Women remain reticent to propose marriage in heterosexual relationships; they wait instead for men to pop the question. Making a proposal of marriage is an inherently uncertain process, for it means embracing vulnerability as a declaration of love with the risk of rejection. For a woman to propose in a patriarchal society, it also means challenging the way things have been done for a very long time. This was the subject of a recent BBC Women’s Hour feature. On the same programme, we spoke about our research highlighting girls’ conformity in primary schools. We found girls are more inclined to work hard to be good, to please and to come up with what is expected, rather than risking an exposure of their vulnerability and uncertainty, by questioning the ways things have always been understood and done.
Last month, Women’s Hour reported other research that women are less likely to speak than men in university seminars; we suggest, through our own research, this gender gap is evident at the beginning of schooling. Currently, there is little space in the school day for pupils to do anything other than conform – learning and doing things in prescribed ways, identifying correct responses – and girls conform more than boys. We found, for example, that girls more than boys sit upright even when teachers are out the room, and that they more frequently sit with an index finger on their mouths to emphasise compliance. Girls also put a greater weight on being kind and helpful: a Year One girl, describing how she finds it physically and emotionally difficult to sit on the classroom carpet listening to the teacher for long periods, drew a picture of herself sitting and smiling because ‘it’s nicer to smile’. There is nothing wrong with being kind or pleasing others, both are good things, but not if you are unable to shift into another gear when you judge that is what the situation requires. Boys are better at finding the opportunities or cracks in the day when they can transgress some rules to offer their own ideas. For example, they are more likely to call out their opinions and take up teacher attention, and during school council meetings, boys proffer ideas assertively, while girls wait and judge when they may politely intercede to make suggestions for solutions, so that they become the do-oers and ‘pleasers’.
This suggests to us that there need to be other ways for girls to do more than please and make way for boys to ‘go first’: whether as part of classroom sessions, in council meeting discussions, or as the initiator of the marriage proposal later in life. All students, but especially girls, need the opportunity to look at the limits of a default position of conformity to recognise when it could be important to shift gear. This means questioning what is traditionally expected and asking what might be done differently. It is about allowing girls and boys, and women and men, the opportunity to question the way things are done, to consider how they might be done differently, such that there may not be a clear and ‘right answer’. This can help them to have the confidence to work out where they stand on important issues, particularly in our post-truth world. In a world that cherishes the legal right for children to be heard and to take part in decisions that affect them in society, children need to be given permission to speak out and be uncertain. It as much about safeguarding their personal wellbeing as ensuring the transformation of their world into one that is more inclusive, tolerant and sustainable. Last week’s youth strike for action on climate change demonstrated the importance of challenging the expectation that children should only ever conform; the critique from some that children were truanting, not striking, highlights a lack of comprehension of the broad purposes of education to question and challenge.
The feminist, Germaine Greer, draws attention to the intellectual demand of working with uncertainty, and women’s specific emotional vulnerability to so doing, when she discussed the approach of many of her high-achieving female students at Cambridge, on last month’s BBC Front Row:
‘They worked too hard, and they still do, it drives me mad. They take it all seriously, they think the tripos will really show their intellectual stature, which it can’t possibly do, just think about, a three-hour exam, three sides on each question, it’s all silly. But it terrorises women in a way it doesn’t terrorise men. So they work too hard and they were insecure in what they did. I mean even when I was teaching, it used to happen. They’d say, ‘Well what did you want me to say?’ and I’d have to say ‘I want you to want to say something. That’s what I want. I don’t care if it’s right or wrong, I want it to be your response to the text we’re talking about. There is no right or wrong from that point of view’.
