Gender perceptions, a constructivist approach to stereotyping
Gash H. (1991) Gender perceptions, a constructivist approach to stereotyping. Oideas 37: 57–74. Available at http://cepa.info/3892
Table of Contents
How were stereotypes considered?
How did we go about changing stereotypes – at first
First year consequences – experimental
Second Year Programme – Changes in Programme Organisation
Second Year Results
Materials Produced and Tested
Experimental Results – Reflective
Looking at the Project over Time – Procedurally
This paper is about a two year project to promote equality of opportunity for boys and girls in schools. It is made up of three interwoven elements: first, a description of the project; second, a constructivist analysis of gender perceptions in children; and third, an account of the ways in which ideas on how to do a project like this developed as we did it.The description of the project includes its origins, methods, and results. The acquisition of gender stereotypes is analysed from a constructivist viewpoint and the educational implications are considered. The aim of the project was to promote more adequate understandings of the ways in which men and women, girls and boys feel and act. The principal target was the children’s understandings, but the teacher’s own understandings were also of interest.Ideas about how to do a project like this developed during its course. Initially a setof teaching strategies was prescribed; in the second year the focus was more on the child and his or her identity while ensuring there was adequate time to discuss teaching strategies with the teachers. By the end of the project the ideas on tactics for teachers were refined during the project and materials in the form of stories and ideas for lessons were edited. A final comment I would have is that teachers who wish to be fully involved in this work will need to form self-organizing groups to support each other with plans, materials, and encouragement.
Key words: Gender stereotypes, intervention, classrooms, primary schools, constructivist approach
On June 3 1985 the Council of Ministers of Education of the European Community (EC) issued a statement approving an action programme in the community to promote equality of opportunity in education for boys and girls. The Association for Teacher Education in Europe (ATEE) responded with a curriculum framework for teacher education with guidelines for action (Arnesen and NiChearthaigh 1987). Subsequently proposals were invited for action research in the autumn of 1988 which was to be partly EC funded and projects began in many countries in the community as a result.
In Ireland there were initially five projects; two were within the primary sector: one with the title “Learning gender roles and the curriculum.”, with which this article deals, was both inservice and preservice, the other “Towards improved access to the whole spectrum of the primary curriculum for girls and boys” was an inservice project directed by Padraig O Laimhin in the Department of Education. A third project, entitled “Worlds apart: gender inequalities in education and ways of eliminating them.”, directed by Dr. Kathleen Lynch at UCD, took the form of an elective course within the Higher Diploma in Education. Dr. Richard Moles in Thomond College of Education directed a project entitled “The examination of equal opportunities through second level grography education.” This is an inservice post-primary course which developed curriculum materials and worked with teachers in their use in schools. The Teachers’ Union of Ireland project focused on equality in second level schools in relation to career choice and access to different subject areas in the curriculum. A short paper describing these five projects was presented at the Educatonal Studies Association conference in Limerick (Drudy, Gash, Lynch, O Laimhin, Moles, Lane, Ganly, Fogarty O’Flynn, and Dunne 1991). In 1989 the Institute of Guidance Counsellors began a project entitled “Self and sex-roles: An awareness enhancing programme for school guidance counselors.”, with Arthur Dunne directing the project.
In response to the action-research programme for which research proposals had been invited the author with two collegues, Mark Morgan and Ciaran Sugrue, began a programme of work in schools to look at the possibility of changing children’s gender role stereotypes in school. This course of action was chosen for a number of reasons. First, there has been a shift in psychology described by Huston (1983) from a position in which it was thought natural and desirable that children should learn gender stereotypes to a position in which such stereotypes are regarded in some cases as limiting or restricting men and women unnecessarily. Secondly, there is a wealth of statistical information showing that women are under represented in many professions and particularly in technological areas. It is reasonable to suppose that schools and the experiences which they provide may play a role in this phenomenon. Thirdly, and more importantly, if it were possible to change children’s stereotypes in school then schools might play a considerable role in the children’s ideas about career choice in the long term. The school experience is but one domain in which children construct their ideas on gender stereotypes, the others being home, media and peer experiences. Even recognizing the power of these other influences and the short term nature of the present study it was felt that if the project were well done and the implications were clear then other teachers might be persuaded to try out our methods.
