Broken: Educating Girls in Technology

Statistics show secondary schools in developed countries are failing to interest girls in technology. I recently attended a forum on this topic and I was able to hear from those making breakthroughs towards fixing the problem.

The reality is secondary schools are having difficulties teaching technology in general, and even include woodwork, metalwork, fabrics, sewing and food technology under the heading of technology, masking how little of what most of us now consider as technology is actually being taught.  These difficulties teaching technology in secondary school are impacting girls far more than boys, but we will not correctly address the problem for girls, without a solution to the problem in general.

The graph below highlights how the problems affect girls. The clear message from the forum is that for technology in secondary school, a new approach with teachers facilitating in place of teaching is what is having an impact.  At this forum, results from this real solution were on display.

In this post:

The above twitter post shows a graph from this report by digital careers.

The first clear trend is that, in summary, primary year girls actually show higher participation in technology than boys, but during secondary school, the participation from girls drops from being higher than with boys, to 1/4 of the level of participation by boys.

WomenInCompThe second clear trend highlighted in the report comes from an earlier report: When women stopped coding.  From the graph it can be seen that participation of women tracked increased participation by women in comparable career studies until around 1985, participation by women reversed previous growth. Theory on why women started abandoning programming in the mid 1980s are in the reports, but whatever the reason, the outcome is profound.

The third trend I would like to add, comes from my own observations and as such does have a smaller sample although still significant sample.  This observation is that computing education for all students, both boys and girls, suffers a serious decline as students move from primary school to secondary school.  I would suggest this is highly significant.  Data from participation in shorter challenges, such as ‘Bebras’ as quoted in the digital careers report, shows a gradual decline in participation from girls from year 7 which continues through later years.   Data from challenges that require greater commitment such as the YICTE challenge, actually run by Digital Careers, demonstrates a sudden and severe drop in participation moving from years 5-6 to years 7-8.   In all states of Australia, despite varied education systems from state to state, the same pattern is repeated.  Unfortunately I do not have a graph at this point.

So in summary, the third trend is that significant commitment to computing technology projects drops significantly for all students on moving from primary to secondary school.  I suggest that while both boys and girls lose participation at this time,  the girls tend not to return to computing.

The Gap Years.

Relatively speaking, we are actually not failing to introduce technology to primary students. Both boys and girls are successfully commencing their journey learning technology in primary schools. The real problem starts in secondary school where the journey started in primary school is brought to halt.  We instead need to keep the journey progressing.

For those next steps with more significant computing projects at the start of secondary school, there is a lack of teacher involvement due to the structure of the school curriculum. Currently, primary school teachers are generalists, and teach their students a range of subjects. Secondary school is far more specialised, with each lesson pre-allocated to a specific subject giving teachers far less flexibility to introduce computing and technology.  One presenter at the forum did note that all year 7 & 8 students do study technology at present, but did not explain that for most of those students, this ‘technology’ can  be in form of sewing, metalwork or woodwork, and is not actually perceived by the students as technology.  For many students, the introduction to computing in classroom they may have experienced in primary school, does not resume until computing as an elective is offered in year 9 or 10. This creates a gap, and girls tend to be lost forever during that gap.

Impact of the Trends.

Looking at these three trends.  To encourage girls to stay in computing, we have to either eliminate the gap years for girls where there is no provision for continuing involvement in computing,  or work harder at getting girls to return in later years when electives allow re-engagement.  I suggest the  preferred approach is to try to remove the gap years.

Trend Summary.

Girls thrive in technology in primary school, but paths to continue with technology in early secondary school are rare and or difficult, and almost all students cease progress.  It tends to be almost only boys who reconnect with technology to continue study.

The Barrier to Teaching Technology in Secondary School.

Insufficient Resources to Teach Secondary School Students.

In primary school, there is usually a single teacher with prime responsibility to teach almost all subjects to their class.  This gives more flexibility as to how to introduce computing to the students, and a simple decision process as to who should teach and how the children should be taught.

Further, resources and people with the skills to introduce computing to primary school students are readily available.

In secondary school, teachers are specialised. Generally teachers teach only their speciality.  As students progress from primary and become more advanced in computing, resources and the skills to teach these students become scarcer and scarcer.  Where there is no dedicated specialist information technology teacher available,  which teacher should take on that duty?

Generally, teachers who feel they have the computing skills to teach computing are in short supply. This results in the situation that only the dedicated computing streams, which are not offered to early secondary students, have access to teachers with computing skills.

The stronger the employment market for a given skill, the greater the logic for teaching the skill in school.  However, with high demand for that skill, it is a challenge to persuade those with the skill to ignore the many other lucrative employment options and teach. While many university courses (history for example) promote ‘high school teacher’ as one of the logical career paths, teaching is not generally promoted as a career path for software engineers.

Computing technology is a fast moving field.

Technology changes over a relatively short period of time. If a history teacher studies history at university, then ten years later, and even 30 years later, their studied history is still history. But try teaching technology from 30 years ago or even 10 years ago. A teacher who studied software engineering or robotics, has to keep studying. Does the teaching profession make special allowances for this, or is this a reason why, if you wish to teach, then teaching computing is simply not a logical choice.  Teachers being the source of the skills is a challenge.

From the Forum: What Solution is working.

The forum featured a panel of successful educators in the field of computing technology.  Notably, every one of the these educators at the forum focused on the role of facilitator as opposed to conventional teacher.  The educator helps the students seek the information, rather than the educator simply imparting their own knowledge to the students.

This is a significant change from the traditional view of teaching, where the teacher is the expert.  There are so many online resources for technology, and resources external to the school, that what is needed are teachers who facilitate students accessing these resources.

I have experience of a computing teacher finding that an 11 year old girl was already too advanced for them teach. With 6 more years scheduled at the same school, this would means 6 years for that student without a teacher in technology, one of their favourite subjects.   The solution the teacher attempted was to find a more advanced teacher, and that search failed.  But how did this 11yr old reach their advanced level?  Answer: through resources external to the school.  The alternative solution to educate this student would be to facilitate more access to more advanced external resources!

External Shared Resources.

There are competitions sponsored by the technology industry and online and in person workshops provided by universities.  The more schools access these resources and provide the demand, the more these programs can flourish.

Conclusion.

Finding and placing within schools a sufficient number of skilled IT teachers for even the more interested students, is simply not going to happen in any realistic time frame.  A new approach of teachers who can facilitate learning using online and shared resources is the most realistic approach, but this requires a change of mindset from the education system.

  • Support and embrace use of external and online resources.
  • Support teaching staff  who facilitate students learning technology, without requiring these teachers to be IT or technology experts.  The key skill is knowing where the external resources can be found.

 

 

 

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