Within schools, there are opportunities for students to respond in ways that are unique to themselves and that enable them to express something of their own identity and knowledge. There are two ways to teach a Shakespeare sonnet, for example. You can tell students the received meaning and you can ask what the poem means to them and what they take from it into their own lives. There is a right answer to the first, for school exam purposes. There are many answers to the second, and it is here that students must work out who they are, what matters to them, to become versatile and flexible by shifting in response to others’ opinions, and challenging the idea that there is only one way of looking at the world. To give another example, children are getting lots of opportunities to improve their technical skills, for example writing sentences using specific grammatical structures at all levels within our school system. Grammar is important, but if you also have the opportunity to write more freely, without any clear destination, to work out what it is you wish to communicate, then you discover something about what you think that can surprise you as well as your teachers (see our earlier blog). Children and teachers need to be given permission to both conform to given knowledge parameters and to challenge them. Teachers know that children, if given the opportunity and a clear logic, are able to alter their mode of working to find things out in school, also understanding that some tasks need constraints and that some should enable them to generate something more freely with the teacher attending to what it they produce.
Working with uncertainty is necessary because wider lives are full of it. Children need to be able to move between dealing with certainty and uncertainty in the safe space of school – where they can rehearse being uncertain with a teacher who pays close attention to them as they figure things out. This is an especially important function of education within school because it enables children to rehearse challenge and uncertainty in the safe space of school, in preparation for the fragility of some spaces outside, which children may well have to cope with alone.
Currently a focus on conformity within schooling assumes a concern with behaviour. However, what is appropriate in terms of children’s behaviour depends on the given educational situation. When listening to teacher input or a lecture, then listening and being still and quiet is entirely warranted. Yet, when working on something without a clear answer, that may require movement, discussion, consultation, it would seem inappropriate to work individually and silently. Responding to challenge often invokes feelings between individuals and groups that engender laughing, disagreeing, and making some mess. We need to give all children, and especially girls, a different language in school, to challenge in ways that are considerate, and not simply obedient and pleasing: ‘I’m going to think about this differently?’ ‘Let’s try out another way’ ‘I wonder whether . . .’ ‘This is important to me . . .’ Our research indicated that children are already challenging norms during the school day, but those who do it openly currently, often get into trouble for transgressing behaviour codes. The message to girls can be that they are in deficit for not being the ‘good girl’. For boys this has meant more frequently being excluded. We need spaces in school where we can listen to both girls and boys, so they can engage in critique about how things are understood and done. There are, for example, no right answers to school behavioural policies and so they too should be up for discussion and critique. We must be mindful of research findings, cited in an essay by Marah Gubar, that the biggest predictor of Trump voters was the answer to this question: Do you think it’s more important for a child to be respectful and obedient, or independent and self-reliant? Well behaved and well mannered, or considerate and curious?
Teachers need to be allowed to model uncertainty themselves in the classroom, and many are already opening up spaces for pupils and students to be uncertain. Nonetheless, they tell us they are anxious about doing this and facing sanctions for transgressing behavioural codes, or they worry about the time it takes to do things differently, given everything else they are expected to do. They are worried that doing things differently will not be seen as worthwhile and, because it is risky, it may even be criticised. Teachers need permission to move from one gear to another and operate in different modes: to signal when they are sharing what they know, where others must listen, and when they are listening and attending to what children and students are doing and saying. Teachers tell us they want the green light to do this but also the support and backing to do more of this.
The new Ofsted education inspection framework, currently out for consultation, offers an opportunity for schools to re-engage with their curriculum to encourage learning to be broader and deeper. There is a strong focus on good behaviour and we ask that this is ‘appropriate behaviour’ that allows for deep learning. Getting the right answer (achieving certainty) matters educationally and is core to exam success. Also providing students with the space to explore uncertainty makes for deeper learning. It is where students are not simply concerned with identifying the correct answer, but asking questions, sharing opinions and exploring different ways of looking at things. This way they can come to value, learn and engage more deeply with existing knowledge. It reflects the difference between a curiosity that wants to identify the answer, and the type of probing, poking and questioning of how things are done and understood, to make sense of them in ways that are unique to each student. Over fifty years ago, Philip Jackson (1968), is his book, Life in the classroom, identified how the latter is integral to scholarship and is ‘almost antithetical to the attitude of passive conformist’. Fifty years later, it remains ‘unfortunate that few if any school people are giving the matter serious thought’ (p.36).