How One Teacher Handles The Gender Divide On Arguing

Reader, and teacher, Jeff Symonds responds to my post about the pros and cons of arguing to learn:

“Interesting reading—thank you. I’m so glad to see [Diana] Senechal’s rebuttal here [to Carl Wieman's contention that debate among students is the best way to learn]. Arguing for ‘arguing’ as a learning tool has, I believe, some unfortunate gendered implications about the ‘right’ way to learn. (Perhaps it’s coincidence, but it’s a male professor used to lecturing and expecting immediate retention here who lauds arguing as a learning tool, and then a female professor (and writer, after some reflection) who suggest a more internal, alternate approach).

Speaking very generally of course, that’s a gender pattern I’ve witnessed in my classes for over two decades; my male students love to talk, loudly, sometimes before they have their thoughts fully formed. My female students tend to wait until their thoughts are more organized, and then will present a more complete, articulate argument. My gut tells me 1) there are both social and biological factors at work, and 2) that both approaches have merit and deserve support and encouragement.

The answer has been (for me) to teach to both styles of learning in class: I’ll ask a question mid-class and have them break down into small groups and hash it out, but then have them come back together and report out those discussions to the full class and come to a larger consensus. In so doing, boys learn to slow down, revise their initial opinions and push beyond their first impulses, and girls learn to be less inhibited to speak on the fly and feel more comfortable thinking out loud.

I guess I’m saying that I think both professors are right, and that they should both try a page out of each other’s playbook.”

(Full disclosure: Jeff, in addition to being a very experienced and talented teacher, is my brother-in-law.)

3 Responses to “How One Teacher Handles The Gender Divide On Arguing”

  1. Thank you for drawing attention to this question. I find Jeff Symond’s observations interesting but would like to cast the problem in a somewhat different light.

    First, the proper approach does vary from subject to subject and from topic to topic. The demands of an introductory course are different from those of a literature lecture and discussion course. In the one case, the emphasis is on solving problems and understanding their underlying principles; in the other, on interpretation of text and relation of one text to another.

    Keeping those differences in mind, I would like to suggest a distinction between socialized and public discussion. In a socialized discussion, the social group influences the individual; in many cases, the individual views end up merging into one. (This is the case, I find, in much small-group activity.) In public discussion–which whole-class dicussion and lecture-discussion more closely resemble–individual voices and views contrast openly with each other, and the individual has a much greater impact on the whole (even when not all get to talk).

    There is much to be said for settings where one has room to think–not because some students are uncomfortable speaking up on the fly, but because all students can enjoy freedom from the social group. There is plenty of time outside of class to talk with groups of peers or individual peers; in class, it is both refreshing and inspiring to listen to those who have something to say, and to contribute when I feel I have something to contribute–to the whole discussion, and not just to some little group.

    In my teaching, I have observed that both girls and boys have this preference (or not, as the case may be). But this is not just a question of preference; it is a kind of intellectual exchange that gets lost if the course places too mcuh emphasis on small-group work and “turn-and-talk” activities. Those things have their place–I use them too–but if they are used in every lesson, something important gets lost.

    I apologize for any typos here–this was written under time pressure, and the font inside the comment box is very light.

  2. anniempaul says:

    From Martha Garvey (carried over from Facebook: “Also, too, please: talk about culture. As a volunteer teacher at the Posse Foundation in New York City, where I taught teenage scholars whose families came from all over the world, I learned that Boys Loud, Girls Quiet is far from a universal behavior.”

  3. anniempaul says:

    From Dennise O’Grady (carried over from Facebook): “I was thankful when Diana Senechal weighed in as well. Listening being described as a passive active tends to make me nuts; earlier today I watched an interactive assembly where kids were certainly ‘doing,’ but it was passive doing.

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