[Edu-sig] Acadmic gender gap (was Thoughts)

Jim Harrison jhrsn at pitt.edu
Tue Dec 7 22:00:59 CET 2004

on 12/6/04 4:58 PM, ajsiegel at optonline.net at ajsiegel at optonline.net wrote:

> My son ended up at a "progressive" public high school, where students were
> judged by their portfolios, the more elaborate the better - rather than by
> test.
> Nothing like that existed in my time.
> He barely got by. I was told at one point that his graduation was in doubt.
> He made his way to a large somewhat institutional college - where he is judged
> by performance on exams. And he is excelling.

I admit that 1) we're pretty off topic and 2) generalizing from individual
anecdotes is only slightly better than pure speculation. Having said that, I
of course have an anecdote to contribute related to Arthur's comment.

My son is currently a high school senior and has done very well. Although
math/engineering oriented, his education is well-balanced by available
measures. He's attended both private and public schools--public since 6th
grade, at a well-regarded school that uses both traditional exams and
portfolios. This is not a complaint against the strategies used in his
school. However, I have noticed differences in his education and mine (in
the 60s/70s):

- Creation of "displays" rather than plain written papers tends to be
emphasized, up to the senior high school year. These range from
brochure-style pages to standup trifolds to flat posters and bulletin
boards. I think the theory is that these work products are more interesting
to the students than written papers, that the manual work of putting them
together somehow consolidates the involved knowledge in at least a subset of
kids, and these kinds of exercises teach kids about communication (or
marketing, maybe?).

- Education materials are more often professionally-produced or created from
templates (e.g., the use of Powerpoint in class) and therefore look more
"professional" than the typewritten, hand-lettered or -drawn materials that
I had (though the actual content doesn't differ markedly).

- Students very frequently work in groups and turn in collaborative
projects. The theories behind doing this are probably well-known to this
group and I'm not going to discuss it further except to mention that in my
observation, one or two students will actually do the assignment, one will
contribute at a lower level, and the rest will ride along uncommunicatively
on the coattails of the others. My impression is that students tend to serve
similar roles across multiple projects (the writers write, the artists do
the artwork). I don't know if these behaviors could be gender-related.

I don't doubt that these strategies do some good, but they also have effects
that I don't think were foreseen. For example (here comes the anecdote),
when my son was in middle school, he was assigned to create a class bulletin
board as a work product for a book report on a Carl Sagan biography. He
produced about 4 poorly hand-drawn notebook pages with minimal text, a
trivial effort. As it developed, most of the boys had done similar work. I
asked the teacher whether my son could create a Sagan-oriented web site as
an alternative work product and was surprised to get an affirmative
response. Given that opening, over two days he created a hand-coded
interlinked site with 5 well-written essays on different aspects of Sagan's
life, embedded images from NASA's planetary server, and hand drawn
navigation icons. The teacher was amazed.

So what's going on? Based on my observations of similar brochure- and
display-oriented assignments and other situations through the years, I think

1. The attractiveness of the display/brochure approach is not universal.
Some kids thrive with it and others feel that it is trivial and/or that
their available talent and tools cannot produce something that they regard
as worthwhile (or at least non-embarrassing). Thus they spend little effort
on it. The production quality range of a typical assignment is very broad (I
have no idea whether this could be gender-related).

2. The almost exclusive use of professional materials and templates for
in-class teaching tends to reinforce the above feelings in some students.
That's not to say that these materials are bad, but there can be an
interaction if you're asking kids to produce brochure- or presentation-like
assignments that resemble their classroom materials (including those created
by the teacher) but are necessarily at a much lower production quality.

3. The emphasis on brochures and displays necessarily focuses some attention
on the quality of formatting and graphic art rather than content. To produce
something that looks like a quality product requires a fair amount of time
and effort in an area that is likely not related to the information content
of the assignment. This probably piques the interest of some kids but to
others it trivializes the core of the assignment or may even provide
barriers to fully engaging the material.

4. What if it takes a significant amount of time and effort to produce an
assignment that will impress the class and teacher, there is the risk of
working hard but creating something that you and others don't really like,
and it's also "uncool" to be seen as trying too hard? Under those
circumstances you trivialize the assignment and punt it. This was what was
going on with my son and most of the other boys in the class in the anecdote
above. When I changed the rules so that he could create something "cool," he
engaged the content of the assignment.

This is a particular set of circumstances that might not be generalizable. I
also would not accuse the educational activities mentioned of being
"anti-boy." However there are aspects of the way these activities are set up
that appear to conflict in some ways with the typical middle-school and
younger high school male dynamic.

Jim Harrison
Univ. of Pittsburgh

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