What does a feminist pedagogy look like?

Whilst researching my book on teaching sociology, I looked at how various sociological perspectives, such as functionalism, Marxism and social action theory, could be applied as practical pedagogies. This was the most rewarding part of writing the book. I am genuinely interested in social theory and searching out people’s ideas on how these theoretical positions could be applied in the classroom was fascinating, even if I do not agree with them. However, the hardest sociological perspective to write about in terms of pedagogy was feminism; there seemed a complete lack of accessible information on what a feminist pedagogy would look like. This was surprising as feminism is a major sociological perspective and, importantly, plenty of sociologists – both female and male – have written about gender inequalities in the classroom. 

Is a feminist pedagogy needed?

Critics of feminist perspectives on education may point out that girls regularly out perform boys in secondary schools. For example, in 2015, 62% of girls attained 5 or more GCSEs at C or above as opposed to 56% of boys. Moreover, in the same year 56% of students in higher education were female as opposed to 44% that were male. There are also interesting concepts, such as the ‘feminisation of education‘ and the ‘crisis of masculinity‘ that suggest girls have the upper hand in the classroom. This may lead people to question whether a feminist pedagogy is needed, especially in the UK. 

However, using this evidence as criticism of feminist perspectives on education ignores other factors. Firstly, Becky Francis (2002) in her study of schools in London argued that boys still dominate classrooms, especially in the amount of attention – even negative attention – that they get from teachers. Secondly, Michelle Stanworth (1983) found similar issues affecting girls at A Level, particularly in how boys dominate discussion and that teachers underestimated girls’ abilities compared to boys. Thirdly, Ann Colley (1998) argued that there are gender inequalities in subject choice as some subjects are seen as more faminine and others as more masculine; this is still true today with boys tending to opt in higher numbers for subjects such as business studies, economics and politics at A Level as well as the sciences (with the exception of biology). This has led the Institute of Physics to issue a report on gender inequalities in A-Level physics. Importantly, more recent studies into gender and subject choice at GCSE concur with Colley’s earlier findings on A Levels; suggesting gender still affects subject choice (see Henderson, Sullivan, Anders and Moulton, 2018, for example). Lastly, Miriam David’s (2008) findings clearly demonstrate that girls are far more likely to apply to post-1992 universities than the ‘more prestigious’ Russell Group universities and Oxbridge. She also found that gender inequalities associated with subject choice still exist. 

Of course, a lot of the research used above is now dated, but it is worth bearing in mind other statistics here. In 2018, for instance, data collected by the UK government on gender pay gaps showed that nearly 8 in 10 firms, 78%, have a pay gap in favour of men whereas only 14% do in favour of women (with 8% being equal). It is also important to note that women are over represented in lower paid jobs, such as cleaning and catering. Moreover, not only do men get paid better in higher paid jobs, but in the finance sector women get paid 35% less in bonuses than men on average. Add to this other sociological data on family relationships, domestic violence and – not to mention – the position of women in other countries, then there are obvious gender inequalities in society that need to be addressed; starting with education. Therefore, some would argue that a wider discussion on what a feminist pedagogy should look like is over due. 

What would a feminist pedagogy look like?

So, what would a feminist pedagogy look like? A good starting point is Allen, Walker and Webb’s Feminist Pedagogy: Identifying Basic Principles (2002), which is a review of the literature on feminist pedagogy and identifies six general principles of a feminist approach to teaching and learning. These include:

  • reformation
  • empowerment
  • building community
  • privileging voice
  • respecting personal experience
  • challenging traditional pedagogical assumptions.

The first principle, reforming the teacher’s relationship with the student, is key to overcoming gender inequalities both in and beyond the classroom. A feminist may argue that the domination of teacher over the student transcends gender as young girls are socialised to accept patriarchal authority at home and would, therefore, undoubtedly be conditioned to accept other types of authority elsewhere. This line of argument suggests that in too many situations the teacher dominates the student as power is knowledge and, subsequently, the students’ experiences and opinions count for less. Here, we see that feminist pedagogy, as a conflict theory, builds on some of the ideas of Paulo Freire and critical pedagogy (1970). Indeed, many feminist thinkers on education, such as bell hooks (1994), have acknowledged the importance of Freire’s work on feminist pedagogical thinking.

The second part of the formulation is empowerment, which again follows critical pedagogy’s emphasis on liberation and the rise of critical consciousness.  Female students must be allowed to participate in the class, to shape discussion and not be judged by prejudicial views of their experiences. They must be seen as members of a democratic process that is compatible with the ‘decentring, hierarchical perspective of feminism’ (Woodbridge, 1994; cited in Allen et al., 2002). A teacher, female or male, must encourage female participation and be aware of inhibitions that might arise from their socialisation at home and/or elsewhere.    

The third principle identified by Allen et al. is building community. In this they talk of establishing learner-centred collaborative activities that allow students to participate in learning as the domination of traditional teacher led learning is bypassed (this type of teaching is now being challenged by many thinkers, such as Daisy Christodoulou (2013); who might dispute the teaching methods as opposed to feminism or gender equality per se). Importantly, this principle puts the previous two principles into some sort of practice as we can see what sort of activities can give rise to independence and voice in students’ learning. Collaborative activities, such as projects where students all share in producing presentations, documents or research can give female and male students an equal share in input and control; so long as these activities are facilitated properly. Moreover, collaboration can take place between the teacher and student whereby the students help the teacher and other students to suggest solutions to points that the teacher may struggle with. Through a ‘problem solving dialogue’ students can tackle controversial and topical issues in a way that builds on the students’ own experiences and ‘harmonises well with feminist theories of [liberating] theory and praxis’ (Allen et al., 2002).