Even before one begins to look at gender stereotyping as an issue in teaching it must be recognised that teachers have an important role in the process of acquiring stereotypes by being significant adults in children’s lives. Teachers provide examples or models in and out of class both consciously and unconsciously. Indeed teachers are often surprised to discover that they treat boys and girls differently in class on a variety of issues including which children are asked questions; how tasks are assigned; and even how classroom rules are applied. I am sure that many teachers are aware as I am of the ways in which our own attitudes on issues are conveyed consciously.
This project was concerned with children’s stereotypes and the possibility of demonstrating that they could be changed. However it was felt that teachers working in this area would have an opportunity to become more aware themselves of the issues involved. So the project was intended to provide an opportunity for both children and teachers involved to reconsider their thinking on this issue.
How were stereotypes considered?
The approach in this project was child centred in the spirit of the 1971 curriculum and explicitly based on recent work which has its origins in Piaget’s theory. The focus in this project was on gender role stereotypes, but interpreted suitably this approach probably would work with any stereotype or fixed idea about a group of people. I am currently seeking to extend ideas developed in work on this project to the issue of prejudice about disability.
There are a number of central ideas in Piaget’s constructivist theory which were important to the project. First the idea that people interpret their experience; experience of events is not direct it is filtered (assimilation). Next the metaphor of building - to explain thinking: what we know is what we have put together or made. So our interpretations depend on our previous constructions. The education implications of this are profound because this model explains how people come to have different interpretations of (their) “reality”. It means, for example, in conversation that to ignore or deny different interpretations is to do some violence to “the other”. It means that to tell someone they are wrong is to demand that they see the world in another way. This may be reasonable, but the reason needs to be made clear and “the other” may not find the reason clear. An extensive statement of the constructivist theory can be found in Maturana (1988).
In a constructivist “Piaget type” theory stereotypes are built and they are ways of seeing things, they are generalizations we make to help us organize our experience. For those familiar with Piaget’s terminology, stereotypes can be seen as a form of conservation built through interaction with others on the topic of how men and women behave and feel. So the stereotypes we own are ways we have learned to expect different groups to behave: teenagers versus middle aged people; Irish and English; males and females. Such expectations simplify our experience to a certain extent.
However, there are important questions to be raised about stereotypes. Do they distort our perceptions? Are they fair? How do they effect or coerce the individuals about whom we have such simplified ideas? Take the stereotype of women as weak, dependent, and unable to take initiatives. Or take the stereotype of the Irish man as lazy, a heavy drinker, and incompetent? Each of these stereotypes is a caricature or generalization which, if experienced by a victim of such a stereotype, is likely to raise the blood pressure of the designated individual. One sensible reaction would be to refuse to treat the stereotype or the person using it seriously, though considerable skills, self-confidence, or practice might be needed to achieve this reaction without triggering adrenalin.
To understand how stereotypes might be changed it was natural to consult a constructivist account on how they might be learned. Bateson’s (1972) work on levels of learning was the starting point. Psychologists, Bateson said, usually talk about a type of learning in which context is held constant under experimental conditions and consequently ignored. However, in human and animal learning “context” -meaning - is crucial. There are many instances of efforts to teach children how to behave appropriately which seem to be working and then suddenly with a changeincontext - the teacher or the room changes - the learning vanishes. The meaning of the event has changed for the child.
Traditionally learning in psychology identifies stimuli and tries to eliminate context or to hold it constant in a laboratory. Bateson’s account of learning uses context to identify the meaning of the stimulus. However the introduction of context brings with it the notion of a hierarchy; stimulus, and context of stimulus which classifies the stimulus. Bateson used the notion of context to introduce the idea of levels of learning which I will now describe.
I want to introduce a distinction at this point in the paper between learning a behaviour (or set of behaviours) and learning that such behaviour(s) are masculine or feminine. Learning that a behaviour is male or female is to learn about the context of the behaviour, it is to classify the behaviour.
