By Theresa McGarry and Margaret Martin
The stereotype in our society and many others is that women talk more than men. “A woman’s tongue is like a lamb’s tail” (always moving) is just one of the proverbs that make reference to this belief. However, most studies show that when men and women converse together men have a tendency to control the conversation, not only by talking more but by such means as talking about topics they are interested in while not participating in developing topics introduced by women. Also they interrupt in disruptive ways more than women do. These are, of course, also generalities that certainly have many exceptions. But let’s focus on a specific situation, one that has special importance for our children: classroom discourse.
In her article “Who Talks?”, Mary Bousted analyzes the conversation in her high school classroom during class discussion of a play.. She was aware of research that showed that boys talk more than girls in mixed-gender classrooms and receive more of the teachers’ attention and was sure that in her classroom she was treating girls and boys equally. Therefore, when she listened to tapes of the classroom discussion, she was unhappily surprised to find that, discounting her own contributions, a group of boys (five of the ten in the class) monopolized the conversation, while the other boys and all of the girls were simply an audience.
As the teacher, Bousted had called on boys to speak more often than girls, without realizing that she was doing so. Moreover, there was another way in which the talkative boys achieved what she calls their ‘dominant position’. Without waiting to be called on, they simply chimed into the conversation, confident that what they had to say would be appreciated. Other researchers, Joan Swann and David Graddol (1988), have argued that this strategy is effective not only because it gains the student an immediate opportunity to participate in the conversation, but also because the teacher then perceives the student as someone with something to contribute and is therefore more likely to call on that student in further discussion.
Bousted agrees with other researchers that the differences in the amount of talk between boys and girls in the classroom relate to general beliefs about gender-appropriate behavior. Sadker and Sadker (1985) observed that boys were eight times as likely as girls to call out answers to questions and that teachers more often accepted the boys’ answers but reprimanded the girls for speaking without permission. This is an example of much research that has found evidence that girls tend to conform to expectations that they will follow classroom conventions such as working quietly, not demanding attention, and giving only careful, well-thought-out answers. The boys, on the other hand, are expected to demonstrate initiative and independence by taking more active and public roles in classroom interaction, even when doing so deviates from the stated classroom rules.
Is this a problem? By promoting and reinforcing these gender differences in the classroom, we are reproducing a general pattern in which men’s beliefs are heard more than women’s, especially in public speech. However, there are more immediate concerns. For the moment let’s stay focused on school talk. Bousted argues that without actively contributing to classroom discussions, girls are missing out on a crucial component of education: developing their own ideas based on information they are given, rather than just passively memorizing that information. The girls, and some of the boys, do not get the experience of being heard by others in a way that makes them believe that their own ideas are valid and worthwhile. Will this affect their success in education? Well, if education is simply memorizing facts then probably not. However, more and more parents and educators believe that the most important part of education is the development of thinking skills such as evaluating and synthesizing information. Similarly, more and more colleges and universities expect to see these skills in the students who attend, and are attempting to measure those skills by including essays and problem-solving questions in entrance exams.
So what, if anything, should parents do? Knowledge is power, and since we are aware of the uneven participation of boys and girls in classroom communication (and women and men in public communication), we can collectively work to change things. As we saw in Mary Bousted's case, however, even teachers who are aware of the bias in their classes may not be able to relieve it.
Parents, however, can train both boys and girls to be proactive and respectful communicators. To help children “chime in,” parents can teach them key phrases for expressing their ideas, such as “I have an idea,” or “I have something to add.” Children can learn to interrupt effectively by using the name of the speaker and reiterating something he/she just said: “Mrs. Connelly! When you said ‛'10%’ that reminded me that we could use a fraction!” Children can learn to strengthen their position by lowering the tone of their voice and using dramatic changes in intonation. Parents can encourage this change by exaggerating or “singing” sentences and asking children to repeat them. (This is an effective way to discourage whining, too!)
It is also important for children to listen respectfully to their peers. Parents can model steady, friendly eye-contact while listening, and teach children key phrases for encouraging others to speak, such as “Mary said something interesting before,” or “Let's ask everyone for an idea, then decide which one is best.” Teaching them to recognize their own value and the value of their peers could keep everyone's “lamb's tail” moving!
Bousted, Mary. 1989. Who talks? English in Education 23:3. 41–51.
Sadker, Myra and David Sadker. Sexism in the schoolroom of the Eighties. Psychology Today March 1985.54-7.
Swann, Joan and David Graddol. 1988. Gender inequalities in classroom talk. English in Education 22:1. 48-65.