Research: Teaching Middle School Girls More Effectively

By Shannon Andrus, Peter Kuriloff, Charlotte Jacobs; Independent School, Spring 2015

Girls are highly relational, not only with their teachers but with classmates.

Through an analysis of more than 1,800 surveys completed by students in grades 6-12 and their teachers in 12 independent all-girls schools located across the United States, our findings provide guidelines for the kinds of teaching…that connect with girls….

Effective Lessons for Middle School Girls

For girls, the most significant characteristics of engaging lessons are that they be clear, well organized, relevant, and collaborative…. Girls respond well to having opportunities to participate in class discussions, engage in hands-on learning, complete (often in groups) multimodal projects, be creative, and participate in out-of-class experiences….

Middle school girls in particular thrive when ideas are presented to them through multimodal channels that engage a range of [materials and strategies]. The multimedia lessons our participants described both employed technology and asked girls to use it…. They said they loved discussions, working in teams, and doing collaborative projects. They also described the engaging and meaningful experiences provided by carefully designed out-of-class activities—exploring the ecology of local ponds, going to a museum to see the Colonial architecture they had been studying, or visiting politicians to lobby for better conservation measures…. The girls appreciated being encouraged [and given time] to dig deeply into a topic….

Our participants also stressed the importance of relevance to the students’ lives and to the world…. Girls respond to lessons that encourage them to study their own ideas, lives, and families but also to lessons that teach them about the current and historical lives of women and girls around the world….

The Importance of Teachers and Peers

While our research focused on compelling and inspiring lessons, the largest single proportion of responses from students spontaneously described the importance of a teacher.

The girls eloquently described the impact of their teachers’ organization, knowledge of subject matter, ability to convey information, and passion for the material. They also place great value on teachers’ support, both academic and personal. It mattered that teachers provided extra help, showed faith in students’ capacity, and appreciated their struggles and achievements inside and outside of class. Girls described how much they valued teachers who held them to high standards and helped them meet those standards, and also knew about an athletic triumph or the birth of a new sibling.

Our study reinforced the commonly understood notion that girls are highly relational, not only with their teachers but also with fellow students…. Over and over, their narratives…were interlaced with stories about connecting to other girls and how that fostered learning….

Everything that emerged from our students’ and teachers’ descriptions of effective and engaging lessons fits well with a progressive style of teaching and learning…. This includes opportunities to develop meaningful relationships with adults and peers, and also to become more responsible for their own learning through hands-on exploration and other constructivist approaches.

Gender in the Classroom

One could certainly argue that the findings described are as true for boys as for girls. We agree. That does not mean, however, that gender is not central to what we have learned. It is important for teachers to consider students’ gender identity, including how girls see themselves as gendered individuals and how those around them respond to them as gendered people.

The girls in our study described numerous ways in which gender was extremely relevant to what and how they were learning. They were passionate about studying the lives of girls and women, including their own lives…. Such lessons involved current events, religion, and history and highlighted particular ways girls and women are affected by them. They thrived in safe spaces where they could examine the widespread exploitation of girls around the world….

They also loved exploring how being a young woman affects their lives more generally. Girls and teachers wrote about tackling awkward or potentially threatening topics (such as sexual assault) within the safety of an all-girls class.

Finally, knowing that both boys and girls can be subjected to stereotyping in school, it is not surprising that many of our participants wrote about how meaningful it was when girls were given the opportunity to confront and shatter stereotypes about things they weren’t expected to do….

Both single-sex and coeducational schools need to recognize the importance of gender in learning.

Addressing gender in the classroom can mean different things, depending on the subject matter, type of lesson, and students one is teaching. In math and science courses, for instance, schools need to ensure that girls can see themselves as future mathematicians, scientists, and engineers. In a history class, this could mean exploring why so few women are represented in a textbook. In English, it could mean discussing how gender affects characters while encouraging students to consider how their own gender influences their reading of a text….


Our study demonstrates that teachers who are clear, who connect to girls, and who make it possible for students to see the relevance of their studies to their lives will engage them effectively. Middle school girls are most likely to engage in lessons that include discussions, use multimodal pedagogy, are collaborative, and allow for hands-on learning….

The lessons will be even more powerful within classrooms in which there are positive and deep relationships among students and with the teacher and in which the students’ gender is considered and addressed within the parameters of the lesson.

Shannon Andrus is an educational researcher based in Denver. Peter Kuriloff is a professor at UPenn’s Graduate School of Education and research director for the Center for the Study of Boys’ and Girls’ Lives ( Charlotte Jacobs is a Ph.D. candidate at the UPenn’s Graduate School of Education and CSBGL’s associate director for innovation. For copies of this study:

[Michael’s Note: For a similar large-scale study of the best lessons for boys, see Reaching Boys, Teaching Boys: Strategies That Work, by Michael Reichert and Richard Hawley.]

See also in ClassWise:

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