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Emergent Inquiry.

Using Children's Literature To Ask Hard Questions About Gender Bias

For those of us training elementary teachers to teach, the findings from studies related to gender equity in the school environment are generally disturbing. The studies reveal that a subtle but pervasive sexism still exists in society and schools today (Eccles & Blumenfeld, 1985; Hitchcock & Tompkins, 1987; Manning, 1998; Sadker & Sadker, 1986, 1994; Sadker, Sadker, & Long, 1989; Stanford, 1992). The authors designed an emergent inquiry process to use with their preservice students, as a means of heightening awareness of gender inequities in children's literature. The development of this inquiry process grew out of not only concern for gender equity, but also a desire to train preservice teachers to ask hard questions. By learning to ask these hard questions, education students will become lifelong learners, dedicated to empowering children to find answers to their own questions. The goal, therefore, was to work toward allaying gender bias and, in the process, encourage preservice teachers' personal growth.

The Need To Allay Gender Bias

In the day-to-day flow of most classrooms, gender inequities are rarely noticed. Bailey, Scantlebury, and Letts (1997) state that "Gender inequity is the norm, and anything else is not normal." Four strands of research emerged from the literature on gender equity in schools: 1) teacher-student interactions, 2) gender differences in communication and play, 3) gender differences in academic achievement, and 4) equity in environment and curricular materials. While the authors' work falls within the last strand, reviewing the findings in related areas offers a more complete understanding of the problem's complexity and depth.

Teacher-Student Interactions. A consistent finding among studies in this area is that boys demand and receive more of their teachers' attention in general, and more negative attention in response to poor conduct (Eccles & Blumenfeld, 1985). After studying classroom interactions in over 100 fourth-, fifth-, and eighth-grade classrooms during a four-year period, Myra Sadker and David Sadker (1986) found that male students received more attention from teachers, whether the teacher was male or female, black or white. They also found that boys called out eight times more often than girls did, and that teachers tended to accept boys' called-out answers, while they usually reminded girls who called out to raise their hands. "Boys are being trained to be assertive; girls are being trained to be passive--spectators relegated to the sidelines of classroom discussion" (Sadker & Sadker, 1986, p. 513). In addition, boys received more specific, and therefore more instructive, feedback from teachers.

Gender Differences in Communication and Play. Maccoby examined the ways that boys and girls talk with other children and concluded that girls' speech more often served the purpose of establishing or strengthening relationships; boys' speech, on the other hand, was used mostly to assert their position or attract an audience (Maccoby, 1985, in Stanford, 1992). Paley (1984) found that gender role establishment peaked around age 6, when children tend to insist on almost over-generalized, rigid expectations for masculine and feminine behavior. Still in question is whether this view can be attributed to an innate developmental milestone or to cognitive development within cultural socialization. Studies of children's play reveal that self-imposed sex segregation occurs in the early years (Lewis, 1991; Lloyd & Smith, 1985; Maccoby & Jacklin, 1974; Perry, White, & Perry, 1984). However, Kyle Pruett, a researcher in the Yale Child Study Center, detected an anomaly in a longitudinal study of 16 families in which the fathers were the primary caregivers/nurturers and mothers worked full-time outside the home.

I saw boys really enjoy their nurturing skills.... They knew what to do with a baby, they didn't see that as a girl's job, they saw it as a human job. I saw the girls have very active images of the outside world and what their mothers were doing in the workplace--things that become interesting to most girls when they're 8 or 10, but these girls were interested when they were 4 to 5. (Shapiro, 1990, p. 65)

While investigating gender differences in older children's play, Lever (1978) concluded that 10- and 11-year-old boys' games were longer, more complex, more competitive, and tended to be done in larger, more age-heterogeneous groups than were girls' games or play. Girls' games provided them fewer opportunities to develop vital skills in higher-level thinking, negotiation, teamwork, and leadership.

Gender Differences in Academic Achievement. Most troubling of all perhaps, is the reported differences between the academic achievement of boys and girls. According to the Sadkers and Long (1989), "Girls are the only group in [American] society that begins school ahead and ends school behind" (p. 114). In their look at gender equity in schools 25 years after the passage of Title IX, Sadker, Sadker, and Long reported that boys outperformed girls on both the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and American College Testing Program Examination (ACT), with the largest difference in scores being in the mathematics section of the SAT. In contrast, math achievement in the elementary years has been found to show little difference between the sexes (National Research Council, 1989), or to favor girls slightly (Campbell 1986).

Equity in Environment and Curricular Materials. Physical surroundings, the teacher, and the curricular materials all affect the realization of gender equity (Stanford, 1992). The seating arrangement within the room can promote gender equity. Bulletin boards, posters, photographs, and other types of classroom displays that depict equal representation of males and females in roles that "advertise the ideas and accomplishments of men and women in all areas of the curriculum" (Stanford, 1992, p. 98) also are associated with equitable physical surroundings.

