Challenging your own practice

Glyn Hawke is the acting deputy head and early years teacher at Rye Oak Primary School, who has done extensive work in combatting gender stereotypes in his setting, and shares his work with other educators in the UK and beyond. Rye Oak was one of our first Supporter Schools.

 At Rye Oak, our journey began by examining our role as practitioners in either challenging or reinforcing gender stereotypes.  In the initial stage, we unpicked our training and the ‘assumptions’ that had become 'fact' in our daily practice. We shared stories we had heard over the years, particularly around boys and writing, which reinforced the assumption of innate biological differences between boys and girls.  These stories included hearing that:

  • Boys started writing later because the bones in their hands developed later.

  • Boys didn't want to write because their chest muscles developed before their fine motor skills due to our instinct to hunt.

  • And boys weren't very good at talking about feelings because their emotional centres in their brains are further away from their language centres.

Significantly, these beliefs had filtered into our daily interactions, most obviously in discussions around boys needing a special curriculum to meet their need. We hadn't  stopped to reflect and examine how taking on board such assumptions impacted on how we interacted with children based on their gender and how, through these interactions, we may be creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.  We also noticed that we hadn’t spent much time asking about the girls.  What were their needs?  What assumptions had we made about their learning styles? Were they excluded from a curriculum that was more physical, based in mathematical explorations and constructions activities? Did we 'read' girls differently when they were 'overly' physical?  Did phrases such as 'it’s just boys being boys' allow a behaviour in boys to be read as 'natural' and the same behaviour in girls to be read as problematic? And to top it all off, were any of these claims around the biological differences in boys and girls actually based in science?

 We had noticed that by not assuming these gendered differences were hard-wired, we were able to meet the needs of our children better. Boys were exceeding in reading and writing and girls were exceeding in maths. We had boys and girls that struggled with their fine motor skills and with the early stages of decoding and reading. So, based on our own experiences, these simplistic notions of boys versus girls in the EYFS didn't add up. And yet the temptation to categorise and generalise was still very strong.  This raised the issue of the important role of adult interactions with children.

 As a team we started to unpick what it meant to be a 'male role model'. With two male team members, we started to question what it was that they were supposed to be modelling and what stereotypes, if we weren't all conscious of our behaviours, we might be reinforcing as a team. To further our explorations we received funding from Erasmus+ to spend the October half-term of 2018 in Sweden looking at gender neutral and LGBTQ+ inclusive practices. The week was really interesting on many fronts and we discovered that by simply asking the questions that we were, we were further along our journey in terms of challenging gender stereotypes than we thought. We met with some amazing teachers in Sweden who placed gender equality within an equalities framework generally and found out that in Sweden, the National Curriculum includes a statement that specifically requires schools to challenge gender stereotypes. Although some schools were further along on their journey with clear policies and action plans, it was clear that this was a national expectation. 

 Whilst in Sweden, some of the visits generated challenging professional discussions. Beginning to explore our own complicity in gender stereotyping challenges one's own sense of self and one's own practice. This is a really uncomfortable reflexivity but, in our view, was and is critical to ensure that any changes we make aren’t superficial but are embedded in scientific research and good pedagogy. We continue to read significant research on brain development, such as 'The Gendered Brain' by Gina Rippon and use these texts to inform our discussions and our practice.  

Following our visit, discussion and readings, we have begun to make the following changes: 

  • Ensuring that texts, images and books reflect a wide range of gendered possibilities

  • Seeing our role as practitioners are being gender flexible and embracing all aspects of what it means to be human

  • Including images of LGBTQ+ families across the settings and in books to open up discussions of different types of families 

  • Avoid giving value laden comments to children (This one is the hardest. If a child shows you a new dress, not to say 'Oh, you look pretty' but just to acknowledge what they are showing you - 'Oh, do you have a new dress? It's got spots. It's purple'. You'd be surprised that children aren't actually after the validation, they just want to be 'seen'). 

  •  Avoid using 'pet' names for children e.g. sweetie, buddy, poppet (again, really hard if it has become part of your daily interactions)

  • Thinking about how children want to be known. If we use pet names for some and not others, how does it make the 'others' feel?

  • Challenging each other when we fall back into old habits. We find it essential that we challenge each other and keep revisiting the language we use.  Some of our behaviours come from good intentions and are deeply ingrained. Changing them takes a conscious effort and we need to become reflective intentional practitioners. This takes work. And support. 

  •  Signing up to the Gender Action award

 So, we're really at the beginning of our journey and we've now started to have these conversations across the whole school. It's going to take time to embed the changes and we're going to make mistakes. But raising our own awareness of who we are, our unconscious biases and the 'myths' we've bought into is a significant part of the work that we are doing.  It also means that once we’ve examined our unconscious bias, it is no long unconscious.  We have to do something about it. 


AdviceGlyn Hawke