This week I attended the GSA Heads’ Conference in Oxford, appropriately titled Take on the World.
On so many levels it was a deeply satisfying conference. First to catch up with all of our BGS alumnae currently studying and thriving at Oxford University, second attending lectures and receptions in extraordinary beautiful buildings such as the Ashmolian Museum, Rhodes House and the Natural History Museum, and finally to be reminded why all girls’ schools are so important to the next generation of women, providing them with skills and attributes to take on the world and, in my mind, make a difference.
One fascinating lecture was by Simon Oakes – titled Why do girls not study Physics? He suggested that gender stereotyping began at an early age and whilst education did much to moderate it, inherent bias prevailed. The teaching pedagogy in mixed schools favours the learning preferences of boys. Boys sprint through mathematical sums, they see it as a competitive game and race through the exercises, seeing who finishes it first. Girls, on the other hand, want to move through the exercises more slowly. They want to know why, they want a deeper understanding of the concepts, they want to discuss it before moving on. When taught at a sprint their confidence dwindles, which results in girls not wanting to study it beyond GCSE, and to me, even worse, girls labelling themselves as being not good at Physics or Maths.
In single sex schools, girls are taught to their learning preferences. Girls are given time to spend on mathematical problems. Time to ask questions and time to consolidate their knowledge. In teaching this way, they develop their confidence and a secure understanding and therefore thrive in Maths and Physics lessons. They love the challenge and want to continue with them beyond GCSE. By the time they reach university they are secure in their knowledge.
In fact, Oakes argued their knowledge and understanding was in fact deeper than boys because they had taken their time to understand challenging concepts. This is evidenced by the number of alumnae who are thriving in the male dominated subjects at university. They are confident in their knowledge, they see themselves as equal and challenge the bias when they encounter it for the first time.
Girls’ schools have become one of the main providers of women in STEM subjects. At girls’ schools we can challenge preconceived ideas about occupations and careers. By teaching to the girls’ preferences we give them the confidence and self-belief to thrive in these much sought after careers.
The conference reminded me why girls do study physics at girls’ schools.