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Raising the issue of stereotypes in school – case study

It can be daunting to raise a question with your child’s school. Will the teacher be angry or offended? Might you get labelled as a nuisance? Megan explains how she went about querying the language of a homework assignment which reinforced stereotypes about who can be an inventor.

Updated 22/4

Who was he?

A couple of weeks ago, my six year-old daughter came home with some homework to do together over half-term. It was titled ‘A famous scientist/inventor’ and asked children to research any scientist or inventor of their choice. It sounded like something she would really enjoy doing.

homework-fullBut when I read it through properly, I suddenly realised something was missing. The subtitles asked questions like “Who was he?” and “Where did he come from?” and the four scientists/inventors mentioned as examples were Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Alexander Graham Bell, and Steve Jobs. Whoever had written the homework had assumed all scientists and inventors are male.

I took to Twitter to ask for recommendations of female scientists and inventors. I was overwhelmed by the many recommendations I received from people across the globe. Both myself and my daughter have certainly learnt a lot in the last week!

Contacting the school

I knew I had to mention the wording of the homework to the school but I hesitated. I didn’t want to ruin a good relationship with her teachers or to appear ungrateful for the hard work they do. In the end I sent a very short e-mail asking if we could meet to discuss their equalities policy and mentioned the wording of the homework.

It was with some trepidation I went to the meeting, but in fact the teacher could not have been more apologetic. I feel genuinely reassured that equality and diversity is taken seriously by the school and sexist attitudes are not demonstrated in class. It sounds like this one slipped through the net but they will be much more careful in future. The conversation was pleasant and it felt as if we were on the same page. I left some resources from the NUT’s Breaking the Mould project as well as some printouts from the Let Toys Be Toys website.

Ann Makowsinski

ann mAs for the homework itself, we spent a long time reading up on scientists and inventors from the past, but my daughter’s final choice was someone she felt she could really relate to.

Ann Makowsinski invented a torch that is powered by the heat of the human hand at the tender age of fifteen and is a great role model for young people starting to think about careers in STEM. She was kind enough to let my daughter send her some short interview questions. Being able to correspond with a real-life inventor brought the whole topic to life for a six-year old who had assumed that all inventors were a) male, and b) dead!

Here’s an extract from the final article (with very little input from me!):

Most inventors have passed away or are very old but Ann Makosinski is a living young woman. Ann was fifteen when she made a torch that was powered by a human hand. She lives in Victoria in Canada. Ann won the 2013 Google Science Fair. She invented the torch because her friend couldn’t complete her homework and was failing school because there was no electricity. Her friend lived in the Philippines. And she wanted to help her friend. Ann is seventeen now. Ann started doing science fairs in Sixth Grade (which is the same as Year Six). She lives with her parents. The torch she invented is useful because you don’t need any batteries you just need the heat of your hand. That would be good in countries that don’t have much electricity and it’s good for the environment too.

This homework assignment is a great example of how easy it is to pass on unconscious biases about what women and men can do. Our lesson plan and resources for schools have some ideas for simple ways that teachers can challenge gender stereotypes in the classroom. We have more ideas on how to raise an issue with your child’s school here – comments and suggestions welcome.

Update 22/4

homework_olympianThe school has obviously acted on feedback – here’s some more recent homework – asking about athletes in a way that invites ideas of male and female sports stars.

7 Comments

  1. What an awesome way to help your daughter and her peers see science (and scientists) differently, and what a great example of a scientist to choose. I often find myself grumbling and cursing about unconscious gender bias in school projects and worksheets, but mostly just put a short sniffy comment in the margin of the homework journal, rather than pursuing it properly at a school policy level.
    I. Must. Try. Harder.

  2. Keith berry

    Shows how unconscious sexism is. The teacher was full of apologies and hadn’t recognised her own sexism.

  3. Emma

    Keith, I can’t find any mention that the teacher is female…

  4. Emma

    How do we know the teacher is a woman? Adoring the irony in your post! 🙂

  5. Thanks for sharing yourexperience. It’s great that you spoke to the school and they responded well. I love that your daughter focused on a living, young scientist!

  6. tu

    Brilliant job — inspiring story.

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