Friends and acquaintances said I had lost my mind when I chose to teach middle school nine years ago. I never felt that way, until a few months ago when the West Milford Township School District in New Jersey, where I work, required all teachers to attend a mandatory professional development workshop called “Boys and Girls Learn Differently.” It was to be supplemented by a study of the book by the same title by author Michael Gurian.
I walked into the session with an open mind, as I’m always open to discovering new strategies to reach the students in my science classroom. Instead, I was confronted with a series of generalizations about boys and girls that amounted to antiquated sex stereotypes cloaked in “brain science.”
I walked out of the session determined to do something about it. I contacted the ACLU, which sent a letter on Thursday warning the school district that the training and the teaching philosophy it is based on encourage discrimination based on gender.
The workshop claimed that the way we structure our classrooms is in conflict with how boys are hard-wired to behave, therefore hampering boys’ success. By contrast, the trainers said, girls are innately programmed to do well in our classrooms.
The instructors encouraged us to create gender-specific environments and lessons. Face-to-face seating is appropriate for girls but will promote conflict in boys; bright lights and strong teacher voices facilitate male learning but will elicit a stress response in females; boys learn best through competitive, dynamic games, but girls flourish in a more collaborative setting. They claimed our classroom structure was the primary cause of behavioral and scholastic problems among male students, and this could be remedied by adjusting our academic climate to be more beneficial to boys.
My “science teacher” brain was perplexed.
I knew plenty of girls who were struggling in school. And if boys are in crisis and our classrooms are structured to be more “girl-friendly,” why are we still seeing significant underrepresentation of women and girls pursuing advanced courses of study or careers in science, technology, engineering, and math? Why are women still underrepresented in politics and positions of power in business?
When I asked one of the presenters, who had years of experience in an all-boys school, he could not answer. Moments after, a few colleagues sent me supportive text messages, urging me to keep speaking up. I hoped that they, too, saw this training for what it was — harmful stereotyping that had no place in public schools.
Yet, of the more than 50 educators gathered with me that day, many of my colleagues were nodding along in agreement with these claims. Even worse, it’s possible that these strategies are actually being implemented in the classroom.
My science classroom contains a broad spectrum of learners. A few students have come from financially advantaged families with parents who are doctors or lawyers, while others are on free or reduced lunch. Some students are athletes. Some like to read. Others play video games or board games. A few love to dance. Some are outgoing; others are shy. None of these traits is determined by gender.
I don’t believe gender determines who will learn better with brighter or softer lights, louder or quieter voices, in collaborative groups or in competitive games. There is no such thing as a best strategy for girls as a group or boys as a group because every student is unique. Besides, every student can benefit from a diverse set of educational activities.
Putting the message out there that boys and girls are very different in how they learn reinforces dangerous sex stereotypes that can limit students’ potential, especially those whose gender or gender identity don’t conform to traditional expectations. That’s why I raised my concerns with the principal of my school, then to the district director of education, and finally — after the administration failed to take action — to the ACLU.
Although it is scary to speak out when those around you are nodding along in agreement, our students — future scientists, business people, artists, leaders — need to have a voice. And if their voices can’t be heard, I will do my best as a teacher to speak on their behalf.
If you are a student or parent whose child has been subjected to these “gender-based” teaching methods in the classroom, the ACLU wants to hear from you. Fill out our intake form here.