From the Directors’ Desk

From the Directors’ Desk

Cultivating Boys’ and Girls’ Capabilities

Michael Reichert, Ph.D., Executive Director

October 17, 2016

The School Participatory Action Research Collaborative (SPARC), formerly known as The Center for the Study of Boys’ and Girls’ Lives (CSBGL) partners with independent schools to support their educational missions. Based at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, our graduate students and faculty train teams of students and teachers from member schools in research methods, motivated by a belief in the power of evidence to improve school life. Over the course of a dozen years and more than 120 projects, the Center has helped schools to address a host of issues, from unconscious racism and gender inequality to enhancing leadership opportunities and curtailing bullying. In our youth participatory action research model (YPAR), the knowledge and experience of students guides rigorous inquiry into pressing school questions and helps to generate ideas for improvement.

It is useful, however, to think of the Center as also having a broader mission that takes our work beyond the important role of training and education. On a fundamental level the Center is committed to the human development of the young people participating on our school teams. Questions like ‘What kind of lives can students imagine?’ and ‘What can students be and do?’ underlie our Center’s very existence and reflect a deeply felt commitment to the quality of young people’s lives. What is called the Human Development Approach recognizes that youth realize their potential in the context of opportunities and supports they find in their homes, communities and schools. The approach considers the conditions boys and girls find in these social contexts — both those that enable human flourishing and those that lead to what might be seen as “capability failures. ”

In this sense, the term “capabilities” refers not just to internal abilities but also to external or environmental conditions that foster or hinder their development. In particular, the notion of capabilities highlights the agency of young people in their own development and how they find resources to pursue their own conceptions of their lives. As Martha Nussbaum of the University of Chicago and a founder of the Human Development Approach has written, “Capability is thus a kind of freedom: the substantive freedom to achieve.” The capabilities approach assumes that it is boys and girls themselves who are in the best positions to set their developmental trajectories and to make choices about their directions.

Across our member schools, in a given year there are nearly 200 middle and upper school students formulating research questions, choosing data collection and analysis strategies, and devising interventions based upon the findings of their inquiries. Certainly many tell us that they learn social science research skills and develop a more reflective stance on their own lives and on their communities; educational outcomes we are proud of. But as we have asked them about the impact of their work with us, students tell us about a more profound set of effects. They speak of taking public stands on issues and concerns that matter to them within their school communities. As they exercise a host of different skills and put their own beliefs into and perspectives into practice, students see, understand, position, and present themselves in new ways. They gain a new sense of their own voice and their power to exercise it.

Schools, of course, appreciate the insights based on careful student inquiry that can help to hone their policies and curricula, especially on difficult topics like race, class and gender relations. But many students have indicated that it is in the experience of being trained to conduct rigorous investigations of questions that matter to them, finding answers and developing recommendations, that they grow in especially meaningful ways. Hannah Arendt, the educator and philosopher, believed that it is exactly in the process of analyzing ideas, wrestling with them, and engaging in active efforts to improve a situation – what she called “praxis” – that humanness is strengthened. As a student explained on a panel at our annual CSBGL Roundtable,

I think that’s (being in a position to formulate solutions to school problems) a very powerful feeling to have, that you can make a difference at a school, that you can, that you have this power through this type of research to bring to light some of the things that are kind of hidden in a school community.

What this student’s comments speak to is the transformative impact of bringing concerns that are of personal and community importance to light and claiming a measure of public attention for them. Students on our YPAR teams have pointed to an expanded awareness, a broader understanding, a strengthened voice and discoveries about the collective power to improve community life as some of the ways they are transformed. Another student on the panel spoke along similar lines:

I’ve learned a lot and I think the most rewarding part is to see that we, these five students, can truly make a difference at our school. We learned about so many different ways that we can implement things that might actually make a huge difference to our community. That’s been very rewarding.

And it is exactly this transformation we think of when we weigh the success of our project in helping young people convert capabilities to lived abilities. More than the acquisition of research skills or learning from reading and discussion, students grow through their active participation in an inquiry process that invites them to apply themselves, develop points of view based on evidence, and to imagine how to effect positive changes at the individual, group, and institutional levels.

Even in the most supportive and student-centered schools, the degree to which student agency is encouraged in the YPAR process stands out. In formulating questions that reflect their interests, designing and conducting an investigation, and advocating for a point of view, students become part of the solution to problems that affect them. Rather than the more common situation in which adults are deemed to know best, participating in YPAR validates students’ own thinking, personal aspirations, and social impact. Pedagogy in courses and classrooms too often reflects an assumption that what boys and girls need to learn flows in one direction: from teacher to student. This historic model can constrain student participation, relegating it at best to a largely consultative position in school decision-making. But the students who join our research teams are quite clear: it is from the experience of taking meaningful action based in data that they collect and analyze that their capabilities are most effectively realized.

When given the freedom to pursue topics that matter to them, we have found schools’ “hidden curricula” –- the unintended, tacit and often unconscious way historic bias is embedded in community life — become quite visible to students, particularly when it comes to ideas about being male and female. Not surprisingly, the conservative function of schools – to pass along the beliefs, attitudes and ideas of previous generations – often elicits students’ critique and sometimes more outright challenge. Invited to command resources, especially of time and training, teams of boys and girls over the years have held many taken-for-granted aspects of the gender curricula up for careful scrutiny. In their consideration of questions about bullying and peer maltreatment, social media, risk-taking, boy-girl relations, brotherhood, and many other topics, students transcend their passive positions, becoming cultural critics and advocates for more developmentally sound ways of being. Their agency enables them to “name the plot” in the unspoken, inter-generational gender story of their schools and to provide critical insights upon which schools can build healthier practices.

Recent research validates the concern that without this sort of systematic, internally driven challenge, schools’ gender curricula reproduce existing assumptions and prejudices. The psychologist Deborah Tolman and several colleagues recently reported from two studies of dating relationships among 10th grade boys and girls that there is a “dual task” described by the girls they surveyed: to manage both their own as well as boys’ gender ideas. Their sense of what it means to be themselves, in other words, is filtered as much through their understanding of boys’ ideas about girls as by their own ideas, aspirations and experience. The dominance of the “male in the head” contrasted with the relative independence of boys to reference only their own norms and standards.

We have learned that lessons about gender are just as impactful in boys’ development as in girls’ and are just as embedded in school curricula. At a time when school achievement outcomes for boys are flat or declining worldwide, two studies I and a partner conducted for the International Boys’ Schools Coalition show that prejudices and archetypes about boys – like that of the “feral boy” (Kindlon and Thompson, 2000) – fundamentally influence the learning relationships teachers establish with their male students and certainly contribute to a gender achievement gap prompting panic and a variety of often mistaken interventions.

Such research confirms how boys and girls are affected by the unconscious but powerful gender curricula in schools. These examples also indicate the win-win of YPAR: schools need the guidance and insights of their current students if they are to adjust their curricula to the current times and to be responsive to student needs, desires, resources, and values. And boys and girls need their schools’ backing to translate their visions for their lives and the lives of their communities into practical realities. As we invite and support their full participation in our evolving world, we enhance students’ heads, their hands and their hearts.