As part of the IES 20th Anniversary celebration, we are continuing to highlight projects that exemplify research conducted through an equity lens. For this blog, we asked Carol Martin (Arizona State University) to discuss her IES-funded project focused on exploring associations between gender integration in classrooms and student academic engagement and performance in elementary school grades.
What motivated your team to study the relation between gender integration in classrooms and academic outcomes?
Think about the last time you watched children playing with their peers. Did you notice how the children formed groups, with boys hanging out and talking to other boys, and girls doing the same with other girls? This is a common pattern: Children (and adults) tend to seek out others like themselves. Classic research from the 1970s demonstrated that this used to be common in classrooms, but in over 50 years, there has been almost no research confirming that this pattern might still be happening in contemporary U.S. classrooms.
Our IES-funded team set off to see if it was still occurring, and if so, whether this pattern might limit academic success. We hypothesized that if a student does not feel a sense of belonging or comfort with most students in their class, the school environment is unlikely to be conducive for learning and engagement. In contrast, when students feel comfortable and accepted by most of their peers in the classroom, learning and motivation at school should be enhanced.
What are your research findings?
In our research involving 3rd- to 5th-grade students in the Phoenix metro area in Arizona, we began with questions about how to best measure what we are calling gender integration (GI). We acknowledge that gender is fluid and not a binary of women/girls and men/boys; however, most children in elementary school have stereotypes about these two groups, so it made sense to us to focus on these groups.
In one study, to measure GI, we asked every student how often they interacted with every other student in class. When we looked at these scores by classroom, we found that gender segregation is strong even today. Out of the 26 classrooms included in the study, 24 showed higher levels of interactions among same-gender peers in working groups as compared to what was seen in mixed-gender groups. In addition, we found that feeling included by other-gender peers early in the school year contributed to later improved feelings about school, and this mattered more than did feeling included by same-gender peers.
We recently finished a study in which we examined whether GI is related to academic outcomes such as math and science self-concepts and STEM achievement. We found that GI measured in the fall semester was related to STEM achievement, measured in the spring semester, through improved STEM academic beliefs. We thought it might be the case that this pattern would be found for girls but not boys because of the stereotyped nature of STEM; however, both girls and boys showed this pattern.
Based on your preliminary research findings, what advice would you give to teachers or school leaders?
First off, it is clear that gender segregation is still very strong today. As such, it is important for teachers (and other adults) to be mindful of the need to encourage students to develop relationships with diverse classmates. Teachers can intentionally shape interactions within their classes in a variety of ways. One is by student seating arrangements, and another is in choices of how students are grouped to work together. Teachers can also ensure that students recognize the value of having diverse peer experiences by letting students know that interacting with others who differ from themselves is useful and beneficial. Also, there are relatively simple strategies such as “buddy up” in which teachers mindfully pair students for classwork, which has been shown to help students to mingle more widely with others and to learn from them.
How does your research contribute to a better understanding of the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion in education?
Every aspect of our work is related to the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion in education. We study the importance of having diverse classrooms (mixed-gender in our case) and breaking down barriers that separate people from each other but stress that this diversity matters only when it is perceived as inclusive and fosters a sense of belonging. For some students, additional supports might be needed to feel included, and we hope to identify which students may need these additional supports and what types of support they need to promote equity in classrooms around issues of social belongingness. When these pieces come together, students are supported, and the learning environment is greatly enhanced.
What are the next steps for your research team?
We are interested in expanding our work to consider other individual characteristics of students and how those relate to GI and academic success. For instance, once all our data are amassed, we intend to examine race and ethnic differences in GI. Furthermore, we are interested in assessing how gender beliefs and identity of students relate to their academic success. In future work, we are interested in exploring in-depth how interventions such as buddying strategies work in classrooms, and how to promote more diverse interactions and classroom experiences that promote optimal academic and social competence.
This blog was produced by Christina Chhin, NCER (firstname.lastname@example.org).