Should gender neutral language be used in schools?
“Okay then boys and girls, today we are going to do some paired work. I just need everyone to move the school desks to one side of the classroom.”
So what exactly is wrong with this statement? Is ‘paired work’ no longer acceptable as a teaching methodology? Is it no longer appropriate to ask children for help to move school classroom chairs and school desks out of the way to make way for more proactive teaching?
According to one leading mental health expert, it is not the actual instructions that are the problem, but the language used to communicate them to the children in the classroom.
Headteachers at a recent conference were given advice that suggests the use of gendered terminology such as ‘girls and boys’ is something that classroom teachers should avoid using, as it can impact negatively on pupils’ expectations and cause longer-term mental health issues for young people.
Natasha Devon, who has previously acted as a Government advisor on mental health issues, warned the conference of using gendered language in a classroom context. She suggested that ‘girls’ are expected to be perfect which can lead to a sense of ‘anxiety’ in children and young people, while the use of the term ‘boys’ carries connotations of machismo and ‘being told to man up’, which discourages them to open up and talk about their feelings.
She also warned that teachers may also unwittingly be contributing to prejudices and reinforcing gender stereotypes by referring to pupils in gendered terms. Teachers who create or perpetuate narratives where ‘boys don’t cry’ and ‘girls don’t get angry’ can have a negative impact on their pupils' mental health and on their general well-being.
Ms Devon also pointed out that this kind of language may also contribute to discrimination faced by transgender pupils in the class, and its use should be avoided so as not to cause any awkwardness or offence for these individuals.
So is this just another example of political correctness gone mad? Or should teachers be more wary of the language that they use in the classroom? Can a teacher who inadvertently distinguishes between the ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ really have such a profound effect on the well being of the young people in the room?
Or maybe there is a wider message about stereotyping here. Our society is full of assumptions and preconceptions about gender and aren't we all just a little bit guilty of perpetuating gender mythology, without really realising?