Not Giving Up So Easily

co-authored with Charlotte M. ’16

Bill: When you see a new email from Charlotte with the subject header “Psychology: Smart Girls Give Up too Easily,” you know you are in for a treat. For starters, Charlotte is the sort of strong girl who does not often give up, never mind easily. And then, she is the sort of person with whom conversations are always both enjoyable and stimulating as she sees layers of complexity and connects them in profound, surprising, ways while remaining ever-open to other perspectives and any revisions to her thinking that might result. In this case, her father had sent her an article from Psychology Today on how “bright girls believe that their abilities are innate and unchangeable, while bright boys believe that they can develop ability through effort and practice.” (Heidi Grant Halvorson). As Charlotte self-defines as a feminist and I as a gender activist, let’s just say that neither of us were jumping with joy over this statement.

My own mind quickly focused on the word “believe.” After all, I can believe the world is flat (especially after having been to Kansas), but that doesn’t mean it genuinely is flat. Does each girl have innate abilities? Of course (and so, for the record, does every single person). Are those abilities unchangeable? I don’t think so, and current theory on the brain and learning absolutely supports that. Do bright boys believe that they can develop innate ability through effort and practice? I’m willing to believe they do, or else the article would not have been published. But that would then raise the question – why don’t bright girls (on average, or as often) develop this belief? Because I am certain some of them do, and believe we have to raise the question why more of them don’t.

Charlotte: When you see a reply from Bill to your email about psychology, you… well, you’re not exactly surprised. He’s the sort of teacher with a passion for not just his subject, but his society. So you’re also not surprised when he self-identifies as a “gender activist” instead of a “feminist” because of the latter word’s association with gender binarism and exclusivity. For me, my ideals and goals lie more with those of gender activists, but I still call myself a feminist because that’s the word our society recognizes (although not necessarily in a good way, hence “feminazi”). Bill put it well when he wrote about generalizations about “boys” and “girls”: “I guess it’s useful in terms of understanding the function of a dominant culture feat. clear gender binary boxes.”

The question becomes, “To what extent should the terminology we use be dictated by social norms?” My beliefs err on the side of lexical accuracy, but I still find myself conforming in practice; I identify as a feminist despite being against a gender binarism, don’t I? Then again, social norms can’t change without mutual understanding and communication. My father once told me that if two people are both rational, have the same information, and have the same value system, they can’t disagree. Not all of society is rational, and it would be practically impossible for everyone to have the same value system, but we can at least start by trying to share the same information, i.e. the language we use when describing views and issues. Then again (again), maybe those who have found terminology that more accurately expresses their beliefs should be the ones to change the language we use to describe those beliefs, instead of the other way around.

Bill: And here we are in one of my favourite places: the world of semiotics! How are thoughts and feelings translated into symbols, communicated, and translated back into thoughts and feelings? Values systems definitely colour those thoughts and feelings, both for the transmitter and the receiver. So even if we think we have a common understanding of what the word “bright” means (or for that matter “girl” and “boy”), the phrases “bright girl” and “bright boy” may actually mean different things to different people. But we can’t stop and define every single word in every single sentence we utter, pausing to double-check how our values systems intersect and interact! What can we safely guess to be the common understanding in our society of “bright girl,” “bright boy,” “innate ability,” and – I’ll introduce this term – “growth mindset”? That will lead us back to our original questions as to whether boys are more likely to develop a growth mindset than girls, why this might be so, and what can be done to foster a growth mindset in girls.

I’ll posit these definitions; feel free to engage with any one of them if you’d like!
bright: intelligent (commonly thought of as “school smarts” but conceivably extending to any form of human intelligence)
girl or boy: female or male child or teenager (commonly thought of as immutable and accurately assigned at birth but increasingly thought to be a matter of self-definition, bearing in mind that not all people self-identify according to a gender binary)
innate abilities: the full range of your different potentials at birth
growth mindset: a sense that, as agent of one’s own destiny, one can develop skills and abilities, and hence what is commonly thought of as intelligence, to different degrees (borne out by research into the mutual influences of nature on nurture and vice versa in actually rewiring the brain)

How do those sound? Ready to tackle our questions?!

