Thursday 6 August 2020

Fusion Teaching III - Women vs Men - Who's Smarter?

Traditionally, education has been about teaching different subjects where the dividing line between each curricular area is almost sacrosact. Recently, attempts have been made to take an interdisciplinary approach to teaching and learning. At Al Qamar, we have been using this approach thereby providing children with a holistic view of learning. One example is the use of What is Going On with This Graph, a weekly feature from the New York Times Learning Network, a collection of resources to help educators.  

For the past week the discussions in the English class were focussed on what constitutes educational attainment in different countries as represented in these two graphs. The first graph is a segmented bar chart representing the percentage of children with more (upwardly mobile), equal (status quo) or less (downwardly mobile) educational levels as compared to their parents.  The second graph was a data chart with the percentage of people who attained more education after High School classified by gender.  We had already discussed the first graph in a previous class. Today we discussed the second graph which measured the educational attainment beyond high school in the same countries categorised by gender.

Today we discussed the second graph which measured the educational attainment beyond high school in the same countries categorised by gender.

Izzy began “Women are more”. Sana typed “Women are bigger.” I pushed them to use precise language to describe what they were trying to convey. “Does that mean women are more in number? Women are heavier, taller or larger?” Izzy responded with what almost felt like a definition, - “The percentage of women who got a higher education is larger the percentage of men.” Now we were off to a good start. 

Ibrahim noticed that the educational attainment for women was higher in all countries, however the gap was narrow in countries like Austria and Britain. “Also Germany” noticed Sana. Afwan also commented that about 57% of the Germans don’t go beyond High School.

“What is the reason for women studying more? Could it be that there are more women in the population?” wondered Izzy. That led into a discussion on gender ratios in most countries, but I added that the difference wasn’t sufficient to explain the difference in educational attainment. I asked them to find countries where the gap was the largest between men and women. “Poland”, “Finland”, “Estonia”, “Canada!!!”. The last one surprised the students. 

At this point Izzy noticed that in South Korea a larger percentage of both genders went on for higher education. She correlated the attainment across genders with the previous graph where a greater percentage of people were higher educated than their parents. “They’re smarter” she felt. I asked them “Are more degrees a reflection of smarter brains?” “No. They’re collecting degrees” Sana posited, perhaps a little cynically.

I pushed them “What questions does this graph throw up for you?” “College is expensive.” said one child. “No,” disagreed Ibrahim, “they don’t want to keep learning. They just want to go on.” I wonder if he meant that men do not see payoff in higher education.  

Afwan wondered why Italy was high on the first graph which compared parents’ and children’s education levels but low on the second ie. fewer people were educated beyond high school. I thought that was a wonderful observation - one which synthesized data on both graphs. I asked them to think of an explanation. “Maybe the two years are different. The first graph has data from 2012 but the second has from 2014” guessed Sana. While applauding her observation skills, I did counter that the difference in data collection years wouldn’t lead to such a difference in results. Ibrahim guessed “Maybe education has improved. Take Al Qamar for instance. What I learned, my younger brother learned even earlier.” I'm not sure how that explained the anomaly thrown up by Italy but before we could discuss that, Afwan interjected, “Maybe Italy had a low educational attainment level, so it wasn’t difficult for the next generation to overtake the parents, while not going on beyond high school.” It was a brilliant idea - but one that needs to be validated through more background research.

We ran out of time again and the children were tired after a long day in online classes. We took a vote and decided to continue the discussion in the next class. 

Reflecting on this exercise - there is a wealth of opportunities for discussion in What’s Going On with This Graph. The sessions lead to children honing their observational skills. They have to correlate different dimensions and data to deconstruct what possible messages are being conveyed.  By teaching them to uncover underlying assumptions and question the data, we are training them to think critically and not simply swallow any message that is being communicated. Furthermore, the class makes graphs accessible as a means of communication - eventually this cohort should not fall prey to misleading claims made using statistics.  Additionally, the discussions cover a gamut of learning across subject lines - 

 Spoken language (English), explanation of statistics (Maths), discussion about cultural norms and aspirations (sociology), countries (geography), economic development (economics). More importantly, all these were integrated into a single class time without the barriers that routinely divide subjects into narrow categories.  Should this really have been called an “English” class?

The graph originally appeared in the New York Times Bulletin Board on 6th July 2019, a special report on Learning. 

Aneesa Jamal

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