You will have noticed that the number of girls taking physics beyond GCSE is a problem. Why a problem? Because of the brain drain this is causing and the fact that individuals are missing out on their true strengths (of both genders in a number of subjects) due to society’s gender biases. However, of course, this is not just a “girls’ problem” in physics as brilliantly illustrated below.
I read a fascinating article in the Washington Post about ‘the remarkably different answers men and women give when asked who’s the smartest in the class’. After a study involving 1700 undergraduate students, they found that “male students assumed their male classmates knew more about course material than female students — even if the young women earned better grades … Female students gave other female students a recognition “boost” equivalent to a GPA [grade point average] bump of 0.04 — too tiny to indicate any gender preference … Male students, however, awarded fellow male students a recognition boost equivalent to a GPA increase of 0.76.” The male gender bias, the article goes on to say, is therefore 19 times the female gender bias and this manifests itself in the number of comments made in lectures and the recognition of these by the instructors. More women than men drop STEM subject majors, and they do this earlier than men too, and the authors suggest this might be largely down to unnoticed or ignored talent.
The researchers suggest that a simple ‘you can do this’ message to all students would help to address these issues and surely this is just as true for us in secondary schools in the UK as it is for universities in the US.
Is there even more we can do to reinforce this message in what we do in the classroom? It is certainly an argument for more use of hands-down questioning. There is very much a place for hands up – when you want to invite more open-ended thinking, for example. However, questions which include some ‘spend thirty seconds talking to your neighbour about the answer and then I might ask anyone’ time rather than many quick-fire hands up recall questions are definitely the way forward. I keep name-dropping students, especially but not exclusively those in the bottom half in terms of attainment, who have made a perceptive point in their homework to help their confidence. I think we do need to say out loud ‘of course you can do this’ explicitly more often to students of all genders and of all abilities – it encourages calm thinking instead of panic and if you have judged a task correctly as challenging but not impossible then this will also indirectly demonstrate your confidence in them. I also like, during revision, using pupils of all genders as ‘experts’ for particular topics if they have done a particular type of question well. They often come into their own, as well as realising how difficult it is to write on the board!
A lot of my thoughts have diverged on to what is good teaching for everyone, but the point is that we really need to make sure we are doing this for everyone: that we are not inadvertently constantly calling on some bright boys to drive forward class discussion because it is easy and they will do it very well and we shouldn't force girls to speak who don’t enjoy putting themselves forward (we should actually, they might find they do enjoy it once they try it). We need to somehow make sure that in our classrooms and when they go to university, our students have less bias than these undergraduates surveyed in Washington, and where can they learn this better than in our lessons? Girls' schools do not have the same problems with numbers of girls doing A-level physics as co-educational ones do, but perhaps girls' schools are not in the best position to change the attitudes of society more generally as we need to try to prevent boys' bias developing. It will be tricky, but encouraging the girls to be more vocal and ensuring they do get the same ‘air time’ as the boys is absolutely vital – something for someone to look out for the next time they observe me I think.
Stephanie Grant teaches physics in Norwich and is an Ogden Trust Physics Teaching Fellow