#16Days – What we teach matters: improving educational content and curricula

December 1, 2015

This blog post will highlight 1) the importance of a curriculum that is gender-sensitive or gender-aware, 2) gendered assumptions about curricula that are harmful to women, and 3) an example of a curriculum challenging oppressive social norms.

Recently, Michelle Obama launched a campaign called #62milliongirls, highlighting the millions of girls denied an education around the world. Soon, the #62milliongirls hashtag was popping all over the Internet, including the social media sites of high-profile celebrities. It is important to highlight the large quantity of girls missing out on the opportunity of a quality education. Just as important is what we are teaching girls (and boys) once we are able to get and keep them in the classroom.

Lessons taught in school have significant impact on students, both female and male. These lessons are shaped through curricula, often standardized across regions and always reflecting the value systems of that society. As gender inequality remains a stubborn social reality, present in cultures around the globe, it should be no surprise that oppressive gender norms have found a home in educational content. A 2004 study of education in Asian schools showed that both language used in educational texts and representations of women in those texts reinforce gender inequality. Changes to these curricula (such as changing the universal “he” to “he or she”, or a greater emphasis on female historical figures) could greatly alter how both boys and girls grow up to understand women in society.

While curricula can reinscribe systematic gender inequality, as seen above, it also has the power to challenge and dismantle this inequality by offering students an alternative. Making curricula more gender-sensitive and gender-aware is a step to making gender-equal education a global reality.

Modifications to improve curricula is essential in increasing quality education for girls. However we must also fight for girls’ equal access to those curricula. Gender norms about what is appropriate for girls to learn (for example: the belief that girls are not proficient in math) shuts girls out of a variety of important subjects and frequently channels them into lower-status disciplines. Thus, even when girls have equal access to schools, they don’t always have equal access to the curriculum.We see this educational dynamic play out later in the job market, with women occupying a disproportionate minority of prestigious STEM jobs. Only 30% of the world’s researchers are women. Only 1 in 7 US engineers is female. If you’re wondering why this is important: women who do hold STEM jobs earn up to 33% more than their non-STEM counterparts. Equal access to all aspects of educational content is key in producing lifelong outcomes that put women in equal standing with men.

There are promising examples of curricula that are working to reshape the way we educate girls and boys.

15437515503_886ae4c548_o (1)The Global Women’s Institute at the George Washington University is working to improve educational content and curricula by developing its own resource called I Am Malala: A Resource Guide for Educators. Inspired by the memoir of Malala Yousafzai, I Am Malala, the Resource Guide is comprised of eight interdisciplinary themes present in Malala’s story (i.e. religion and religious extremism, cultural politics, violence against women and girls, etc.).

The Resource Guide can be taught as one cohesive course that uses Malala’s story as a lens to explore a variety of themes, or (more often) educators may select a single theme to integrate into courses they already teach. Woven throughout all themes is a challenge to culturally-ingrained norms that oppress women, and a centering of women’s right to education. The Resource Guide magnifies Malala’s important message of human rights and freedom from violence and connects it to students’ lives all over the world. Rather than perpetuate and reinforce social norms that oppress women, this kind of innovative curriculum encourages boys and girls to question cultural mores which have taught them that women are entitled to less. You can learn more about I Am Malala: A Resource Guide for Educators here.

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When it comes to educating girls, both quantity and quality are of paramount importance. Every girl has a fundamental right to go to school. Once they’re there, girls also have a right to content that values their humanity, challenges norms that oppress them, and fights for their rights. If we can work together to reformulate curricula and change the way we educate our children, we are helping turn the key that unlocks the full potential of girls around the world. It’s an assignment we should all take very seriously.

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