these achievers as one of us. As for class atmosphere, I think "festival" is more appropriate than "contest."

“There is sort of a men's report talk in contrast to women's rapport talk.”

Talk time:
There are any number of studies that point out that women tend to speak more words per day than men. There are various "word counts" available but one source, Why men don't listen and women can't read maps (Alan and Barbara Pease, 2001, Orion Books) suggests women use about 18,000 words, vocal sounds and body language signals. Men use about 7,000. Men tend to speak more directly. Women use conversation to build personal connections. It is sort of a men's report talk in contrast to women's rapport talk. So, if talking comes naturally to women ­ and, if women find cooperation and group building important, that makes intuitive sense ­ what can we do in the classroom?

Action:
For years, I avoided "free conversation" because I found it was always sort of "the non-task from hell." It usually led to uncomfortable silence. So I asked myself why. Well, for one thing, the students are doing it in a foreign language. That means if I am asking them to just spontaneously speak in English, they have to create meaning (think of what to say) and create form (think of how to say it) at the same time. That can be tough in one's first language. It is even tougher in a second. Also, there is no task. So what I started doing in most classes is English Challenge. It is about 5 minutes of speaking time. I give a possible topic. They don't have to use it, but it is there if they want to use it. There is always one minute of think time first. I find that the combination of time for mental rehearsal plus the challenge of speaking for five minutes completely in English gives the task enough structure. The students enjoy it. It is a chance to "just chat" in English. And they notice their success in doing it in English.

Learning styles
There are lots of ways to look at learning styles. Multiple intelligences is one. Looking at the senses we use to process information is another. I find this particularly useful in the classroom.

Of the five senses, visual, auditory and kinesthetic (which includes touch and movement as well as emotion) are the most useful in the classroom. The other two, smell and taste, are also powerful, they just are not as flexible in teaching situations.

We all have a "preferred modality." Preferred here doesn't mean the one we like the most, it means the one we use automatically when there is no reason for us to change into a different mode. Barring a handicap, we all have all five senses and use them all. So it isn't a case of visual people being unable to process auditorally or kinesthetically. We all use them all, just with different frequency.

Here's the problem. I don't want to stereotype (and a generalization is nothing but a stereotype wearing a suit and tie). I know I can find all of the senses as their own preferred modality in one or more of my students. Still, there seem to be gender differences. Read these two paragraphs. Is the person described male or female?

1. This person gets home after work. After dinner, (s/he) calls a friend and they talk on the phone for maybe an hour.

2. This person gets home after work. After dinner, (s/he) turns on the TV and doesn't move for the next few hours.

I've used this example in sensory workshops and people inevitably identify person one as female (They're right. It's my wife). The person watching TV is male. (Not necessarily me but we if add reading a book or using the Internet to the list, it could be.)

Men tend to be more visual. Women tend to be more auditory. A common assumption is that women are better at language than men (and teaching in a women's school, I can't prove or disprove it). If it is true, the fact that they "have a better ear" for language and are more conversational would seem to make sense.

There are also the kinesthetic learners, those that need to move around as they learn. Many women are kinesthetic. Want evidence? Television commercials have great visuals and sound, but what about touch? TV can't do that well. But notice how many TV commercials aimed at women show a visual representation of something kinesthetic: A women running her hand over a baby's skin or though her own hair. It is a way to send a kinesthetic message visually.

Action:
I know that many of my students are processing information in different ways than I do. So, when I plan my classes, I try to make sure that I include auditory activities (listening, speaking with a partner), visual activities (things using a textbook, worksheet or other visual stimuli) and kinesthetic activities (movement activities, acting out roleplays, even things as simple as changing partners so they have to move a bit. I've written about this before. There is a list of things you can do to add sensory variety to classroom activities at an earlier Think Tank.

An obvious target for criticism in a more female oriented classroom is that the students, after they graduate, will have to make it "in a man's world." True enough. And there are skills they'll need. At the same time, the examples that Curtis listed are pretty strong evidence that women who attend women's schools can more than handle themselves. If, by paying attention to the way women learn, we can make them stronger, then I think that's what those of us teaching women are supposed to do.