The behaviours which become characterized as masculine or feminine can be learned in the usual (context free) way according to what we know about learning processes in psychology. They might be activities or interests such as sewing, cooking, cars, watching ballet, playing football or enjoying singing; they might be personal social attributes such as being emotional or changing ones mind or being independent or being stern; they might be gender based social relations such as admitting to liking girls/boys; or they might be stylistic variables like ways of walking or expressing ones point of view softly and delicately or firmly. Any and all of these dimensions of gender typing can be learned as level one learning that is according to what we know about learning in psychology. Further there are a variety of ways in which they can be learned such as by imitation through watching models or by trial and error. But I think it is helpful to emphasise that here context is not centrally relevant to what is learned. (For a fuller discussion of these dimensions of gender typed behaviour see Huston (1983).)
Now I want to move on to the way in which these behaviours can become stereotyped. This will be to move to a higher level of learning, level two for Bateson (1972). If a peer group decides that one item of behaviour on any of these dimensions is feminine then a boy behaving in this way risks ridicule, or worse, exclusion from the group. To give two examples for boys in Ireland: sewing and singing. Each of these activities or interests is sometimes considered to be feminine and boys risk ridicule for expertise in these activities. Notice that now context is critical, in fact this learning depends on the boy noticing context, and in noticing context the child is making a new meaning for sewing and for singing. Such context creation is the way constructivist theories describe the learning of stereotypes. Through a number of such experiences children learn that a class of behaviours is feminine and another class is masculine. Once children have learned this they know what to expect from their peers when they admit to liking various stereotyped activities, liking various people, or when they act in ways which are classifiable by their peers. If the other children in the peer group think positively of the stereotype all is well, if not the child must face the consequences or conceal the interest/liking/ or behaviour. Put this way the limiting or restricting consequences of stereotyping are clearer.
One can explain the resistance of stereotypes to change on the grounds that they are context dependent and so a step removed from the processes of learning by reward and extinction through non reward. So a teacher can reward a child for denying a stereotype in class and the child full well knows that outside of class the context is different and he better remember to say he hates singing! In this way the simple applying of rewards following learning theory may be quite inadequate to eliminate sexist thinking or other forms of prejudice.
The research on prejudice illustrates this nicely in that “information giving” is known to be a relatively poor way to change prejudice. Prejudice can be changed in two ways: by providing examples which run against the stereotype; and by challenging the child’s thinking (e.g., Hartup (1983). It is said that the best way to break down prejudice is to provide direct experience which runs counter to the expectation. Such direct experience probably ought to involve an opportunity for the group holding a stereotype, say about weak women, to meet and engage in some common activity with a group of women who do not display this characteristic. Telling or explaining that the stereotype is wrong is likely to have no effect unless the child decides to rethink his or her position.
The fact that context is important has implications for changing attitudes. Sewing is fine and useful for boys at home but may be ridiculed in the peer group; fighting may be valued in the peer group but not in the home. Putting this another way - one learns to notice contexts in which attitudes, values, behaviours and skills have meanings and significance to others. However there are likely to be conflicts between what is learned in different contexts. When the contexts change, the meanings can change, even from positive to negative as in the case of a boy interested in dancing traditional reels, or a girl playing football.
Bateson (1972) proposed that significant personal change came about when one learned to distinguish the contexts in which different behaviours worked. The motivation for such learning was the reduction of conflict between different behaviours. Bateson noted that this was a third level of learning, because here one was noticing the contexts in which the different behaviours applied. Let’s consider an example in gender stereotyping. In the peer group it is considered that cooking and singing are female activities. At home there are times when a twelve year old boy has taken responsibility for the evening meal, and when his ability at memorizing and singing songs is valued. However, at school he knows that he will be teased if he admits he can prepare the dinner, and if he says he likes singing, so he keeps quiet about this. At some stage he is going to have to decide to reveal these skills or to pursuade the group not to tease boys for possessing them. It is easy to see that the boys skills form part of his identity, and this is why people often find it so hard to change.
