Girls, Boys, and Classroom
I study the eager faces
of the students as their teacher gives instructions
for activity centres. The boys whose names are called
out to use the computers throw their hands up in
victory; the other boys slump in their seats. Within
minutes, the chosen boys are charging hastily toward
the computers. One boys uncontained enthusiasm
causes him to leap effortlessly over a desk en route
to his computer. Another student, a girl, walks
quietly to her computer, unsure of what she is
supposed to do.
By Corina M. Koch
In 1994, a team of researchers,
teachers and computer and game designers from the
faculty of education at Queens University, led
by Rena Upitis, and the computer science department
at the University of British Columbia, led by Maria
Klawe, collaborated to design electronic games with
math and science content.
My job, as a
field researcher, was to observe how children used
computers in the classroom context. I was interested
in the kinds of games children liked to play, as well
as how they were using computers. The goal of our
project was to use the information that we acquired
about software preferences and styles of computer use
to develop an engaging piece of educational software.
When I arrived
at the school in January 1995, I set my chair near
the computers so that I could chat with students to
find out what their interests were and observe what
they were doing on the computers. It wasnt long
before I noticed I was spending most of my time
talking to boys. To find out what girls thought about
computers, I had to visit them at their desks.
At that moment,
I realized boys were the primary users of classroom
computers and my research focus took a different
at the Computers
A number of
studies indicate that girls and boys use computers
differently in the classroom context when the
complexities of classroom life are taken into
account. As a general rule, computers are a favoured
free-time choice for boys, and they tend to use
computers more often and with greater enthusiasm than
Boys are game
players, and when they arrive at the computers they
use them for entertainment. Clustered around
computers, whether they have completed their work or
not or have been given permission to use them, boys
share tips and secrets about the games they play.
Some tips come
at a high price. For a mediocre one, boys traded tips
for tips, but for coveted tips, one boy reported that
"chips for tips" potato chips, that
is were an effective bargaining tool.
Boys will do
almost anything to engage in computer game play with
their peers. In one Grade 5 classroom, where students
were not allowed to leave their desks to gawk over
the shoulders of students using computers, I watched
in astonishment as a boy moved his desk, his chair
and his person toward the computers. He did this ever
so subtly, by small increments, over the span of half
an hour. Before long, he was up against the computer
table desk, chair and all without ever
defying his teachers request that he stay at
computer gaming and talk about computer games is a
culture that boys live at the computers, at
their desks, on the playground and often at home as
Our research in
Ontario classrooms shows that girls generally do not
like using computers until their classroom work is
done. Nor are they comfortable with the possibility
of missing "work" while at the computers.
When it was her
turn at the computer, a Grade 5 girl told me,
"Im nervous." When I asked her why,
she said she was anxious about missing a math lesson.
One boy, who
had overheard our conversation hed been
hovering around the computers checked the
computer schedule and assured the girl that the
lesson would be taught after her computer time had
elapsed. She immediately relaxed. For girls,
finishing in-class assignments is a priority over
Girls are tool
users. They need to have a reason to use a computer.
They use them for word processing, for drawing, for
embellishing their classroom work and for creating
art. They rarely play computer games but if
they do, the game must be engaging, complex, and
designed with girls in mind.
educational games designed specifically for girls are
rare. So, for now, girls see computers as a means to
an end. When they leave the computer, they leave
their computing experiences at the computer. They
move to a different context one of classroom
obligations, conversations and friendships. In their
opinion, computers dont belong there.
missing out on technology? As teachers, we need to
make sure they dont because computers
are a valued tool of our culture.
We need to
value the ways in which girls use computers. They
need to know that its okay to use computers
differently than boys do. Girls need to be encouraged
to use computers in ways that make sense to them.
teachers need to understand the importance of their
role in creating a space for girls at classroom
computers. Because boys tend to dominate computer
use, using computers during free-time on a first
come, first served basis is not fair.
always get there first," a Grade 7 girl
remarked. And if left unchecked, boys will probably
always out-run and out-manoeuvre girls where
computers are concerned.
to give girls opportunities to use computers.
Teachers can create spaces at the computers by
employing simple strategies such as assigning
girls-only computer times or girls-only computers,
where half the classroom computers are
"owned" by girls at all times
whether they are used or not. If teachers commit to
creating a space for girls, boys enthusiasm for
computers and games will not eliminate the practical
need for girls to use computers as tools.
Corina M. Koch is a researcher
at Queens University and a member of the
electronic games for education in math and sciences
team. She thanks the classroom teachers, principals
and students of the Frontenac County schools who
willingly took part in her research. She can be
reached at firstname.lastname@example.org