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Brenda Hayashi

I must confess that before Marc started talking about issues related to teaching in a women’s college, I had never thought very deeply about what it meant for a man to be teaching in a women’s college. And I never thought what it meant to be a female teacher in a single-sex educational institution. I had not considered the advantages a women’s university may hold for young women. Perhaps one reason for this was the fact that I had been educated in a co-ed environment all my life. In North America, only about 3% of high school girls seriously consider attending a women’s college. Many young women view all-women’s colleges as elite finishing schools, or they feel that a single-sex school artificially isolates women from men. I was no exception. The other reason was that I had thought of gender differences in educational performance to be a result of the educational process, that is, the nurture part of the nature vs. nurture dichotomy, and not due to innate differences between men and women, that is, nature.

“For a person like me who used to think that gender differences were outcomes of nurture, it was somewhat shocking to discover that there ARE very fundamental differences between boys and girls.”

As Curtis points out, many high-powered famous women are graduates of women’s universities. We can list Japanese women as well: e.g., TV scriptwriter Yumie Hiraiwa (Japan Women’s University), writer Hiromi Kawakami and UN High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata (Sacred Heart in Tokyo), Minister for National Land and Transport Chikage Oogi (Takarazuka Opera Group). It is an undeniable fact that many women choose to attend an all-women’s college. What made them do so? I polled some of my students, and found that they decided to enroll in a women’s university because of:

1. the facilities
Many of the students said that they thought a women’s university would be clean, have up-to-date (if not state-of-the-art) equipment, since almost all women’s universities are private institutions. Whether or not their image is correct is another point, but the fact is they felt that the university facilities would be conducive to studying.

2. the chance to be in an all-women’s environment before going out into the “real” world
Some of the students polled are graduates of co-ed high schools. When asked why they chose to come to an all-women’s university, many said that they wanted the experience of being in an all-women’s environment. To some, being a joshidaisei, a student of an all-women’s college, was “cool.”

3. the atmosphere
Students said that they can feel freer and more relaxed in a women’s college. They can dress as they like, they can behave as they like, and they can talk about anything without having to worry about how the other sex views them. (I find it curious that the fact that many of their teachers are men does not enter the picture. Are teachers gender-free? Gender-less?)

The reasons given by my Japanese students polled are different from what is widely perceived as advantages of single-sex education for girls. Advocates of single-sex education usually give the following three reasons: 1) expanded educational opportunities, 2) learning and instruction tailored for females, and 3) greater autonomy.

Let's take a look at the three reasons my students gave. First, the facilities. I am no authority on women's college facilities, but it does appear that the schools at least look clean. From the students' point of view, it is easier to put up with a few Windows98 computers than it is to eat in a run-down cafeteria or use unclean lavatories.

The fact that my students wanted to have the experience of being in an all-women's institution was difficult for me to understand at first. Playing the devil's advocate, I asked, "But in the real world, you will have to work with the other sex. Didn't you see your college days as a kind of preparation for the time you will join the rat race?" They all responded that it was precisely because the real world was composed of both sexes that they choose to study at a women's college. They will have to spend the rest of their lives working with, living with, and interacting with men as well as women, so they see the four years at college as their last chance to be in what some people would call an artificial world. (Of course this is assuming that none of the students will enter a nunnery or be sent to a women's prison!) My informants felt they were fortunate to have the option to study in both a co-ed and a single-sex environment.

The third reason given by the young women, that is, the freedom to be themselves, is closely related to two points that single-sex education advocates make: graduates of women's universities experience expanded educational opportunities and develop greater autonomy. Single-sex classrooms encourage young women to be daring, and to try things that they may not do otherwise in front of male classmates. The unique educational atmosphere can help women to recognize what their strengths and weaknesses are, discover or reaffirm future goals, and bolster self-confidence to a level where young women are willing to take more risks.

So, to help women reach their full potential, we teachers need to teach in a way that matches the specific learning styles of women (while taking into consideration that there is danger in generalizations). And just what is it about female students that we teachers should be aware of?

For a person like me who used to think that gender differences were the outcome of nurture, it was somewhat shocking to discover that there ARE very fundamental differences between boys and girls. In short, research in recent years has shown that:

1. The brain is different.
2. Girls hear better.
3. Girls and boys respond to stress differently.
4. Self-performance evaluations differ according to gender.

