Shushing the girls: Study shows boys encouraged to speak while girls silenced in the classroom

In her new book, Gender, Participation, and Silence in the Language Classroom: Sh-Shushing the Girls, Jule publishes a case study of a group of ethnic-minority children growing up in Canada, and explores the relationship of gender, ethnicity and participation of children within an English-language teaching classroom. After a ten month observation of one grade two class, findings revealed that boys were talking nine—and sometimes ten—times as much as the girls.

“According to current theory, language is central to learning,” explains Jule who teaches language and gender at TWU. “So if the boys are doing all the talking, then the implications may be they're doing all the learning.” Jule notes that the “learning” taking place among the boys is not that of math and science, but of language and significance. Her findings confirm previous studies that show boys taking up five times as much linguistic space as girls in western classrooms. Jule, however, added a new element to her study: ethnicity.

“I'd found plenty of significant literature on gender in the classroom, and gender and ethnicity, but nothing that connected all three [gender, ethnicity and classrooms],” says Jule, who was a sessional instructor of English, Communications, and Education at TWU, SFU, and UBC before starting her PhD. For nearly a year, she taped and transcribed teacher-led discussions in one Punjabi/Sikh grade two classroom in Vancouver, hoping to uncover not only whether boys spoke more, but if they did, why the girls might not have said anything. And when they did speak, what was silencing them?

Some study interpretations hypothesize that the Punjabi girls were quieter because their culture values silence. Jule agrees this could affect the findings, but that's only part of the story“It doesn't respond to the worldwide issue of gender in classroom,” she says. “Yes, ethnicity is a variable, as is age, generations, language and personality. But the trend that's been seen in thousands of other classrooms is that linguistic space is something belonging to boys. I don't know if this study tells us anything about universals—or if any study can—but it certainly hints that gender may be a more significant variable than ethnicity.”

Jule's study observed patterns of reinforced male significance in numerous ways. “Often the teacher would repeat a comment by a boy, or a boy-tempered question, for the class. For instance if the question was, what is the capital of Canada? And a boy answered, 'Ottawa,' she would repeat, 'yes Ottawa is the capital.' But if a girl answered, she wouldn't repeat it.” According to Jule, findings like these supports the feminist pedagogy established long ago that “classrooms are for boys.”

In the classroom, boys were given tiny, almost imperceptible signals of significance over girls. The teacher tended to refer to the boys by name but the girls in groups. For instance, “Peter, be quiet,” and “girls, shhh.”

“There are those who would argue that boys have a harder time of sitting in the classroom,” says Jule, “so they have to be watched and controlled more than the girls. So addressing the boys by name makes sense. But in my view, the overcorrection of boys is still giving significance to them—even their naughtiness is more interesting than the girls' participation.”

Jule explains that girls are often celebrated for being quiet. The “nice, quiet girls” get their work done. And on some levels, it's working. Girls are outscoring boys in major exams and the number of women entering medical school has now topped the number of men. But Jule says follow the trajectory of their careers and note who holds the top medical positions of power.

“They're [females] not chiefs of surgery,” she says. “Often they don't even select specialties that reflect what they could do. Studies performed in public settings—classrooms, courts of law, surgery rooms—look for whose is the voice of authority and significance. It's male.”

Jule investigates if this pattern is normal or if it's simply become normalized. “We are rehearsing roles so that by the time we reach adulthood we can be even better performers of our gender,” explains Jule. “Looking at children offers insight into if women/girls are essentially quieter in public settings, or can it be altered. My conclusion is that it can. From my research, the teacher does systematic things that can silence them. If she'd done different things, they would have said more. It's not that girls are quiet, it's that girls have been silenced.”

*Note: Allyson Jule is currently on a year's leave from the University of Gamorgan, in Pontrypridd, Wales, UK, where she is a Senior Lecturer in Education. Jule has been a Scholar in Residence at Regent College and a Sessional Instructor at Trinity Western University for the 2003/2004 school year.

Last Updated: 2015-07-20
Author: Keela Keeping