“My girl programming students have been great. Better than the boys!” Why you should never say this.
“My girl programming students have been great. Better than the boys!”
“I don’t understand why there are so few girls taking computer science classes. I had this one girl in my class once. She was a rockstar!”
“I’ve worked with a lot of women, and they often outperform the men!”
Most of us don’t get the opportunity to work with equal numbers of girls and boys in the CS or engineering classroom. Isn’t it a mystery why we don’t get more? They’re so talented! I don’t think you mean harm when you make these statements about girls in computing, but I want you to think about why you have this perception and why it may be doing more damage than good.
I have the privilege of teaching two flavors of CS class. I teach a sixth-grade class, which is required for every student. It lasts a quarter and so the kids learn some basics in Scratch, a couple of other computer topics, and I send them on to their next quarter enrichment class.
I teach a seventh- and eighth-grade CS class which is an elective, and we go more in-depth on a variety of CS topics, including programming. In the spring of 6th grade, students fill out a course selection form and if they choose CS, I see them as an older middle schooler. Predictably, but sadly, it is very common to have a small number of girls, and often a few of them will drop the class at the beginning of the semester.
My sixth-grade classes are very heterogeneous. Lots of diversity in personality, background knowledge, problem-solving disposition, social maturity, size and shape and race and ethnicity and of course half my students are girls. Some of the girls learn quickly and progress quite far in the class. Some struggle a lot with the very basics and don’t get as far. Ditto with the boys. For every one of my kids, I go in with the assumption that they want to learn and do well, and some need more support than others. Some will go on to make amazing creations in Scratch and other computer tools. Some will be thrilled if they can make a little story in which characters have a dialog with each other. Both boys and girls have this very wide range of abilities.
Yet in seventh- and eighth-grade, I very rarely see a girl who is a struggling learner sign up for my CS classes. And yet boys who are struggling learners sign up all the time. High achieving students of both genders enjoy computer classes, but on the other end of the spectrum? Very common to see boys who are “non-traditional” learners who have mediocre grades, but extremely rare to see a girl who fits that profile.
And often it’s with the struggling learners that you really make a connection. The kids may not pick up as fast or go as far with the computational thinking and the programming, but they work hard and improve steadily. So exciting to see a student who early in the semester struggles with syntax, with variables, with the very idea of what a computer program does, and by the end of the semester they can put together a pretty simple program effortlessly. So the programs, and the planning and the modeling and the thinking, are simple for now. So what? Look at where they came from. They’ve learned, and they can enter high school with some confidence and background knowledge. With continued work, they’ll have a solid skill set that will be a huge benefit to them later.
So consider the possibility that when the only girls in your class are rockstars, there’s a whole demographic of girls that misses out on the experience of learning this new skill – they’re afraid to, because they won’t be great at it, and the instant they feel bad at it, they’ll drop your class. When you compliment your female students as being so much better than the boys, be careful. The struggling boys in your class are taking a big risk by trying something they know they might find difficult. You have a whole lot of girls out there in your school that aren’t taking the risk, and if they join your class and struggle, they need to know this is OK as long as they work hard and learn.
When I went to college and studied computer engineering, I went in with limited computer experience. I pulled decent grades but I don’t think I would have been classified as a rockstar. My code was inelegant and didn’t make sense sometimes. I used the wrong data structures, and I worked around things I didn’t understand, and my code was hard to read and took a long time to run and had bad user interfaces. I was new at it. I kept working, and kept learning, and I came to be decent at programming. I was able to get a job as an engineer, and I made good money and liked what I did. I didn’t have to be a rockstar at first to develop a skill set that would help me get good career opportunities. Your girls shouldn’t feel like they need to be outstanding or better than the boys. They just need to be better than they were last week.
This is a really well-known and well-documented phenomenon with girls. Jane Margolis and colleagues at Carnegie-Mellon University probably has documented it best. Take care of the confidence of your female students. Purposefully recruit girls who don’t stand out academically. Encourage a growth mindset and consider growth in your grading policies. Give open-ended projects that have multiple ways to show proficiency – ways to extend a task for your high achievers and ways to be successful at a basic level if that’s where students are. Offer choices. Give partner work often. Elevate the status of your hard working kids who are learning at a steady rate.
I haven’t figured out the puzzle yet as my enrollment for girls is still very low, but I’m putting in place a lot of practices this year to change it. Among those practices: I am going to convince the non-rockstar girls to give it a try, and it’s going to be perfectly OK to not be a rockstar as long as you learn.