Charlotte: Now that we have, as Parliamentary Extemporaneous debaters will say, “redefined the bill,” we turn back to our questions.

Are boys more likely to develop a growth mindset than girls? Why might this be so?

While I disagree with Heidi Grant Halvorson’s assertion that “Girls… develop self-control earlier and are better able to follow instructions… boys, on the other hand, are a handful.”, I also acknowledge that people’s actions and characters can be largely shaped by expectations of them. I heard an interview with Meryl Streep in which she said that most of her ability to portray widely varying characters was in the costume and makeup; she couldn’t see her own appearance, but when others in the room reacted to her presence in a certain way, she would naturally react to their responses by acting more like the character they expected. The same can be said for young boys and girls; even if they are not innately more self-controlled or “a handful,” if their teachers and parents treat them as if they are, it seems likely that they could respond by acting more like the way they were treated. And even if they aren’t shaped by expectations, children and teens could still respond differently to different types of feedback, whether or not those different types of feedback are justified.

What can be done to foster a growth mindset in girls?

As a high school student who is passionate about social issues and considers herself a citizen of the global community, my immediate response is that giving girls growth and effort-minded feedback (such as the examples Halvorson gives of feedback commonly given to boys) would foster a growth mindset in girls. As someone who has no experience in education, however, I don’t know what the best way to counteract praising only innate qualities is, in what situations that occurs, or whether it occurs at all (as a student at a single-sex educational institution, I’ve never witnessed the kind of disparity that Halvorson writes about).

Bill: Well – you have 10-odd years of experience in education! But I know what you mean. And as someone with 50-odd years of experience in education, including pre-school, an M.A.T. and all sorts of professional development, my own immediate response… is exactly the same as yours.

I’m probably better at doing this now than when you were in my Humanities 7 class, oh so long ago (back in 2009-2010), but I work pretty hard to keep my feedback focused on what students have done compared to what they need to be doing. So if a student is working on varying her sentence length in order to keep her audience’s attention through an essay, I’ll comment on that. It’s a skill that can be developed. I also, and I’m quite sure I did this with your class, work very hard to put Humanities 7 learning in the context of the sweep of a lifetime of learning. Don’t have that skill down now? Try again next time. Thinking you won’t be 100% the writer you want to be by the end of the year? There’s always Humanities 8 – and four years here after that – and college, and the rest of your life. Meanwhile, I work very hard to simply not mention innate qualities. I might refer to you all as “smart” once during the entire year, if that. Once. And all of you together.

As for the best way to counteract the praise of innate qualities – my instincts are this needs at least three approaches. One is for people who understand the negative effects of praising innate qualities (especially on any girl who has internalized society’s expectations that she “be good”- and, I suppose, non-girl children who happen to have internalized the same expectations) to just plain stop doing it. This helps build up each student’s personal sense of herself as an agent of her own destiny, despite what others may say. A second is for these people (teachers and parents alike) also to say straight out that they have stopped praising innate qualities, and why. In spreading the word to others, this makes it less likely that children will be inadvertently praised by anyone in a way that undermines a growth mindset. And a third – and this is one of the things I think about the most often as a teacher in a girls school – is to help students develop a personal and internal resistance to praise of innate qualities. That… is one of the things I’m still working on. I hope and pray that what we did last year in the Life Skills 8 class will have that effect. I suspect that an inherently feminist atmosphere such as we have at Stoneleigh-Burnham doesn’t hurt, either!

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3 Comments

Filed under Current Events, Gender, On Education, On Parenting, The Girls School Advantage

3 responses to “Not Giving Up So Easily

  1. It has always seemed wrong to me that when someone is talking about a “smart kid who just doesn’t get good grades” I feel that I have a good chance of guessing the gender that they are talking about.

  2. Odin, thanks for commenting! Gender stereotypes and expectations would be that smart girls generally get good grades and that smart boys do less well in school on average, so with that observation, I imagine you would guess the student in question is a boy (but please let me know if I am wrong!). At any rate, fostering a growth mindset in boys and girls (and other kids) can only help them, and structuring schools so they are more attuned and responsive to a range and variety of developmental needs can only help all kids as well. And anything we can also do to expand notions of gender away from stereotypes can also help!

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