Let’s explore this further: We learn that certain behaviours are masculine and feminine in our culture. So we learn what to expect when we express ourselves in ways which are seen to be masculine and feminine by others. We learn to interact with others on the basis of these interests and behaviours. These learnings about what we expect are -mirror like - ways in which we are predictable and so ways in which our friends and acquaintances expect us to behave. Such learnings, therefore, are supported by our relationships. To change these constructions is to put these relationships on the line. We may value our friends too much to want to change our stereotypes, or we may decide that it is time for us to grow beyond the boundaries we set up in the past.
How did we go about changing stereotypes – at first
We began by asking the teachers to think about the children’s stereotypes as developmentally different from an adult’s stereotypes. This initially seemed a good way to approach our educational strategies. The strategies either sought to promote reflection through questioning, or they sought to provide experiences which would stimulate such reflection, especially through counter stereotypical examples and through drama. I will first describe the questioning strategies and then describe our initial efforts to design class materials for the teachers.
We had two types of questioning strategies. One was to question stereotypes whenever they appeared. For example: “How do you mean men are more “independent”?” “Can women not be independent too?” “Who knows an independent woman?” Or a second example, “Who says women cannot be “doctors”?” “Who knows one, who has seen one?” “Your mother is a doctor - ah good tell us about her.” These are examples of statements which might be made in the course of a discussion which would be likely to stimulate the child to reconsider her or his own thinking.
The other way in which we suggested teachers asked questions was the “distancing strategies” proposed by Irving Sigel who works at the Educational Testing Service in Princeton. Sigel and Cocking (1977) have described distancing as the class of behaviours which separate the individual from the environment. At issue are the processes by which one constructs one’s explanation of one’s experience. Experiences just happen, arriving at an explanation or an account of experience requires reflection and production of words: distancing is the process by which we move from experience to talking about it. Distancing strategies are questions which a teacher can ask to facilitate distancing. Such strategies include asking for descriptions, explanations, comparisons, proposing alternatives, planning and evaluation. Any question which requires of a person to construct an explanation or give an account of an experience for which they do not have a ready answer would qualify as a distancing strategy. The requirement is that the individual must face uncertainty before coming up with the verbal (or other symbolic) representation. Some individuals might have done their distancing earlier, so the use of one of these strategies by a teacher is no guarantee that distancing will take place in the child.
Let me give an example: it is often difficult to give an account of an intense emotional experience such as a bereavement immediately after the event. It is commonplace that the process of talking about such events in a caring atmosphere is therapeutic. With time one becomes able to speak about this event without being overcome with emotion. One can express one’s feelings in words which gradually become adequate. At this point one has, following Sigel, separated oneself from the event. One has distanced oneself from the immediate emotional impact of the experience. One is no longer overwhelmed by the experience. One has adapted.
Two other strategies which we offered to teachers were role-play and counter-stereotypical examples of people in jobs which were “low frequency”, e.g., female veterinary surgeons /dentists /soldiers, and male nurses. Some of the teachers arranged for such persons to visit their classes. Usually these visits were preceded by discussions on the profession in question with an examination of the children’s profession related stereotypes. The visit of the two female army cadets in one class of five year old boys is illustrative. The discussion before the visit between the teacher and the class ended with the children being quite sure that there were no female soldiers. The two female cadets then marched into the class, discussed their lives as soldiers with the children and taught the children how to salute.
These latter two strategies of course were to be followed by questioning designed to loosen up the children’s stereotypes, to help them come to a more nuanced understanding of the way the world can be experienced.
Finally, we developed some educational materials in response to requests from some of our teachers. These were age specific and in the case of the younger children were stories and pictures based on activities which tend to be associated with one gender, or counter stereotyped behaviours. For example a mother who refereed a football match during her son’s birthday party, and a boy who cried when his grandfather went off to hospital for a serious operation. For the older children, there were suggested projects designed to raise awareness of stereotyping in occupations in the community and on the media.
As a guide to questions which teachers might ask, the sorts of stereotypical personal social characteristics which might be encountered in various curriculum areas were listed. These included: being emotional, getting into fights, being adventurous, saying thank you, being weak, getting on by themselves, being gentle, being shy, flirting, being affectionate. It was suggested to the teachers that they might target two stereotypes as a beginning: one was the stereotype of the strong, independent, clear thinking decision maker, this ought not be allowed to be uniquely male; and secondly neither should the emotional gentle person who relates well with others be allowed to be uniquely female.
