There’s a nasty thing that happens sometimes in group projects that contain a mix of boys and girls, where boys–who are trained from a young age to speak up–tend to put their hands into the mix early on, while the girls who have been trained to keep their voices small and polite and to always make space for others before claiming room for themselves tend to fall to the outer margins of a project. Women in technology or gaming have a term for this; it’s called “taking the keyboard away,” and it’s pervasive. It’s shockingly common for us to physically pry the tools needed to perform some project directly out of the hands of girls and women. It will happen at the flimsiest of provocations: a single question about how to proceed is usually sufficient for someone to take the tool away from a woman or girl and do it for them.
This is not a good way to teach people. It’s insulting, it’s demeaning, it shows a lack of confidence in their capabilities, and worst of all it denies them the opportunity to improve and learn. It’s commonly done to women & girls, but it’s common whenever dealing with people whose skills in a particular area you don’t respect, especially when the “teacher” doesn’t have the patience to actually teach. Taking the keyboard away is the kind of behavior that can take an otherwise amazing school project and thoroughly ruin it. The teacher may think they’ve planned an awesome, hands-on activity that gives children room to fail and builds resiliency while leaving them room to tinker and be creative, but if only half of your students actually end up getting to put their hands on the project you’re not really accomplishing your goals.
The truth is that no individual teacher is going to be able to undo the years of gender norms that cause girls to put up with having a drill ripped out of her hands. What you can do, however, is to keep it out of your classroom. No teacher can be everywhere, but there’s a few things that you can do that make a big difference:
Tell, Don’t Show
Do not touch your student’s projects — ever. Put the tools in their hands and talk them through how to use them. If you absolutely must show, then have a demo project set aside to show them on, so that you never actually touch their work. We all want our students to be successful, but you are not there to do the project for them.
Make Expectations Clear
From the very beginning of a group project, make it clear to the class that everyone is expected to participate. If there are a number of different tools, state clearly (and frequently) that you want everyone in a group to use each tool at least once.
Avoid Letting them Specialize
Don’t let students specialize into their own roles too early; it’s all too common for a girl to get pushed into the role of “secretary” and be stuck taking notes while everyone else is drilling, sawing, soldering, or generally doing the “fun” part.
Work Together, Grade Separately
The smartest kid in your class probably hates groupwork. The typical way of grading these projects is to give one grade for the entire thing, which forces those kids who won’t settle for anything less than an A to do more of their share of the work, while other students skate by on their hard work. It’s a bad situation for everyone; the hard workers end up stressed and resentful, and other kids end up not learning anything. Making kids do the in-class portion together while still being responsible for some sort of independent work does wonders towards keeping them all engaged & involved. If that’s too much work, then start out with a shared grade but have each student receive a separate participation score.
Isolate the Overbearing Boys
You know that one boy in your class that can’t quite seem to shake the tendency of pushing the girls to the periphery? Group him with a trio of girls.
Guard the Toys
If you’re doing a project that involves tool use, set up a station near the coolest ones to supervise. Every time a kid comes to you to use them, go ahead and ask them “Have you used the (drill/saw/soldering iron/etc.) yet?” If their answer is yes, ask if anyone else in their group hasn’t had a chance to use it yet, go ahead and pull them forward to get them involved. This is probably the single best way to make sure that everyone ends up actually having their hands on a project.
Hands-on projects are a great way to keep students engaged and in love with the material. Just remember that it falls on the teacher to make sure that everyone is getting the full benefit of the assignment.