1. Like it or not, it seems that there appear to be significant differences between a girl's brain and a boy's brain. And the differences are there even before we are born! Sex hormones bind to brain tissue and sometime between 18 and 26 weeks, the developing brain is permanently and irreversibly transformed into a boy's brain or a girl's brain. What evolves is a brain that is different from one of the opposite sex in terms of structure, function, and development. We now know that women and men process information, listen, read, and experience emotion in different ways. Various studies point to a general principle in human sex differences: men are more likely to use a small area of the brain, on just the left hemisphere, for a particular task whereas women use more of the brain, on both hemispheres, for the same task.

Fact: Women and men use different strategies for navigating tasks. This correlates with different brain regions. Women use the cerebral cortex (mostly the right parietal cortex) when given tasks which require navigational skills. Men do not use the parietal cortex; instead they use primarily the left hippocampus, which is not activated in women's brains during navigational tasks. What this means is that women navigate using landmarks that can be seen or heard. ("Go to the first street. You'll see a 7-11 at the corner. Turn left and go straight until you see a house with a red roof.") Men probably will use abstract concepts such as north and south, or distance/time in concrete terms. ("Go south on First Avenue for 1 km, and then go east. After 10 minutes head south until you reach a t-junction. Go west and the house is the third from the junction, on the left.") Understand this difference the next time you teach a unit on giving directions. Maybe you thought your female students were simply embellishing their directions. Not necessarily so. They were using landmarks to complete the navigational task.

Fact: Talking about feelings and emotions differs between men and women. Emotion is processed in the primitive subcortical areas of the brain, that is, the amygdale, in young children. The part of the brain that is activated during talking is up in the cerebral cortex. Brain activity associated with emotion moves up to the cerebral cortex during adolescence. But this change happens in girls, not in boys. This explains why teenage girls can spend hours talking about their feelings. Ask a teenage boy the same question and you will most likely get grunts or short replies, if you are lucky. In general, older girls are comfortable sharing their feelings or imagining how others would feel in a particular situation. It is relatively easy for them to link emotions with ideas, since the two activated areas of the brain are linked. When given a choice of what kind of book to read, older girls in the USA tend to prefer books where they can read about a character and analyze the character’s motives and behaviors. And books that focus on relationships among two or three individuals are better since that means more people, and more emotional crises, to think and talk about.

Giving context about subject matter enhances learning in female students. In hindsight, I think that this characteristic of women explains the popularity of some of the textbooks that I have used in the past. Textbooks that had a cast of characters and an underlying storyline (even a very loose one) proved to be very popular with my students. Some of these students would talk about the characters and the storyline years after the course had ended. Probably they enjoy discussing emotional ups and downs so they are not averse to role-playing and variations on RP exercises (e.g., Students are told, “You grew up thinking that your mother was dead, but you find out that she is the president of the company you work at. Would you want to see her?”).

Fact: The brains of boys and girls develop differently. But it is too simplistic to say that boys mature more slowly than girls. The areas involved in language, in spatial memory, in motor coordination, and in getting along with others, develop in a different order, time, and rate. The areas of the brain involved with language and fine motor skills mature about six years earlier in girls than in boys, but the areas of the brain involved in targeting and spatial memory mature about four years earlier in boys than in girls.

2. Girls hear better. As Marc points out, women are highly auditory. In fact, the sense of hearing in teenage girls is seven times more acute than it is in boys. A male teacher’s voice may not seem loud to himself, but to young women in the front row, it may seem as if the teacher is shouting at them. Does this partially explain why young students seem to congregate in the back rows of lecture halls? I don’t think this is the only reason for the behavior, but it may be one reason that so few voluntarily sit in the front row. Marc will expand on this point about auditory factors.

3. Women and men react differently to stress. (This is not just in humans, but in the animal world as well.) In males, stress can enhance learning, whereas the same stress impairs learning in females. This explains why many women shy away from the competitive type of classroom activities. For them, competition is stress. But have men perform the same activity, and they really get into it. This is in line with research that suggests that confrontation-type activities work well with boys but not with girls.

4.Self-evaluation differs according to gender.

Fact: Females tend to have higher standards in the classroom and evaluate their performance more critically than males. Educational psychologists have consistently found that it is necessary to encourage female students and give the males a “reality check.” Girls tend to be excessively critical of their performance while boys tend to unrealistically overestimate their abilities and accomplishments.

