Riding over the waves on a chilly summer morning off the coast of Maine, my eyes scanned the horizon in search of a puffin. A child of the desert, the wonders of the ocean filled me with awe. The captain of the boat kept up a running commentary about the seabirds native to the area, those we encountered and those we might see. I was in search of a puffin. With every new species that we encountered, there was a moment of excitement and then a little sigh of disappointment. It was interesting, but not quite what I was hoping to see. We saw whales and rare seabirds that day, seabirds that are in fact more rare than puffins. Alas, no puffins, though.
What did I take away from that day off the coast of Maine? A wonderful experience discovering the wonder of the world in which I live, a nasty case of bronchitis, and the discovery that sometimes the things we aren’t looking for are the most important things that we see.
I was reminded of that discovery this week. I had recently purchased Block By Block , thinking it might be an interesting addition to my math class. Block by Block is a puzzle with 60 different building challenges. I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to use it – maybe during our work with nets, surface area, and volume; maybe as a brain break activity; maybe as something else entirely. I started out by giving it to my student aides to explore. Seeing how they engage with something in play sometimes gives me insight into how it might work with my students (who are a couple of years younger).
As I glanced over while teaching my 2nd period class, something caught my eye. I looked closer to see if I was really seeing what I thought I saw. I was pretty sure that I was seeing something I hadn’t expected. Every time I looked over for the 50 minute period, my suspicion was confirmed. So, I watched again during my 5th period class. Two different student aides, but the same thing happened again. Do you see it?
In both cases, I had two student aides – one male and one female. In both cases, the student aides are highly developed mathematical thinkers. In both cases, I gave them puzzle without any really direction, just a “try this out and see what you think”. In both cases, the same thing happened. In both cases, the male student aide reached out and started building. In both cases, the female student aide was more passive, offering comments or suggestions, maybe taking a block and moving it around in her hand, but letting the male student aide continue building. This struck me for many reasons, not the least of which was that I have known these students for three years and these young women are not passive in an academic setting. It also was an echo of what I had seen in many engineering labs during my college experience. Young men jumping in and young women (not all, but many of them) letting them.
I tried an experiment. The next day, the male student aide arrived first and jumped right into playing with the puzzle. I sent him on an errand. When the female student aide arrived, she saw the puzzle out on his desk. She reached over and pulled all the pieces onto her own desk and started building. By the time he got back, she was deeply engrossed in the puzzle. I watched to see what would happen next. The previous day’s events were repeated, but this time the roles were reversed
As the week progressed, I found myself pondering what this little unplanned experiment implied for my instructional practice and for my female students.
- When presented with an unstructured task, without clearly defined roles, why did the boys take such a dominant role and why did the girls let them? Was it a matter of personality or was it a matter of social norms? What role did experience play in the equation (the boys both play with puzzles frequently, the girls less so)? Was intensity of interest a factor (the boys love puzzles)? Why did the girl dive into the task more intently when the boy was not present?
- What does it mean for my girls futures in STEM when they accept a more passive role? The 10,000 hour rule for becoming expert at something implies that my girls are going to have a harder and harder time maintaining pace with their male counterparts on hands-on tasks if they are relegated to such a passive role (for whatever reason that it happens).
- What instructional decisions do I need to be making to ensure that my girls have equity? While this experiment wasn’t intended as instructional, what does it tell me about the instructional decisions I should be making? Do I need to formulate single gender groups all of the time? Is it enough to just ensure that each member of each group has clearly defined tasks/roles and to ensure that those roles rotate? While I use cooperative learning structures often, do I need to use them more often when engaging mixed gender groups in STEM activities?
I set out hoping to see how my students would engage with a puzzle. Instead, I got to see how they interact with each other can have a profound impact on each student’s outcome. The decisions I make can do more or less to ensure that they each have full access to the best outcomes. Just as was true when I was in search of a puffin, the things I saw were more significant than the things I started out hoping to see.