First year consequences – experimental
The programme was evaluated in two main ways: one was with a test of sex stereotyping of the children; the other was with teacher interviews. We used a test which had been used previously in Ireland so that we could compare our data with the results obtained over ten years ago (Best et al 1977). The test of sex stereotyping was given to all children before the teachers used the classroom procedures and again after the five week period of our “experiment”. Data were collected from the 873 children in 36 primary school classrooms. Our sample included three age groups (five, eight, and eleven year olds) two locations (rural and urban) three types of schools (boys only, girls only, and mixed) and two conditions (control and treatment). The scores of the children in our programme were not different from the scores of the control children at the end of the five week period. In this sense we failed in the first attempt. However there was a tendency for urban children and younger children to change their stereotypes in response to our programme. These changes were to show less stereotyped thinking. The data showed expected age and ability differences in stereotype scores, and there were no differences due to location, gender, or maternal employment. The boys’ schools were more stereotyped than girls’ schools - with mixed schools in between. There were also increases in awareness of sex stereotypes (for today’s children) when the data were compared with data collected in a 1975 study. A full account of these data is presented in (Gash, Morgan, and Sugrue, 1990). The teachers who were interviewed were supportive of the study and their level of interest was confirmed in some instances by the materials they submitted to us which included suggestions and class diaries of their own class activities.
In addition to these evaluations I had become involved in writing a paper on Learning Stereotypes (Gash 1989/1992). This led to a rephrasing of the way children’s learning can be described to one which highlighted the importance of the child’s autonomy - and in particular the child’s identity. This came about through coming to terms with Bateson’s views on learning context, and in particular his comments on the difficulties of changing ways we have learned to expect things to happen. For the teachers, however, sensitivity to the child’s identity was something which they were already aware of in their encounters with their children. So there was a good match between the way in which I had come to think about a central issue in the programme and the way in which the teachers were thinking about what they had been doing. These reflections have been built into the earlier sections of this present paper.
Second Year Programme – Changes in Programme Organisation
One of the priorities for the second year of this study was to develop more materials for teachers. It was evident in the first year that teachers varied in their need for and reaction to the materials which were produced for them. There were teachers who were delighted with the materials, photocopied them, had the children use them extensively and returned some of them to us for inspection. There were others who thought that our choice of counter stereotypical stories was bizarre and unusable in their classes. Nevertheless, even the most self-directed and critical of our teachers felt that it was hard to find suitable materials.
To generate materials in quantity the format of the project was changed. Instead of persuading teachers to provide opportunities for the pupils to reflect on their stereotypes I taught an elective course to final (third year) students in which stereotyping was a major theme. In the students’ course work there was ample opportunity to discuss stereotyping and to explain the educational strategies which would be likely to facilitate reconsideration of stereotypes by the children. As part of this course each student visited the class of one of the urban based teachers once a month for five months. The initial visit was to plan out a series of experiences with the teacher and the remaining visits were to work with the classes about some aspect of stereotyping. The student’s course work was supplemented with informal evening seminars to discuss classroom strategies and stereotyping - but more importantly to facilitate the formation of group support systems and group identity amongst the student teachers. One of the course requirements was the production of an action research document in which the student wrote an account of the classroom interventions used and how they were received by the pupils and what the student learned about the experience. These “projects” formed the basis of a document which can be used by other teachers who are interested in teaching about stereotypes (Gash 1990).
Second Year Results
The success of these approaches was made evident in a number of ways. Most satisfying was the amount of work which the students put into their action research documents. Their morale was also high, they clearly enjoyed being able to work with children in schools without being “watched” by staff from the College. Their experience seemed to form a pleasant contrast to their usual experience of teaching in schools during which they are supervised by staff - an experience, I think, they sometimes find a little unnerving.
The second year’s work showed significant changes on the children’s scores on the test which we used. This occurred very generally at all grade levels in all types of school and detail are presented in the final report (Gash 1990). In addition the teachers and students in the project were more aware of sex discrimination as an issue than control students and teachers who did not experience our project.