Fact: Girls tend to over-generalize evaluative feedback. They view feedback as diagnostic of their abilities in general. At times, failure in one academic subject, for example, gets incorporated into their general view of themselves. Boys, on the other hand, see feedback as limited to a specific subject area.

Fact: Research shows that female students are more concerned than male students about pleasing adults, such as teachers and parents. Use this to encourage your women students: make it obvious that you have faith that they can do well. Female students tend to view teachers as allies. (A girl-friendly classroom, according to the National Association for Single Sex Education, is a safe, welcoming place with comfortable chairs. They are allowed to address their teacher by first name.) Male students tend to disregard external expectations and classroom decor; they are not spurred on to study if the material itself does not interest them.

(There are many sites that have information, but a comprehensive site I found useful is the one for NASSPE, National Association for Single Sex Public Education)




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Peter Viney

I've never taught at a women's college, but I have taught plenty of all-male and all-female classes. We used to do specialist courses, and it's not sexist to point out that the courses for the Kuwaiti Fire Brigade or Japanese Golfers that I taught were all male, nor that (in those days at least) the Secretarial, Hotel Reception and Nursing groups were either all female or 90% female.

“Girls perform better academically in all-girls classes. Boys perform better in mixed classes. It's a straightforward statistic.”

Anyone who's taught languages to mixed groups will agree that … well, how can you put this … women are better language learners? It's easier to teach languages to women? Women are less resistant to the ego shock of finding themselves in a beginner situation?

Everything that follows is a generalisation. We all know that some women are taciturn and some men are talkative, but most people would agree that generally women talk more freely than men. Of course if the male readers have chosen to be language teachers and spend their days with language, it stands to reason that most of them (i.e. us) are at the more talkative end of the male spectrum. However, language departments in universities always seem to have a majority of women students.

It's unquestionably gender biased. Thirty years ago you could have got into deep water by implying that there were any differences at all. A distinguished sociologist of that era got himself into a whole heap of trouble by suggesting that women have innate language learning abilities. He (for it was a he) went on to suggest that in primitive societies, each group or village had such a strong local dialect that it was almost a different language from neighbouring villages. In nearly all these societies there were taboos about marrying within the village, and on marriage it was the woman who moved to the husband's family or village. So that generations of women had to develop language adaptation strategies.

It's also obvious that most initial language teaching to babies is done by mothers, who have developed an instinctive analysis of language. My granddaughter, at 22 months, refers to herself as "You" rather than "I" or "me". If you show her a photo of herself, she'll say 'That's you.' She thinks it's her name. On Sunday my son-in-law spent a futile ten minutes trying to explain logically that she should say 'I' and 'me' to the amusement of the watching women. They were aware that language develops and grows, and can't be "explained" at that stage.

Teaching all-women classes starts out with strong advantages. In the UK we have single-sex schools and mixed (co-ed) schools. Girls perform better academically in all-girls classes. Boys perform better in mixed classes. It's a straightforward statistic, and every time it's been checked it's the same. Girls feel more relaxed in an all-female class, and they don't get shouted down by the boys. Boys behave better when girls are in the class. There are fewer disciplinary problems. The conundrum is that single-sex education is academically better for girls (we're not considering whether it's socially better) and mixed education is better for boys. You can't have both.

I agree that co-operative activities are important in women's classes, though I disagree that competitive activities are inappropriate. A lot of women enjoy the process of competitive activities. It's just that they don't get so stressed about winning and losing. My kids used to go mad playing Monopoly, because if someone lost a large pile of money, Karen would give half of it back rather than see them out of the game. "But that's not the point …" they'd protest. So you can have competition and it works better because no one leaps up punching their fist in the air and screaming "Yes!!!" when they win.

An area worth considering is pair work. Women are generally better at turn-taking in conversation. It has been pointed out that this puts them at a disadvantage when pair work in a mixed class is male / female. Males expect to dominate the path of the conversation and women let them get away with it, probably from bitter experience. The answer in a mixed class is to vary the pairs as often as possible with same gender pairs interspersed with mixed-gender pairs (as well as stronger with weaker, streamed so that stronger is with stronger, and plain proximity as possibilities). Against that, secondary teachers have often pointed out that kids chatter far more in the mother tongue with the same gender, and much less in mixed-gender pairs. Variety is the key.

