Stereotypes in school

Q. The suggestions that you offer for ways to help children just seem to be reinforcing stereotypes. I want to make sure that my child grows up able to cope with the world in many different ways.
A. We all know that we shouldn’t stereotype others, but what can you do when the stereotype is mostly true? For example, if we say that men are taller than women, we know that is not true for all people, but is it generally true for most. With height, it is obvious when someone doesn’t fit the stereotype, but what about behavior? Research with identical twins who were raised in separate families indicates that between 50-70% of who we are is based on biology. The problem is that we don’t know exactly which of our behaviors is linked to genetics and which we learned from those around us. Most boys, for example, develop verbal skills at a slower rate than most girls. One theory for that is that the left side of the brain which is highly linked to verbal skills, develops a bit slower in most males than in females. So if a boy is a bit slower learning to read than his classmates, is it because certain parts of his brain are developing a bit later than that of other children, or is it because his family assumes that boys don’t like to read and lead him to believe that he doesn’t have to try? Some boys do learn to read early and so it is tempting to think that the boys who don’t could learn to read if they just put forth the effort. The other option is to believe that boys who don’t read well early are learning disabled and will struggle for years to learn to read. Neither might be true if the reason for the boy not reading is that his brain is not developing very rapidly in the verbal area. If a teacher who is trying to teach a boy to read gives him a copy of Captain Underpants believing that the subject matter will interest the boy therefore helping him develop a positive attitude toward reading, is that wrong because the teacher is following a stereotype about boys’ reading interests?
The problem with using stereotypes in teaching is if the student gets the impression that he is not allowed to have interests and ideas that do not fit the stereotype for his gender. In fact, in many single-sex schools, children are far more likely to develop cross-stereotypical interests than they do in coed schools. Research consistently shows that girls in girls’ schools are much more likely to major in science and math when they get to college when compared to similar girls who went to coed schools; boys in boys’ schools are more likely to major in liberal arts whereas boys who went to similar coed schools were more likely to major in business. The research shows that children in coed schools were much more likely to follow stereotypical educational patterns than were children in single-sex schools.
So if school uses stereotypical teaching approaches, is that a good thing? Of course not if children get the idea that certain behaviors are either forbidden to them or expected of them. However, good teachers understand that students learn in a variety of ways and that the best pedagogy provides a variety of approaches. What is important is for teachers to listen to students and to make sure that they don’t limit themselves by believing in stereotypes. We don’t want girls to think that they will have a harder time in math, just as we don’t want boys to think that they won’t be able to learn to read. Facing the stereotypes will produce better results than sweeping them away as if they didn’t exist.