Materials Produced and Tested
The materials were edited and typed as part of the documentation for the final report of the year’s work due in June. Just prior to the submission of the final report, copies of these documents were sent around to the rural teachers who had not participated in the second year’s work and these teachers were asked to try out the materials in their classrooms. The comments were favourable though the time was too brief for extensive use of the materials.
Experimental Results – Reflective
The spirit of evaluation also provided an opportunity to reflect on the strategies which the teachers (this year student teachers) were using to teach the children. This part of the evaluation process in the first year had led to the paper referred to earlier on “learning to be men and women” (Gash 1989). In that paper the focus was on the child. In the second year my musings focused on the teaching procedures. The occasion for this reflection in the second year was a roundtable discussion organized by Fred Steier at the International Communication Association Conference (ICA) in Dublin in June 1990 for which I was asked to give a paper reconciling teaching stereotyping (with the connotations of the power invested in the teacher) with the integrity of the pupil (with the connotations of powerlessness in the classroom).
Looking at the Project over Time – Procedurally
The ICA seminar provided an opportunity to look at the way the teaching procedures had developed over the two years, taking seriously the rights and needs of the children, and to criticize our activities.
Initially we had used a largely non-constructivist procedure for encouraging the teachers to use constructivist ideas. We did however seek to do this via the teachers’ own developmental sensitivities; and we also made an effort to avoid prescription by specifying only the form of approach and not the content. The content was left to the teachers’ initiative. However, the techniques offered to teachers were prescribed. I am left with the feeling that our project would have been more vibrant now if we had played a less directive role. I will return to this point at the end of this paper.
In June 1989 there was a shift from teaching strategies to focus on the child, the child’s identity and the importance of respecting the child’s autonomy in the teaching encounter. So at this stage the techniques were placed in a context in which the child’s identity was central. This implies a move from the activities of the teacher to the constructing activities of the pupil. This shift of focus was noticed with hindsight and probably reflects a shift which occurred because the initial set of problems became less important, namely a shift from “what to do” to “how to do”.
When one is teaching about issues which touch on values or as in this case the child’s identity one needs to consider the teacher pupil relation to ensure that it is not manipulative. The spectre of the teacher giving knowledge to the pupil is epistemological nonsense but still must be considered because of the child’s vulnerability especially when the material may go against the values and attitudes of the child and of the child’s parents. Our epistemology is that the children build their knowledge individually through synthesising the information they experience. We presented our techniques to the teachers as ways in which they could provide opportunities to the children to reconsider their thinking. If change is understood in this way as being non-manipulative then there ought to be no threat to the pupil’s values or to the values of the pupil’s family.
In the framework of the theory propounded by Bateson (1972) and other constructivist thinkers especially those who work with families with techniques like this the difficulty is not whether these techniques are manipulative, rather the difficulty is to persuade people to take seriously the consequences of trying to force people to change using other techniques. These consequences include the negative feelings which result from being manipulated. We are not aware that such problems existed in this project.
In June 1990 the considerations which were central at the end of the second year were again guidelines for the teacher. They were drawn from readings about promoting change in organizations. There are three guidelines we found helpful: a form of questioning called “circular questioning”, the idea of the therapist being “neutral” in therapy , and a way of dealing with peoples views which I propose to call “bracketing”. Circular questioning has been defined as gossiping about others in their presence (Deissler, 1987). In therapy it is used with families so that each family member can come to appreciate the different pictures each have of their common family. In the classroom it can be used so that the boys can come to terms with the pictures which girls have of boys and vice versa. In our first year we had talked about role taking and drama. Circular questioning seems to capture what is involved in talking about the experiences generated in role taking and drama; that is, taking seriously -considering and reflecting on - the different perspectives of the individuals involved.
Neutrality is that quality needed by therapists to avoid becoming enmeshed in the tangles of the families which they are trying to help. It is position in which the therapist’s own self is preserved in a role apart from confirming or disconfirming the constructions of the family members in therapy. It is an analytical position in that the intention is to understand the clients rather than to interact with them in a way which confirms their ways of seeing events.
