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Teaching children about the social construction of gender roles

| Updated on September 01, 2021

Helping hand: A teacher’s role involves helping students make sense of the world they have been born into   -  SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The school is pivotal for identity evolution in young minds and given the space to explore it can shape inclusiveness among students

* The world is moving towards understanding gender as a spectrum, rather than binaries

* An exercise I encourage in my classroom is to ask students to list the items they receive as birthday gifts

* In the middle and senior years, self-perception and the journey towards accepting one’s gender and sexuality become important

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On 26 August, Women’s Equality Day was celebrated. It is a day to celebrate the right given to women to vote in the US, which happened as far back as 1920. Only recently have the celebrations become global.

But the very fact that we have to mark such a day brings home the truth of the battle it is for women to match strides with men — be it in the right to vote, or be it to have one’s voice heard even in drawing room discussions on issues such as finance and politics.

There is still a very long way to go in changing perceptions and mindsets. Can schools play a role? At Shiv Nadar School, we are attempting to do so, through some small experiments using language, self-reflection and analysis to influence behaviours.

Starting young

The school is pivotal for identity evolution in young minds. There is growing evidence to support that it is never too early to start bringing in aspects of gender into the school, to help young students understand, analyse, and evaluate these roles, seeing what works for them as they grow into adulthood.

The world is moving towards understanding gender as a spectrum, rather than binaries. Schools can be an excellent space to bring this development to the forefront. Language as a medium to move away from the dichotomy can be effectively used. A shift from his/her to they/theirs, while a small step in itself, can help students look beyond the lens of feminine versus masculine social constructs.

One such step which we have implemented at our school is replacing titles such as Head Boy and Head Girl with Student Council Heads. In primary years, students begin understanding their assigned gender roles, and modelling influenced behaviours. Educators can help students explore these roles, and develop a nuanced understanding of them. What makes a trait masculine or feminine? Should these traits be relegated to one gender only, or are they wider human qualities? An open classroom will encourage students to discuss examples from their perspectives.

These can move towards reflection, analysis, and an outcome of broadening thinking. An exercise I encourage in my classroom is to ask students to list the items they receive as birthday gifts. And the class works out any differences and similarities they notice in the gifts given to girls, and in those given to boys. Another can be to analyse toys or advertisements targeting students. Is there a difference between those targeting young girls to those targeting young boys? We endeavour to move from ‘What is’ to ‘What can be’. The aim is to help students understand these binaries, and inspire them to think towards the spectrum.

Changing the vocabulary

In the middle and senior years, self-perception and the journey towards accepting one’s gender and sexuality become important. The Std VII social science NCERT textbook analyses growing up as boys and girls, which is a great space to continue the conversation on gender. When teaching Std VII and VIII, I have encountered many insightful conversations led by students based on how they are perceiving the world. These are pivotal to help the teacher be a better facilitator. If the regular classroom time is not enough to facilitate these conversations, at our school we bring them into the home room, well-being, or even create informal conversation spaces to ensure students have the space and the voice to co-construct and understand gender for themselves and their generation.

Vocabulary and language continue to play an important part in this exploration. In one of my conversations with Std XI, students asked if the textbook moved beyond gender binaries. It’s heartening to see that students today are already questioning arbitrary gender roles and nomenclature. I encourage them to read the text as analytical pieces of writing, and become aware writers themselves with an expanded and nuanced vocabulary. When given the space to explore, students will truly lead the way towards an inclusive society.

Adaptations to language and vocabulary are only a part, and may not be possible in gendered languages such as Hindi. However, teachers can still use literature and social sciences to help students navigate and develop an empowered understanding. If left unattended, we run the risk of nurturing generations that may be blind towards these issues, and carry internalised biases which may adversely affect them and others.

As teachers our role is to help students make sense of the world they have been born into, learn to critically evaluate it, and support them as they create a better world for themselves, and to welcome their children. Through small steps we can influence actions and words, and help them build a society with equity and liberty.

Shahnaaz Khan is faculty, Political Science and head of department, Humanities at Shiv Nadar School, Noida

Published on September 01, 2021

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