Social Education 59(3), 1995, pp. 144-147
National Council for the Social Studies

Students as Social Science Researchers: Gender Issuesin the Classroom

Joan Brodsky Schur
One of the challenges of teaching a social science is finding ways to help students design, implement, and analyze their own social science research projects. In developing a seventh-grade anthropology curriculum, I felt the year would not be complete without students themselves being the anthropologists-observing, collecting, and interpreting their "fieldwork." What we needed was some pattern of human behavior for them to study within the school setting that would be easy to observe and "quantifiable," and of interest to them.
I discussed possibilities with our school psychologist, Melissa Gordon, who suggested that we could successfully observe several gender-related issues in the classroom: who spoke up more, and who interrupted more, girls or boys? With this idea as the basis, the class and I proceeded to design our experiment. Variations of it could be easily adapted to different age levels and other social science courses, such as psychology or sociology.

As our faculty, along with schools across the country, is in the midst of self-searching discussions about gender issues, the student-led study was genuinely useful to the community. For approximately a week, each class in our Lower School (ages five to eleven) was visited by a pair of seventh graders who observed a twenty-minute discussion. During the discussion, they recorded the number of girls and boys who spoke up when called upon, and the number of girls and boys who interrupted another speaker. The students knew from the start that they would write up their results in a formal paper, and present it at a staff meeting. This gave the project meaning and made it exciting for them to conduct.

Formulating a Hypothesis
Because learning the methodology of social science research was the main purpose of the project, students were required to formulate hypotheses before they began to observe classrooms. What behavior patterns did they expect to find and why? All students were asked to write answers to the following questions:

1.Who will speak up more, girls or boys?
Why do you think so?
2.Who will interrupt more, girls or boys?
Why do you think so?
3.Do you think the pattern will change as children get older?
Why or why not?
Students brought their responses to class, and we discussed them, comparing the cultural patterns they expected to find in our society with those of other cultures we had studied. Eventually, we "voted" on several hypotheses. If a majority of the class agreed with a hypothesis, it became one of those we included in our study. Among the hypotheses agreed upon were the following: "Boys would interrupt more because boys like to show off their knowledge more than girls," and "Girls would speak up more often if the proportion of girls in the class was higher." Several other conclusions were reached, but none were about how age might affect patterns of behavior.

Attempting to Design a Study Free of Bias
Although the study we conducted never pretended to be truly scientific, it was important for students to take into consideration what factors might produce biased results. Once we designed our chart for classroom observations (see Figure 1), I posed two key questions to students that they discussed at length: Would seventh-grade girls be likely to notice and record the same observations as seventh-grade boys? Would the students and teachers whose classes we watched behave the same as usual if they knew what we had come to observe?

Students readily admitted that girls and boys might notice and record different behaviors. Their solution to the problem was to set up nine boy-girl observation pairs out of a class of eighteen. Each pair was sent to observe one class. If a pair returned with different numbers of speakers/interrupters marked in on their charts, the numbers would be averaged for the final study.

Initially, the seventh grade was very eager to perform the experiment during one of their own class discussions. But they could see that their responses might change if they knew they were being recorded, and that this might happen to other classes, too. Although we needed permission to observe classes, we would divulge our entire plan only to an administrator, who would have to approve of it.

Students now arranged their visits, asking teachers if they could watch one 20-minute discussion. They explained only that they had come to function as anthropologists and to observe "patterns of behavior" among their students.

Recording Anecdotal Fieldnotes
Because the study was done as part of an anthropology class, I also asked students to write down "anecdotal fieldnotes" either during or right after their observations. These included comments about the informal time before the teacher called the class to order. Students were to focus on gender behavior, with special attention paid to non-verbal forms of behavior, such as how boys and girls congregated. An example from one student's anecdotal notes is as follows:

A girl got up without permission; teacher didn't say anything. While the teacher talked boys talked amongst themselves. Girls and boys sit separately, girls at one table, boys at another.

Introducing the Idea of Variables
The excitement was intense during the week that students went on their observations. Each pair returned to class with unexpected findings, comments about the difficulty of accurate recordings-and a real sense of the importance of their mission. These spontaneous responses led to some invaluable discussions of crucial variables affecting their research. Students wrote about several of these as follows:

Sometimes there was just one constant speaker or interrupter. If there was one very outspoken girl, then our charts (Figures 2 and 3) might make it look like the girls in that class were more talkative than the boys, whereas the results were due to perhaps only one outspoken child.
The topic of discussion might also make a difference in the reliability of our data. If the topic of the discussion was sports, the boys would probably be the main talkers. If the topic of the discussion was computers, and a certain girl's parents were computer experts, the girl might dominate discussion . . .
Another factor was the attendance record for that day. If there were normally 8 boys and 8 girls in the class, but only 7 boys and 4 girls were there on the day we observed, it would most likely turn out that the majority of the speakers were boys. Recognizing this, we have listed the attendance on our final graphs.