For the teacher neutrality can be useful as a way to see where the children’s own attitudes are coming from. For the teacher being neutral is a reflective stance adopted to gain insight into the constructions of the children.
One can imagine being neutral in a number of different ways. Certainly at the least complicated level it would be evident in the effort a teacher should make to avoid overreacting to a child who seemed hopelessly “Matcho”! Here being neutral would amount to little more than allowing the child space to express himself or herself. Indeed overreacting would seem to be the sort of reaction invited by the child’s matcho (extreme) behaviour in the first place. Becoming involved with the child in a power struggle on the other hand is likely to make the child defensive, to harden his or her attitude, and resist reconsidering his/her alternatives. A calm probing would probably have much more effect in getting the child to reconsider the utterance!
A deeper sort of neutrality could be used in conjunction with what I am calling “bracketing”.[Note 1] Here the neutrality is needed partly to allow the child the freedom to speak. But now the teacher has moved beyond not overreacting, beyond being concerned with how to be analytical, beyond understanding, to a position in which the teacher desires to show the child the prejudiced nature of the statements that have been made.
In a classroom one can accept a child’s point of view however obnoxious it may seem by saying, “well that is your way of describing it”, or “can you or someone else improve on that?” In other words one can put it in brackets. “Do you really mean that girl’s are always weak/crying/whatever?” These would be ways of inviting the child to reconsider the statement, to accept that it didn’t fit with the experience of others in the class. It might follow that the child would want to change her or his statement, but if not then the child should understand that others thought differently. It is important that the child’s view is taken as a valid expression of some experience that the child has undergone, but the child is not being allowed to think that this is the only way of thinking about that type of experience. Bracketing is a technique offered to teachers as a tool to use so that children can be encouraged to offer their opinions in class, feeling that their views are welcome but knowing that they may be invited to consider other ways of thinking - a process which may invite them to change their own views.
At this stage in our project it is desirable to share our insights and materials with those who participated in the project and with interested others. Until now the classroom activities have been held in place partly by our testing programme and all it implied. In other words, each teacher in the programme knew that their children were going to be given a test which would give some indication as to how effectively the children had been given opportunities to change their ideas.
For these ideas to grow groups of teachers are needed who desire to work on these issues and who can support each other in this work in their schools. I believe that dissemination comes down to setting up self organizing groups. This is why I expressed reticence earlier about the way in which the programme was an example of “top-down” organization in the sense that it had been largely given to the teachers rather than being co-designed with them. I feel that the last step in this project - that of continuing in the future -would be more sure if the initial design had allowed more teacher participation in its construction. This last step is to give the project away to those who find it useful -wishing it well. Isn’t it a little like sending a child off to school?
This paper is based on activities supported by the EC and the Department of Education (Ireland) under the TENET Programme at St. Patrick’s College (Director: Dr. Hugh Gash). The opinions expressed herein, however, do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of the EC or the Department of Education in Ireland, or of St. Patrick’s College.
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A full account of this notion I am calling bracketing can be found in Maturana (1988). Maturana uses the term parenthesising referring to the parenthesis when one considers the notion of “objectivity” in parenthesis. I avoided this word and the explanation of why it is used because to do so would bring me into a lengthy discussion of the theory of knowing of which it is part. I will make a brief comment here.Objectivity in a constructivist theory has a peculiar status. While constructivism denies that one’s knowledge of reality has any ontological status constructivism is not “relativist” which I take to mean that no interpretation is better than any other. In a constructivist theory one is constrained to give an account of the way in which one produces ones ideas, and ideas are accountable in terms of their “viability”. That is, what are the consequences of these ideas? If my account of my ideas is incoherent this can be pointed out to me. If the consequences produce contradictions, then the ideas must be judged in this light. Consider the example of a set of accounts. One is manifestly not free to construct whatever one wants; however the way the figures can be presented can be varied. One can impose a different organizational structure on the “experience” of the figures. If I have made mistakes in the figures or cheated this can be discovered through going through the operations which I used to generate the set of accounts. I have tried to avoid such technicalities in this article. Maturana’s (1988) position is presented in quite a full way in a 1988 volume of the Irish Journal of Psychology and those interested are invited to consult it.
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