Not Just Girls who do Science, but Scientists: Smashing Glass Ceilings in the Science Classroom
One of my favourite genres of books when I was a child was anything medical, involving hospitals and doctors and nurses.
I announced to my family one day that I was going to be a nurse when I grew up. Knowing my penchant for all things medical, my mother asked, ‘Why a nurse and not a doctor?’ My reply: ‘I’m a girl.’ Such was the patriarchal society I grew up in in the 1970s and 1980s. In all the books I read, the doctors were male and the nurses were female.
I am a physical sciences teacher at St. Mary’s Diocesan School for Girls in KwaZulu-Natal. It is a school that actively encourages its girls to be curious, to think critically and to develop the requisite courage, character, and confidence to thrive in life.
I have realised that we science educators have the power to help shift societal norms and beliefs, by modifying our pedagogy in nuanced ways to build girls up to believe that they are true scientists. I would like to share some of my observations and experiences over the years of teaching girls, and also the results of conversations with several other science teachers of girls, along with some possible solutions.
The influence of societal norms
In primary school, most girls appear interested in science; they love and appreciate the wonderment of science exploration and are open to taking risks. Yet this interest and motivation often seems to wane as girls enter high school. They are shaped by subtle cultural messages of male superiority in the sciences, and they are encouraged to value perfection, which means avoiding risk at all costs. This results in an under-representation of girls taking physical science as a subject and following careers in STEM. This will be most prevalent in a school which does not actively encourage and advocate the growth mindset.
In our physical sciences department, we have found that several of the girls in our classes are not prepared to take risks in answering questions, even though the classes are small. When girls do take risks in answering questions, they often start their answer with ‘I don’t think this is right, but…’ I conducted a survey amongst the Grade 10 to 12 (15-17 years) science students in our school, and some of their answers floored me.
It seems many of them have the notion that to take risks in class by answering or asking questions is to open themselves up to judgement and condemnation by other girls. Competition between girls, even in the science class, is rife. I wonder if the nature of the subject has something to do with this? Perhaps, on some subconscious level, the entrenched legacy of female exclusion in science, or the scarcity of the roles available to them to succeed in this field, fuels their fear, self-doubt and reluctance to expose their weaknesses.
Feedback after assessments
In our department, we assess fairly often in the senior grades, both formatively and summatively. We find it is a constructive process, helping the students to identify misconceptions and providing opportunities for further learning. When I hand back any assessment after it has been marked, I take time to explain that going over work is not a shaming exercise, but a valuable tool where we discover where there are conceptual problems.
Every time I hand back an assessment, a significant number of girls turn their papers face down on the desk, without even looking at the mark. They feel ashamed, as if their mark is linked to their self-worth. What is the solution to this? My colleagues and I have discussed whether writing the mark at the end of the script rather than the beginning would make a difference, or perhaps not even writing the mark on the script at all.
We find that even girls who are high achievers do not generally have a lot of confidence when it comes to science. Some have remarked that the questions in tests and examinations are much more difficult than those they have tackled in class. This is enigmatic, as we model our questions on examples they have done in class, other than providing a different scenario or application. These girls are battling to apply the principles they have learnt and practised in class to problem-solving in a test situation. They come into the test feeling that if they have prepared properly (which most do), there should be nothing that they have not seen before.
Are we unknowingly enabling learned helplessness, whereby there is the perception by some students that the tests or examinations set are so difficult that they believe that the results are beyond their control? This lack of confidence in taking ownership of the outcome of difficult questions is a learned behaviour. The fear of the unknown in problemsolving is so great that students are conditioned to believe that it is beyond their reach, leading them to behave in a helpless manner. This can escalate over the years of their journey in science, affecting their levels of resilience.
The way forward is to help our girls to increase their levels of confidence and belief in their scientific abilities so that they can compete effectively and with confidence. I believe it is in small modifications in our pedagogy that we will start to notice a difference.
