I recently wrote a post regarding why we only accept women into Hackbright's engineering fellowship. It received some criticism, and I'm completely open to that criticism, as that post largely was about philosophy. Philosophy differs, and there's nothing anyone can write on the subject that won't have some debate, some disagreements, and some controversy.
What I'm addressing in this post is pedagogy. The method or practice of teaching. I'm going to talk about women's performance in STEM education, and about the learning environment. What this post is NOT about is workplaces, or suitability, or what I can and can't do. It's also not about Hackbright's mission or philosophical goals. It's simply about the science and art of pedagogy, and what I've personally witnessed as a teacher of computer science.
Women learn differently than men. Human beings learn differently than each other. There are learning disabilities, aptitudes, magnet programs. There is a profound difference between what you, the reader, and what I experienced in school. Because of this, different programs must abound in their complexity and approach. A master teacher cannot reach every student, but a skilled teacher can vary their approach by the person for maximal effect and understanding.
Currently, there is a problem in STEM education for women. Right now, it favors men. Largely this is because of subtle biases in how STEM material is taught, and because of how many women experience that material. I'm speaking of women as a group, but I'm talking tendencies and trends, not about women as a whole. I am sure everyone reading this can think of a counterexample.
There are many, many problems with STEM education, I will enumerate some of the more relevant ones to this post:
1. Most classrooms are male-dominated, and men tend toward high degrees of competitive behavior display when in groups composed mostly of men. When women are present in this group, many women feel uncomfortable competing in a large group of men.
2. While most people lack confidence getting into something for the first time, they often warm up to the problem by seeing role-models, or by joining a peer group that supports them. Women often have no role models readily available (especially in terms of mentorship) and have no peer group, in terms of other women.
3. There are subtle biases from professors, directors, counselors and other faculty that often ostracizes women.
Many of these are problems women will encounter in the job market, and in the rest of their career should they choose to go into software engineering. My main conjecture is that the learning environment is necessarily different than the real environment. In the learning environment, you will fail, and fail often. You will not understand things. You will become upset with how hard you have to struggle to get through things, and you will do it without the firm ground that prior understanding gives you. During this, is it really necessary to add biases, insecurity and fear of ridicule? Computer science is a discipline with a fast feedback loop, allowing you to try and try again until it works. As a student, you are limited only by how fast you can understand new concepts. Removing these limitations is paramount, and the limitations are largely defined by having a peer group that can accelerate you past your struggles.
Studies show that women's classroom engagement goes up when women are in a single-sex classroom. They also show better test scores, lower dropout rates, better knowledge retention, better critical thinking skills application, more lateral thinking, better ability to engage in meta-cognition, and better ability to think overall. It also shows that students have better mental wellbeing during and after single-sex classroom education, have more self-confidence, and feel they know the material better. They hesitate less on the job, and they are better equipped to penetrate the obscure social cues associated with an industry.
Self-confidence, and these mental health gains are significant. From The Australian Journal of Education on The Effects of Class Type on Student Achievement, Confidence and Participation in Mathematics,
"Despite some limitations in the data, the results indicated nonsignificant gender differences and a putative causal relationship between confidence and achievement.
While the change in students' mathematics achievement over time, independent of confidence, was similar for all students, regardless of class type, there was a significant class-type intervention effect on students' confidence in learning and using mathematics, independent of achievement.
Moreover, for those students concerned, being placed in single-sex classes was associated with greater confidence which, in turn, significantly increased the likelihood of their subsequent participation in senior mainstream mathematics education. "
This doesn't even account for what I've seen. As a teacher, I use data to inform my technique, rather than trying to dictate how all education can be done in the general case. Informed by this research, and my previous experience with Girl Develop It I've noticed that women ask more questions, pair program with more engagement, show better retention of earlier concepts in later exercises, and most importantly enjoy the subject more. I'll get into this more in a later post, but when you love what you're learning, you understand it far deeper than things you don't. I think that last sentence is the least controversial thing I've ever said.