Reaching Conclusions: Writing up the Story
Before we could begin to analyze our data, pairs of students needed to fill in a Fieldwork Summary sheet, as well as write up their Anecdotal Fieldwork Notes. Using their completed Observation Charts (Figure 1), they listed on the Summary sheet the class visited, the number of girls and boys in attendance, and their ages. Then they recorded the total number of girls and boys who spoke up, both when they were called on and if and when they were interrupting, averaging their tallies when necessary.

Whole-class discussions now ensued in which we shared data and tried to reach conclusions based on both forms of information-numerical and anecdotal. Then the entire class was broken up into committees of only two or three people (making every child an active participant). Each committee was assigned to write up a portion of our final study. Rough drafts were read to the entire class, and final drafts were entered into the class computer, from which the study was printed up.

Committee 1: Anthropological Fieldwork: Our Purposes
This committee gave an overview of how social scientists formulate hypotheses, gather information, and reach conclusions. In our case, students wrote a statement on anthropological fieldwork, and a statement about the goal and purpose of our research.

Committee 2: Our Hypotheses about the Outcome of Our Research
Using notes from class discussions, this committee summarized the hypotheses that the class in general had agreed upon.

Committee 3: How We Designed and Conducted our Research
This committee explained how we gathered information, and why our "methodology" was designed the way it was.

Committee 4: Variables Affecting Fieldwork
Based on discussions and class notes, students listed and then summarized the many variables they felt could have affected the research.

Committee 5: Presentation of the Numerical Data
Each pair gave to this committee their "Fieldwork Summary Sheets." From them, students were asked to graph the data in such a way that they could be read and analyzed visually. Eventually they were able to graph the data using a computer (see Figures 2 and 3).

Committee 6: Presentation of the Anecdotal Fieldnotes
All anecdotal fieldnotes were given to members of this committee who read them and culled from them those comments they felt significant enough to use in our study. They decided how to present them, and what to say about them.

Committee 7: Conclusions
The last committee was to use the graphs prepared by Committee 5 and fieldnotes prepared by Committee 6 to reach conclusions. Specifically, they were asked to compare our original hypotheses against the results of our research. For example, they wrote: "Some, but not all, of our hypotheses proved true. We predicted that boys would raise their hands more than girls and this proved not to be the case. But we were correct in guessing that boys would interrupt more often than girls." Among other conclusions they reached were the following: "When it came to volunteering to help teachers, the girls' hands went up, while the boys refused. Interestingly enough, girls were more outspoken when there were more of them than boys, as we predicted."

Recommendations for Expanding the Project
Depending on the interests and abilities of your class, and the resources at your school's disposal, this project could be expanded in numerous ways.

1.More advanced classes could be assigned to read articles based on recent gender-related studies. Information from them could be used when these students were formulating their own hypotheses, or when comparing outcomes.
2.Working with a math teacher, students could aim to prepare many more advanced tables and graphs, charting various ratios and graphing other related trends.
3.Students could be asked to take one of the variables they found and revise their methodology to account for it, thereby improving the accuracy of their research.
4.More questions than we attempted to answer in our study could be asked, based on the same data. Who interrupted teachers more, girls or boys? Were interrupters more likely to cut in on female or male speakers? Did the sex of the teacher affect who spoke up more? and so forth.
5.The study could be expanded to include observations of other aspects of gender-related issues. In The Communications Gender Gap, Myra Sadker, David Sadker, and Joyce Kaser present many of the ideas mentioned in this article as well as others, in which adults make classroom observations. If instead of adults you have your students do the research, one word of caution: Teachers might resent it if their behavior (e.g., do they call on boys more than girls?) was being studied without their consent.
6. A psychologist, or social scientist, could be invited to speak to your class on how he or she has conducted research, or on gender issues.

Although from this project students received only a taste of what social science research involves, it was certainly one to whet the appetite. As teams of researchers went out into the "field," there was real excitement and suspense in the air. Furthermore, students gained a good grounding in several key social science research concepts, especially because they designed the project themselves.

Finally, a note on the issue of gender. While most classes I have taught at the Village Community School have very outspoken girls (and often a more vocal group of girls than boys), the class that did this study had girls who clearly felt intellectually overpowered by boys. The effect on the girls of actually conducting this study was immeasurable. They spoke up passionately throughout our discussions-some for the first time. The research itself was clearly an act of empowerment.

Sadker, Myra, David Sadker and Joyce Kaser. The Communications Gender Gap. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education and the Mid-Atlantic Center for Sex Equity, American University, 1985.

Joan Brodsky Schur teaches social studies and English to 7th and 8th graders at Village Community School, New York. The author wishes to thank Melissa Gordon, psychologist at the Village Community School, and Mark Eida, a student who formatted the original graphs, for their assistance.