The next two principles are privileging the individual voice as a way of knowing and a respect for the diversity of individual experience. The latter is not only important for females if they are to participate and feel empowered, but is also important for males to understand female experiences from hearing about their opinions and views; for many boys, a girl’s perspective may be new to them. Moreover, the former point raises the importance of mixing personal ‘biography’ or experience with the social context of what is being studied in that the feminist project has always encouraged an analysis of personal experience through validation. In the ‘feminist classroom’ girls will be able to shed light on the meaning of the subject being studied through their own personal experiences. The point here is that liberation can only be achieved if students learn to respect each other’s’ opinions and experiences. Importantly, for Allen, Walker and Webb, ‘Respect can replace fear when students articulate unique personal experiences based on diverse backgrounds’ (ibid).   

The last principle is challenging traditional assumptions. Not only does this principle tie up all the previous principles, but it also highlights an important element of feminist thinking on the sociology of education itself; this includes the domination of male writers, historical figures and role models across the curriculum. A sociology teacher, for example, should not only challenge the dominance of male sociologists such as Talcott Parsons and Charles Murray, but should also emphasize the work of female sociologists like Ann Oakley or Fran Ansley, especially when challenging Parson’s and Murray’s views on the nuclear family, for instance. Moreover, female sociologists must be given voice throughout all areas of the syllabus so that girls can see the importance of their contributions and the potential of their own sociological abilities. A cynic may argue that some areas may be lacking feminist perspectives and that male writers are more important due to their work and not their gender, but in sociology there are relatively few areas where both feminist and female voices cannot be heard.

Other feminist perspectives

However, some feminists may argue that pedagogy needs to be aware of more than just a female experience, especially if we consider black feminism and queer theory. Whilst any formulation of a feminist pedagogy will be built on inclusion, equality and collaboration between students of different genders, a conception of these differences as purely male and female can lead to the marginalisation of other groups, especially where a white liberal feminist narrative becomes the dominant way of defining these differences. For example, teachers should be aware that the experiences of minority students, both male and female, will sometimes be very different to those of their white peers. There will be complex sensitivities and issues here that may involve different solutions than the more dominant narrative would assume. For instance, advances and changes in the law may have less impact for women in some communities or religious groups than others. Further still, the experiences of gay and lesbian students may not resonant with changes in gender equality let alone be included in all areas of the curriculum (if relevant, of course). It is in this vein that feminist and critical pedagogue bell hooks (1994) argues that the classroom can help students to transgress racial, sexual, and class boundaries that inhibit their freedom – so long as teachers see this as the purpose of education.

Last thoughts

It is clear from sociological evidence that gender is still an issue in education, especially in subject choice. It is also clear that gender inequalities persist in society, even in developed countries. Therefore, the idea of a feminist pedadgogy (or, at least, views sympathetic to feminism) is relevant to discussions on teaching and learning. However, there seems to be far more research completed on social policy by sociologists concerned with gender gaps than pedagogues and, argubly, teacher trainers. 

Moreover, some of the predominant ideas and trends in education at the moment, especially those concerned with emphasizing knowledge over skills, may make the work of Allen et al. – quoted above – a bit out of sync with current thinking. Nonetheless, there is no reason why teachers should not debate the importance in closing gender gaps through pedadgogy (for males as well as females), even if the pedagogy is different to those outlined above. Perhaps it is an area worthy of far more attention by both faminists and non-feminists alike. 

References

Allen, M.W., Walker, K.L. and Webb L.M. (2002). Feminist Pedagogy: Identifying Basic Principles [online]. Available at: http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Feminist+pedagogy%3a+identifying+basic+principles.+(The+scholarship+of…-a085916959 [Retrieved 11/11/2015].

Christodoulou, D. (2014). Seven Myths About Education. London: Routledge.

Colley, A. (1998). ‘Gender and Choice in Secondary Education’ in Gender and Choice in Education and Occupation (Redford, J. Ed.). London: Routledge.

David, M. E. (2008) ‘Social inequalities, gender and lifelong learning: A feminist, sociological review of work, family and education’ in the International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy, Vol. 28 Issue: 7/8, pp.260-272.

Francis, B. (2002). Boys, girls and achievement: Addressing the classroom issues. London: Routledge.

hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, London: Routledge.

Henderson, M., Sullivan, A., Anders J. and Moulton, V. (2018). ‘Social class, gender and ethnic differences in subjects taken at age 14′ in the Oxford Review of Education’, 44:1, pp. 75-93.

Stanworth, Mi. (1983). Gender and Schooling: A Study of Sexual Divisions in the Classroom. London: Hutchinson in association with the Explorations in Feminism Collective.

Woodbridge, L. (1994). ‘The centrifugal classroom’ in S. M. Deats & L. T. Lenker (Eds.), Gender and Academe: Feminist Pedagogy and Politics, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Photo credit: Michael Coghlan (used here under a Creative Commons Licence).

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