The Sex Equity Handbook for Schools (Sadker & Sadker, 1982) identified six areas of bias to look for when examining textbooks, literature, or other curricular materials: invisibility, stereotyping, imbalance / selectivity, unreality, fragmentation / isolation, and linguistic bias. By being aware of these areas, teachers can involve students in recognizing discriminatory texts, and can counter such texts with more gender-equitable ones. Wallace (1986) suggested that teachers rewrite blatantly stereotypical math problems, such as those that show women occupied with cooking and men with construction. "Ten Quick Ways To Analyze Children's Books for Sexism and Racism" (Council on Interracial Books for Children, 1980) specifically calls for attention to equitable story line, language, and illustrations.

In the 1970s, basal texts used in elementary classrooms overwhelmingly showed boys as the central characters (Britton & Lumpkin, 1977; Graebner, 1972). While the number of male characters in a central role in six reading textbook series had dropped from 61 to 18 percent by the late 1980s, "the percentage of females ... had remained virtually the same" (Hitchcock & Tompkins, 1987, p. 289). Publishers avoided charges of sexism by creating neutral or neutered characters. Similarly, an early study of children's literature found females to be underrepresented and, when shown, depicted in stereotypical roles (Fisher, 1974). About 10 years later, Scott (1986) maintained that more gender equitable literature was available and found that children who read more literature that presented males and females in nontraditional roles had fewer expressions of sex-typed responses about occupations, roles, and traits of both males and females than those who read more literature depicting people in sex-typed roles.

An Emergent Inquiry Strategy: Do Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowgirls

The emergent inquiry strategy the authors developed allows individuals within groups to 1) generate hard questions related to gender, 2) use inquiry to test a hypothesis about the treatment of gender in children's literature, and 3) explore additional inquiry possibilities. The content and methodology evolved in a variety of settings that were part of a field-based teacher education program, such as pre-field methods courses, doctoral seminars, and informal focus groups of mentor and in-field preservice teachers. In these contexts, the process conveys trust in teachers (both preservice and inservice) as learners, leaders, and researchers. Simply asking about preservice teachers' questions serves to validate those questions. This, in turn, jump starts the process of inquiry, thereby scaffolding the emergence of future questions.

Twenty Questions, More or Less: The Opening. The work begins with each of those assembled writing a question (Copenhaver, 1993) in response to the prompt, "Regarding gender bias, my wonderful question is...." This question is followed by a space for explaining why the question is important to the writer. Then, the participants share their questions and reasons--sometimes with a partner or a small group, but often with the entire group. This opening exercise is intended to be invitational learner-centered, and active. In addition, it gives the facilitator a feel for the relative importance that the group places on gender issues. Finally, this opening encourages the realization that questions of interest to the group drive the inquiry process.

White Dynamite and Curly Kidd: The Book To Read Aloud. The authors use this book by children's author Bill Martin, Jr. and John Archambault (1986), because it is an excellent read-aloud book for two voices, and because the gender of the hero--a girl who aspires to be a rodeo rider--is not revealed until the last page, when the protagonist pulls off her hat, "letting her hair down." Other children's books with females in strong roles could be used to focus the listeners' attention on the question of whether gender bias in children's literature is less prevalent than it once was (Dellman-Jenkins, Florjancic, & Swadener, 1993).

Gathering Data Related to a Gender Bias Hypothesis. Next, the group is randomly divided into groups (based on even or odd numbered dates of birth) to search for passages from respected children's books that will support--or refute--the following hypothesis: Children's literature has so many heroes of both genders that there is no longer a need to be concerned about gender bias in children's literature. Each group has 30 minutes to record their findings on chart paper. Random assignment usually ensures diversity of opinions within the group so that the complexity of the issue and the challenge of gathering compelling evidence related to the hypothesis is heightened. Each group's findings are shared at the end of the first data collection effort during a "gallery walk," during which the participants walk around and view, as if in an art gallery, the other groups' charts. Those participating in the "walk" may leave self-adhesive notes on the charts to pose hard questions. Following the walk, there is time for assessing and reflecting within the group. The final activity of this. segment is to "vote with one's feet," showing personal acceptance or rejection of the hypothesis about gender bias in children's' literature by standing along a continuum in the room.

Continuing the Inquiry. The session ends with conversations aimed at promoting further inquiry in new settings. Exploring other settings where the investigation into gender bias in children's literature could continue suggests that the inquiry is not complete, and that the hard questions are not yet answered. It also conveys the notion that the inquiry process that started to emerge in this strategy can be used to seek answers to other questions of interest. Participants at this stage of the process regularly showed signs of realizing that inquiry is not hard or weird, nor does it take vast amounts of preparation. As a result, both preservice and inservice teachers rather easily begin to contemplate other possibilities for using inquiry with their own students. Having experienced the benefits of working through the inquiry process in such a simple manner, they eagerly explore other applications. This is an emergent inquiry process because it leads to further questions about their own teaching methods, about facilitating their students' abilities to ask questions, and about the importance of creating a learning environment that allows all learners to express and develop their own intellect--all of which is done best through the process of asking their own questions.