As another huge generalisation, women are less inhibited about making mistakes or appearing 'foolish' in a foreign language. That's not always true of course, but the fragile male ego is seriously at risk when Mr. Manager finds himself in a beginner language situation doing far worse than Ms. Personal Assistant. I have also seen women students making deliberate minor mistakes rather than 'show up' their male friend or partner. They don't have to bother in single-sex classes.

Research was done years ago into the teaching of French and German in English schools. They came to the conclusion that language teaching should begin younger at primary school. At that time, language teaching started at 11 or 12 years old, which was the worst possible age for boys. At this age boys were becoming aware of their own group (and national) identity and were not interested in a foreign culture. They also found that pronunciation was the most difficult area of all, because boys either refused to make any effort to accommodate to foreign sounds, or even deliberately mangled them to amuse their classmates. This rang bells for me. It certainly happened when I was a teenager. Girls on the other hand were more interested in foreign cultures and less resistant to attempting new sounds. This was work on early teenage language learning, but attitudes are created at that point that persist.

Women have measurably more acute hearing, which means they perform better at intonation, stress and pronunciation work (and feel less 'silly' in doing so). They also have less directional hearing than men, finding it harder to place where sounds are coming from, but this isn't a language learning disadvantage. But more women can sing in tune than men. Women are more relaxed about using body language (smiles, gestures etc) to accompany language. They give more feedback in conversation, using a greater amount of attentive listening signals such as smiling, nodding, making sounds of agreement.

The differences between male and female communication styles and even language is a great classroom topic, and one I've often exploited. There ARE measurable differences in language use, too. These include:
  • the choice and range of adjectives
  • the number of other descriptive words used
  • accurate choice of colour words (turquoise) versus vague colour words (light blue)
  • giving and receiving compliments (the vast majority of compliments are given TO women, a definite majority of compliments are given BY women)
  • the use of indirect questions and negatives (women prefer indirect questions, Do you know what it is? rather than What is it?)
  • the use of qualifiers (women qualify more than men … a bit, quite, kind of, sort of, about, around)
  • the use of quantifiers (men use more quantifiers than women … all, every one of them, both)
  • the use of jokes (men use jokes as a substitute for conversation).
  • women prefer tentative forms (tend to do, might, should ) rather than definite (does, will, must).
Does all this have syllabus implications? Not really, as you have to understand both sides whichever you choose to use. It might mean that the effort of getting the word order right in indirect questions and statements is less worthwhile with all-male groups. It might mean that tentative forms are worth 'promoting' in a linear syllabus. But I tend to think that this might be kind of right anyway.

Underlying it all is that statistic about the number of words used per day. Marc quotes the Peases on 18,000 words a day for women versus 7,000 words a day for men. Another source gives 23,000 words a day versus 7,000. Let's just say 'about three times as much.' On the visual / auditory learner question, I believe that more women are auditory learners than men, but that a majority of both men and women are visual learners … but that's a whole different subject. From a personal point of view (having done a course, Handshake, which is based on a communication skills syllabus), more women see the point of integrating communication skills into our teaching.

Further Reading:
'He Says, She Says' by Dr Lillian Glass (Piatkus, 1992)
'Why Men Don't Listen and Women Can't Read Maps' by Allan and Barbara Pease (Pease Training International, 1999, revised edition Orion 2001)
'BrainSex' by Anne Moir and David Jessel (Mandarin, 1989)


ELT units:
'Men and Women' Unit 14 in In English Pre-Intermediate by Peter Viney & Karen Viney (OUP, 2005)
'Conversation Strategies: Women and Men', 'Attentive Listening', 'Turn-Taking', 'Interrupting', 'Compliments' all in Handshake by Peter Viney & Karen Viney (OUP, 1995)





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Chris Hunt

How does the old rhyme go? Little boys are made of sugar and spice and all things nice; whereas little girls are made of puppy-dog tails and snails, or should that be the other way around?

I'm indebted to Marc for raising this subject, though when I first read the title I thought there would be nothing I could write. I've never taught in a university never mind one that caters to a single sex only. I've worked mainly with children and never paid serious attention to the differences between boys and girls. But given the information that Peter provides it is necessary for me to do so, especially as I will be opening a school soon. Should I create single-sex classes and use different strategies for the different sexes, perhaps using co-operative games and activities with the girls and competitive ones with the boys? Should I, to mangle the words of Teddy Roosevelt, speak softly and carry a small stick with the girls and speak loudly and wield a big stick with the boys? Would this be honouring differences or compounding them?

