After several decades of teaching science at Dana Hall School for Girls in Wellesley, MA, I have come to realize some basic truths about education in America. To be successful as an educator in a girls’ school, I had to overcome the obstacles to learning science that society placed in their paths. In a broader sense, these seemed to me to be the same issues that affect girls learning in general. In an even broader sense, I believe many of these obstacles are actually gender neutral.
Why Do Kids Fail
So why do kids fail at school? Many students’ problems are self-inflicted. Lack of effort, inability to concentrate, and a low self-esteem are just a few examples. Problems at home can add to the burden; again, a lack of interest, low expectations, and little or no encouragement from a parent authority figure. And there can be an issue with a teacher or school; a lack of support, disciplinary issues, lack of confidence in the student. But these three elements; the student, the teacher, and the parent, form an interconnected “axis of education” central to the learning process because the things that hold students back can and should be dealt with by all three parties.
An example is self-esteem. For young people in middle school and high school (especially girls) self-esteem can be so easily damaged by a peer. Fitting in is critically important. Recognition of this effect can help create a classroom that still allows for questions and failures. A teacher who believes a student incapable of the learning task can transmit this belief in many verbal and non-verbal ways. What and how a teacher authority figure says can have a long-lasting effect on student self-esteem. On the home front, mom or dad might innocently say, “I was never very good in science.” It doesn’t mean your daughter or son won’t be the next Marie Curie. A parent or teacher figure with a lack of confidence in a student will probably find that student eventually adopting that same attitude. Low self-esteem is a problem that needs attention across the axis of education. Overcoming this kind societal bias will require not only a rethinking of the parent-child interface, it will also require that teachers take additional steps to provide positive reinforcement to every student. And it will require that the student to commit to putting forth the necessary effort.
Driving Youth Learning
The axis of education is an encompassing envelope, bringing the learning experience beyond the walls of the classroom and into the everyday life of every student. The repetition-memorization-regurgitation model separates so much of what we learn from our everyday lives. Overcoming this distance, relating learning to living, is a process that will involve support from all three legs of our learning stool. Many problems we encounter every day, from figuring out why the lawn mower won’t start to fixing a leaky faucet can all be opportunities for learning. Field trips to museums or the library, especially to investigate a specific topic, can be both educational and fun.
Keeping interest high requires some effort from everyone, to be sure. But I have seen many, many girls succeed in the sciences with the help and support of concerned parents, effective teachers, and the essential belief that they could. Creating a positive attitude on all fronts in a great start and I hope to be bringing you some tips you can use to create fun everyday learning experiences.