Do our classrooms challenge gender norms or reinforce them?

Girls we’ve come a long way.

It wasn’t so long ago that your education was seen as expendable.

You were not thought of as capable of discussing big ideas or concepts.

In 2018, we have women CEOs, scientists, and Prime Ministers.

We have universities churning out more women graduates yet in the top echelons of the professions are still dominated by men.

I thought I was doing my part to help educate confident girls who were able to speak up, advocate for each other and challenge ideas. I thought I was educating boys were empathetic listeners and a sense of fair play.

Yet when I started to examine what was really happening in my classroom, the reality was that my good intent was not good enough.


Those same patterns of men dominating workplace conversations were alive and well in my Year 4 class.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been using an iPad app, Equity Maps, during literacy circles.

The app builds on the Harkness method where teachers track the conversation using a pencil by enabling teachers to record instances of interruptions, off-topic discussions, text references and posing questions by each participant. The app renders this data into graphs which I shared with the children.


By making the data explicit the children noticed:

  • Boys speak for longer and more frequently than girls and the teacher.
  • The teacher talked for a longer amount of time and more frequently than all of the girls!
  • Boys start speaking before the girls.
  • Boys interrupted each other and the girls in the classroom.
  • The girls made more text references and posed more questions than the boys.

As a teacher, I realized those long silences weren’t all that long and tried to make it a goal to talk less.

The children noticed that the placement of the teacher was creating a barrier to communication.


Rather than doing all the heavy lifting, I posed a problem to the group.

How could we fix this inequality?

Over the last few weeks, the children came up with a number of suggestions.:

  • The discussion director was in charge of not just finding questions for the group to discuss, but using the data from the previous reading group to develop a seating chart.
  • One of my quieter students suggested adding in some thinking time for the whole group questions before asking someone to respond to the question.
  • Pose questions directly to children who haven’t spoken rather than to the whole group.
  • If you know you talk a lot, let the silence linger for longer.
  • Noticing and naming interruptions when they occur and redirecting the conversation back to the original speaker.
  • Moving the teacher outside of the circle so as not interrupt the flow of classroom conversation.

As a teacher, I was also concerned about how to improve the quality of the interactions. Building on Ron Richhart’s understanding map, I modeled the use of some specific phrases the children could use to help them develop their thinking in a group situation.

  • Listening to, acknowledging and building on ideas of others with phrases such as “I agree/with… and would like to add on…”
  • Considering different viewpoints “I disagree with… because…” “Have you thought about…”
  • Give voice to group dynamics “I’m noticing that … hasn’t said much. I wonder what she’s thinking…”

After modeling a specific phrase, I leave the sentence starter for the children on a whiteboard middle of the group. I also recorded instances where the children were using the phrase in our app.

As a result, we’ve made some improvements to our literacy circle both in terms of ensuring gender equality.



As well as improving the range of interactions across the group. The teacher presence outside of the group helped close the gap in communication.


While the children are always curious to see the data,  I take time to discuss with the children what they think happened first.

The children’s observations are usually accurate of what happened in the group discussion. Yet it took the collection of the data to give voice to our noticings. Being able to record behaviors such as posing questions and use of ‘thinking language’ helped children to look not just at the quantity of the interactions but the quality as well.

Like so many things in education what gets measured gets done.

By not taking time taking time to notice and name inequalities with the children, I was creating an environment where girls were not speaking up and boys were not listening.  I had to stop assuming that because there was talking in class meant the children were learning how to speak. Oral communication doesn’t just happen it must be modelled, guided and assessed.

The data became a catalyst for the children to start making their own decisions about how they needed to take action.

Which I hope is the final lesson we can learn on International Women’s Day, equality in our classroom is everyone’s responsibility.


One thought on “Do our classrooms challenge gender norms or reinforce them?

Add yours

  1. This is such an important question to ask, and an amazing presentation of data to facilitate growth. I’m sure this will help other teachers to do better as well. Thank you for sharing!


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