“Rather than considering differences between girls and boys as groups it is surely better to actually focus on individual children.”

If the brains of girls and boys are different, what makes this so? Is natural selection at work and, if so, how have structures in society contributed to this? If society were different, if men and women behaved differently, would this gradually over time affect the physiology of the brain? Or is that physiology fixed, immutable? Certainly, I don't think the physiology of children's brains will change much during the life-time of my school. But does that matter? After all, should we act as we think things are or as we wish them to be? How does change take place?

The National Association For Single-Sex Education makes an interesting case for its premise. According to the research they outline, single-sex education produces both more academically able students and more well rounded individuals, and this goes for boys as well as girls. But then what about class size? Could this have more of an impact than whether the class is co-ed or not? I also wonder to what extent the compulsory nature of schooling has an effect. Would studies of democratic schools produce the same results? I have strong doubts. I also question the legitimacy of much of what is being measured. Exactly what is academic performance? Why is it important? Test results are better ­ so what? I agree with Krishnamurti when he writes, "Education is not merely acquiring knowledge , gathering and correlating facts; it is to see the significance of life as a whole." By this measure, whether a typical school is single-sex or co-educational is irrelevant. Typically, school is not focused on this at all.

But, perhaps I am jumping the biscuit. I'm currently employed teaching English to kindergarten children. Would they learn more English if the classes were segregated? However, rather than considering differences between girls and boys as groups it is surely better to actually focus on individual children. I know noisy boys, quiet boys, mischievous boys, sullen boys, eager boys and the same goes for the girls as well. Individual differences far outweigh the differences in the brains of each sex. One should be able to focus on individuals. If teaching situations don't allow this, then shouldn't we be doing something about the teaching situations, and perhaps focusing on the beliefs and attitudes of society while we are at it?

The idea of looking at individuals is fair enough, but how can one actually do it? The key, as Adele Faber and Elizabeth Mazlisch explain in Siblings Without Rivalry, is not to treat all the children the same, or focus on abstract notions of fairness, but to respond to individual needs. Some children demand more individual attention because that is what they need. The attention that children need also varies from moment to moment. One can sometimes feel like a juggler. One reason I favour team-teaching with young children is that an extra pair of hands can help minimise the number of 'drops'. But if there is conflict between focusing on learning language and focusing on a child's other needs, I think language learning must take second place. That is a lesson in itself.

Though I like to vary approaches according to who I am with, there are still some things that I don't do and one of them is use competitive games. Apparently girls who attend single-sex schools are more likely to participate in competitive sports. I wonder if this is evidence that the norms of modern society are competitive? I won't stop children from playing competitive games and will use them in class if requested, but I see no reason to support such norms. With children I've only found disadvantages. The more competitive a game the more learning language is drowned out by focusing on winning. The more competitive a game the more aggressive and vindictive and just plain nasty children become.

Because competition is a norm, I want children to have the opportunity to experience other patterns and models. I think it is also worth noting that there is a difference between non-competitive games and genuine co-operative games. Both differ from competitive games in that one is not trying to beat other players, but in a genuine co-operative game players can only succeed by working together. For example, recently I've been using a mountain climbing game to review vocabulary. Players divide into four teams and each team is in charge of a mountaineer. Teams are presented with flashcards and the first team to identify the card wins it. I go through eight to ten cards per round. At the end of each round the mountaineers move one space for each card won. The wrinkle is that the mountaineers are roped together. Any climber who advances beyond the length of the rope falls back to the level of the bottom climber. To climb the mountain, teams need to share out the cards. This means learning not to shout out answers quickly. Play is against the clock and players see how many climbers can be got to the top of the mountain within the time limit.

As the game is played now it is very noisy. Perhaps it is too noisy. Perhaps it needs some new rules to encourage quieter answers. Or perhaps I should use an alternative game that is quieter. I think it is important to engage children with a variety of activities and obtain genuine feedback from them. Accordingly, I feel that information such as girls are more likely to be sensitive to noise than boys is important in that it provides a frame of reference but it is no substitute for being attentive. But being attentive has limited value unless the overall environment is non-threatening. This means paying attention to the relationship between students and using both team and class-building activities. Ultimately, whatever little boys and girls are really made of, the more a class functions as a community the more learning can take place.




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