Making learning fun
When students take ownership of their learning, when they play a role in the learning process and the construction of their knowledge, confidence will grow.
If new concepts are introduced with a fun exploration task, so that the students can see the real-life value in what they are studying, they will be willing to invest time and effort in their learning. Students should always be reminded of the why.
I decided to introduce Newton’s 1st Law of Motion with a fun challenge outdoors, involving teams ‘racing’ with filled containers of water. Each competitor stood behind a stool on which was placed an open container filled to the brim with water. On my ‘Go’ they each picked up the container of water and walked/ran as quickly as possible to a point where I abruptly shouted ‘Stop’. We repeated the exercise, to confirm and validate observations. The girls squealed with joy and delight at this task.
In our discussion afterwards, the girls noted that when the competitors started, and picked up the water containers, the water sloshed out backwards. When they stopped abruptly, the water sloshed out forwards. This was such a fun way to introduce the concept of inertia. It was the springboard for animated discussion and it crystallised their understanding of other applications of Newton’s 1st Law.
Questioning and methods of evaluation
I have observed that many girls feel intimidated when they are put on the spot to answer a question, mainly for fear of being shamed in front of their peers, and yet, if these students are not directly engaged, and encouraged to think about an answer, it is all too easy to let others in the class answer. I believe that well-framed questions can serve as powerful metacognition tools and are the key to sparking curiosity. Questions could be framed so they are more open-ended, asked in such a way as to provide clues so there is inference. These clues could provide scaffolding or building blocks towards a logical sequence so that there is incremental learning and mastery, leading the students to take greater risks in answering.
Even if a student provides an ‘incorrect ‘answer, she could be probed as to why she is thinking like that. It is up to us educators to make this learning opportunity as important as discussing the correct answer. To focus on the cognitive progression rather than the outcome will go a long way to building confidence in our girls. In that vein, it is perhaps important to often break the class up into pairs and small groups and present them with a challenging task over which they can exchange ideas and have the courage to offer their opinion; the so-called Think-Pair-Share strategy.
Creating opportunities for girls to engage in challenging tasks collaboratively, to make mistakes together and try to find solutions as a team, provides positive messages about competence and gives a solid foundation they can build on when cognitively grappling with problems on their own.
One strategy we as educators can adopt is to help girls believe that their scientific ability is dynamic and can be developed and improved upon with practice. If we promote a growth mindset in our girls, we can normalise effort over ability. We should also normalise ‘stretch’ mistakes (when students try to do more than they’re currently capable of without extra help) and ‘aha-moment’ mistakes (students achieve the desired result, only to find out that that result isn’t correct).
Scientific ability can grow over time with rigorous practice and a strategy to follow. Where lack of confidence in taking ownership of learning is a learned behaviour, so, I believe, is courage. The more we practise courage the more courageous we become; courage is being willing to take risks and hence make mistakes. We need to help our girls step out of their comfort zone, to be vulnerable, and to consistently practise acts of courage in the science classroom. ‘Vulnerability…is having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome. Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.’
Role models and mentors
Girls need to be increasingly exposed to successful female role models and mentors in STEM. All of us are shaped to some degree by influential figures in our lives. Getting local female scientists, especially former pupils of the school, to come in and chat to the girls and hopefully inspire them, is a good start. Older students, peers, family, and friends can also be powerful mentors and influential figures in STEM empowerment for girls.
The classroom is a microcosm of society; if we can normalise the celebration of well-known and famous scientists, like we do athletes and entertainmentindustry celebrities, we can normalise it into the fabric and culture of our society.
I consider myself fortunate to teach in a school for girls, to be a part of rewriting the narrative of gender linked with scientific ability.
I am committed to empowering girls to embrace science with confidence and to providing tools to smash those glass ceilings. I am committed to helping girls unlearn behaviour and norms associated with gender roles, and to transforming gender stereotypic versions of themselves.
These are not just girls who do science. These are scientists.