Can an Emerging Approach to K-12 Education Buck the Troubling Trend on Women in Leadership?
By Phyllis Lockett, Founder and CEO of LEAP Innovations, a national nonprofit that helps schools and teachers personalize learning
As a black girl attending school on Chicago's South Side, I learned early on that the more closely I met my teachers' expectations, the more successful I would be. I followed the rules and learned what I was taught. But when I told my high school guidance counselor that I wanted to go to college for engineering, she told me I would never make it. I went anyway, and four years later, graduated with my Bachelor of Science degree in industrial engineering. Still, I wonder every day how many other ambitious young women see their dreams deterred by an education system that's taught them to judge their worth by their educators' validation.
While all children invariably face failures in school, girls are uniquely socialized to see failures as evidence of inaptitude. Girls are more likely to compensate by strictly adhering to classroom rules. Still, elementary and middle school boys receive eight times more classroom attention than girls. Even more troubling is the fact that girls who perform well in school may actually be less equipped to lead, imbued with the very values that enable success in traditional classrooms: don't speak out of turn. Learn the facts as they're presented. Don't make a stir. It creates a vicious cycle that's reflected in the number of women in leadership positions at our nation's largest employers.
I've spent most of my career working to ensure that schools are a place of equal opportunity--a place that empowers young people. As we celebrate International Women's Day this month, I'm encouraged by the emerging innovation I'm finding in K-12 schools today.
Educators are increasingly adopting a notion called 'personalized learning,' which recognizes that when we give students agency, they learn to lead. Personalized learning places value on every single student, no matter how they come to the table, and responds to the notion that a diverse student body needs--and deserves--a learning environment that is tailored to their skills, interests and strengths. It enables learners to chart their own academic paths and connect their learning to their own unique backgrounds and experiences--strategies geared toward better preparing all students to adapt, lead, and succeed in an economy that seems to see leadership and assertiveness as inherently male traits.
Traditional American classrooms tell students where to sit, when to speak, and what subjects they will cover when. Teachers make every decision, which teaches students to follow, not to lead. Personalized learning models, however, employ concrete methods to allow teachers and students to collaboratively design a learning plan that gives each student ownership over his or her work.
Consider, for example, that young girls tend to exhibit higher levels of self-regulation than boys, which helps them adjust to the rules and structures of the classroom. Girls are, in effect, rewarded for compliance--praised for better behavior and adherence to expected norms. But research suggests that this may discourage girls from speaking out or sharing candid perspectives. Girls, in turn, become less assertive.
Personalized learning, in contrast, offers opportunities for autonomy to every child, which ensures that girls aren't being held back by the standard of the perfect student; in personalized classrooms, students are encouraged to speak out, make decisions, and take ownership. Children are asked to consider the way at which they learn best, the modality that best helps them absorb materials, and even what subjects they want to pursue. So everyone has the chance to speak and be heard.
During their early years, girls internalize the idea that boys are expected to be smarter. By age six, girls already see brilliance as a male trait. So, when they fail, they see it as confirmation that those messages were right. And, very quickly, we see girls start to become risk averse--many never learn how to absorb failure and emerge unscathed.
When I visit classrooms in my hometown of Chicago, though, I see young girls taking control over their learning. At schools like my alma mater, Wendell Smith Elementary School, girls care about what they're learning, care why they are being asked to learn it, and are unafraid to demand change when they see it as necessary. They are excited to try new things, to explore new subjects, and they know that when they inevitably face challenges, they will never be expected to shy away.
When we condition girls to be compliant and complacent, we cannot expect them to leave school ready to compete for top leadership positions. Personalized learning gives girls the chance to try, to fail, and to shine without seeing roadblocks as absolute barriers.
This International Women's Day, I'm celebrating the next generation of women leaders, who will never be told that they can't be an engineer, because they now have the skills and agency to disagree and to soar.