Girls want things to be fair.

Girls want good relationships.

Girls want clear communication.

A recent student forum held at Santa Maria College into how teenage girls want to learn revealed that there aren’t too many differences between what they want and what we all want. They want to be heard and valued.

The student forums were conducted by Deputy Principal: Teaching and Learning, Mrs Jen Oaten. She worked with girls from Years 7 – 12 through guided research to discover from them what they believe is most important in their learning process.

Single sex education has long been proven to be highly effective for girls. Australia wide girls’ schools are overwhelmingly, and repeatedly, featuring in the top performing schools. Of the 100 top performing secondary schools in 2015 NAPLAN, 39 were girls’ schools. Considering girls’ schools make up just 7% of the total schools in Australia, that is an astounding result.

So what is it that makes the difference? Listening and responding to what girls want from their education is a good start. Mrs Oaten says that girls are very democratic. Everything from the way the classroom is arranged to the amount of time and praise a teacher gives to each student needs to be seen as fair. It isn’t always obvious that this is how they feel because girls tend to be quieter in class than boys. Boys will be very interactive and let you know exactly what is happening for them. With girls you have to ask the right questions and really listen.


How else do girls vary in their learning?

All subjects are equally as accessible to girls and boys. The myth that girls are less naturally gifted in Maths and Science has been exploded in recent years. In last year’s West Australian Certificate Examinations, girls equalled, or out performed, boys in every single subject. So, if there is a difference, it is the manner in which girls prefer to learn.

  1. Girls like narrative. They like to see links between ideas, facts and events. If you can present a concept as loosely a story, girls will better engage with the content.
  2. Girls like to work collaboratively. They are able to share varying ideas in small groups. The approval and support they obtain in these groups gives them more confidence in their ideas. This group learning ties in with the idea that girls need to be heard and valued.
  3. Girls are task orientated. As a teacher moving from a boys’ school to a girls’ school, I quickly learned that I needed to provide much more work per period. Girls simply devour learning opportunities.
  4. Girls like clearly structured notes. This shows us how to get good results from girls, but it also provides us with a challenge. The world beyond school is not clear and structured. We need to challenge them with unstructured, undirected, messy learning too.
  5. Girls often underestimate their ability. Santa Maria College offers a Mathematics Specialist Program. Only a few girls consider themselves talented enough to participate, despite there being a large number of talented girls in the cohort. The challenge here is to provide lots of risk taking opportunities where girls learn to ‘have a go’.
  6. Girls are often visual learners. However, as Mrs Oaten points out, “All students are visual learners due to our screen culture. They are usually visual in addition to something else: aural. kinesthetic or verbal”.  She believes though that these preferences need to be challenged. Just because a child is predominantly visual doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be developing their other learning styles. If we keep feeding students information in the same way, we are not helping to create other neural pathways.
  7. Girls like to get the right answer and please their teacher. This causes problems when there isn’t always one right answer or way of doing things. Teachers and parents need to provide good role modelling of different ways of thinking about the same problem so that students can see there isn’t always just one way of approaching a problem.
  8. Girls are prone to fear of failure, especially at the top end. This inhibits their desire to try new things. Mrs Oaten says that Santa Maria College purposely offers a huge variety of opportunities for girls to shine in different ways, in order to enhance confidence and wellbeing. “We offer non-traditional options such as Marine Biology, Coding and Active Adventures”.
  9. Physical learning space is very important to girls. They like colour and light. They want to decorate their work and they like the spaces they inhabit to be suitable decorated.
  10. Ultimately, girls are relationship based. They need to be able to trust their teacher and feel ‘liked and safe’. This will enable them to access help and give them the confidence to thrive. They have a need for approval.

Not all girls conform to these expectations. They are obviously generalisations. Mrs Oaten believes that ultimately great teaching leads to effective learning in girls and boys. However, this study was an interesting insight into how teenage girls see their own learning. It is a reminder that we need to be constantly talking to our students and providing them with opportunities to provide input. We need to use what we know at school and home to help, challenge and ensure our girls thrive.

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