The feminisation of teaching

Ok, forget the break, I’m going to take this one on!

This whole argument resurfaced when the Minister rather clumsily raised the issue of honours maths for primary school teachers and linked his comments with the feminisation of the profession. What the Minister was suggesting, I think, is that if you have a preponderance of female teachers, the average level of mathematical attainment will be less than if there was an equal mix of males and females. But actually, if you look at the 2013 Leaving Cert stats, the Minister is wrong. Uptake rates for honours maths are not too different (5159 girls, 5972 boys) but boys do marginally better: 44.6% of girls got a B3 or higher while 49.2% of boys did. But when you look at pass maths, things get very interesting. At that level, 42.5% of girls get a B3 or better while only 26.3% of boys do! Thus, linking feminisation with the maths issue is a bit of a mistake on the Minister’s part because both uptake rates and attainment are pretty much gender neutral.  (Actually, you would have to wonder who’s advising him because whoever they are they are not doing their homework.)

What the Minister seemed to be suggesting was that a significant number of girls (but not boys?) have made up their minds at Junior Cert level to become primary school teachers and then make a deliberate decision to drop honours maths so as to maximise their CAO points. It seems, according to the Minister’s reasoning, that there is something special about those girls who want to become primary school teachers that makes them drop higher maths while other (female) groups who also need high points (e.g for medicine or many business-related courses) adopt an entirely different strategy and do honours maths in their quest for points! It all sounds very convoluted to me.

Incidentally, it is well-established that gender differences in mathematical ability really only manifest at the extreme end of the distribution. Thus, there are proportionally more males in mathematics-dominated professions like pure mathematics and theoretical physics where a very high level of maths is required. But, on average, males and females are pretty much equally adept at mathematics. Whether they have, on average, the same level of interest in maths is another, and interesting, question.

But, this whole discussion could well be a red herring because it is not really obvious how Leaving Cert results relate to maths teaching ability. Presumably, student teachers learn more maths and are taught how to teach maths during their third level studies! If we are worried about maths and how it’s taught, shouldn’t we really be looking at the curricula in the teacher training colleges?

But is the broader issue of the feminisation of teaching a problem? Some would say that we shouldn’t even ask the question – nobody goes on about the ‘masculisation’ of engineering, for example. But designing roads or computer chips or chemical reactors is not quite the same as teaching. Teaching involves the very personal and vitally important interaction between an adult (now usually a female) and a child at a very impressionable age.

All of this tends to be a tad controversial and that is a pity.  A key problem is that despite all we have learned in the last decade or so about the interactions between our genes and our environment (nature via nurture), the predominant paradigm in a lot of social commentary is one of nurture. There is still a strong bias towards viewing children as ‘blank slates’ and there is an almost ideological tendency to ignore biology, as if it were a dirty word, and to see any argument that might be based or biology – or innateness – as somehow prejudiced.

So, in the context of teaching, it is with some trepidation that anyone raises the very idea that a predominantly female teaching profession might not be ideal – and I’m not talking about male teachers simply being role models that would encourage more males into the profession. Is it just possible that young boys in particular might personally benefit from having more male teachers? Surely it is ok to ask that question and see what evidence there is out there for the effects of teacher gender on pupil outcomes?

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About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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One Response to The feminisation of teaching

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » The feminisation of teaching

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