Experience With This Strategy

This intervention has been used in a number of settings associated with the elementary teacher education program at the authors' university. After the initial inquiry experience, a number of students replicated it in their classes and shared their stories. Three of these stories follow. Each vignette begins with a hard question that was generated as part of the emergent inquiry experience.

Does Gender Bias Exist in the Minds of Preservice Teachers? The graduate student who wrote this question replicated the Cowgirls inquiry in an undergraduate literacy methods class with 16 female students. After discussion, the initial consensus was that gender bias is mostly dependent on traditional thinking and past living styles. Following their group investigations of children's literature, the students concluded that there is less gender bias in children's literature today, with more books emphasizing that girls can do the same jobs as boys can. They were, however, concerned that the sample of books they used was not large enough to reflect the actual situation in society. One student shifted the responsibility from the author, saying that gender bias sometimes results from the reader's interpretation. At the end of the session, the students were asked to tell their classmates whether there still is cause for concern about gender bias in children's literature. Six of the students said there was no longer a need; two said there was; two students abstained; and six were unable or unwilling to support or reject the hypothesis.

Does Ethnicity Influence the Recognition of Gender Bias? The administrator who wrote this question used the strategy in a demonstration lesson with a group of advanced level 10th-graders, whom she described as second-language learners of low socioeconomic status. She reported her surprise at their relative lack of concern for gender issues. "I thought they would laugh or react in a funny way, but actually their reaction was one of shock. Everyone got quiet when I read the last page. They said, `Lucky is a boy's name. There was no hair showing under the hat to show it was a girl. Only a boy would go to the rodeo and go down front with his father; a girl would sit in the stands with the grandmother and mother.'" The fact that the 10th-graders did not find examples of gender bias from their survey led the administrator to speculate that "culture may have something to do with the fact that they did not feel there is any gender bias in the books I took for them. They all pretty much agreed that there is a place for the male and female.... I feel this tells us that our job of eliminating gender bias has not been completed."

What Is It All About and Do Nearly All Books Have It? A 5th-grader wrote this question as part of a class inquiry. At the end of the session, the group as a whole was divided evenly. Differences were apparent, however, when analyzed by gender. The majority of the girls--eight to five--said that children's literature is gender biased; by a five to two majority, the boys expressed the opposite viewpoint. In contrast, they were unanimous in their appreciation of the inquiry process, many saying that they enjoyed the exercise because it gave them a chance to decide for themselves if the literature they read is gender biased or not.


The use of an emergent inquiry process and children's literature to ask hard questions about gender bias has proven productive in a variety of settings associated with a teacher education program (e.g., campus-based, junior level education methods courses; field-based liaison work with interns, residents, and mentor teachers; master's and doctoral level education courses; and staff development activities with veteran teachers). For several reasons, the relative presence of gender bias in children's literature was a viable focus for inquiry. It aligned with the literacy methods courses that precede the year in the field. Finding evidence to support a hypothesis about gender bias in the books of the 1990s was an accessible--and interesting--exercise for both children and adults. The issue of gender bias was suitably complex, yet readily transportable, so that the inquiry process continued in new settings of interest to the participants. The stories collected about the use of this intervention suggest that having to ask hard questions discouraged students from being complacent and that the emergent inquiry strategy provided a subtle reminder of the lasting presence of gender stereotypes.


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Fisher, E. (1974). Children's books: The second sex, junior division. In J. Stacey & J. Daniels (Eds.), And Jill came tumbling after: Sexism in American education (pp. 116-122). New York: Dell Publishing.

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Maccoby, E. E., & Jacklin, C. M. (1974). The psychology of sex differences. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

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Scott, K. P. (1986). Effects of sex-fair reading materials on pupils' attitudes, comprehension and interest. American Educational Research Journal, 23, 105-116.

Shapiro, L. (1990, May 28). Guns and dolls. Newsweek, 54-65.

Stanford, B. H. (1992). Gender equity in the classroom. In D. A. Byrnes & G. Kiger (Eds.), Common bonds: Anti-bias teaching in a diverse society (pp. 87-104). Olney, MD: Association for Childhood Education International.

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Carol Walker is Assistant Professor, and Martha M. Foote is Assistant Professor, Department of Elementary Education, Texas A&M University, Commerce.
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Title Annotation:gender bias in children's literature
Author:Foote, Martha M.
Publication:Childhood Education
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 1999
Previous Article:Developmentally Responsive Multicultural Education for Young Adolescents.
Next Article:Observing 4th-Grade Students As They Develop Algebraic Reasoning Through Discourse.

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