Monday, August 02, 2010

A Sense of Self-Susannah Sheffer

Susannah Sheffer worked for a number of years with Holt Associates. Holt Associates is the organization that John Holt founded in 1977. John Holt is the education critic and writer who probably is best known for his books How Children Learn and How Children Fail. He also founded a magazine called “Growing Without Schooling” (GWS). Quite a number of years after his death Susannah Sheffer joined the folks who ran the magazine and eventually became the editor. She got to keep close touch with his philosophy and ways of looking at children learning and with people who were practicing growing without schooling all over the country and other countries all over the world. At some point along the way, she wrote a book about homeschooled adolescent girls in particular. That book is called A Sense Of Self.

In A Sense Of Self, you reveal that homeschooled teenage girls are more confident, and assertive than their peers in school. Let’s talk about that.

I was interested in looking at the experience of girls in particular at a time when the experience of girls in school was getting a great deal of attention. In the early and mid nineties there were a lot of studies and reports coming out looking at the experience of schooling for girls and specifically asserting that girls were suffering in school in some very specific and particular ways.

There was a study called “How schools short change girls” which was produced by the American Association of University Women and such studies. That was being looked at. Everything from specific school discrimination issues like studies that showed that teachers called on boys when students raised their hands- that teachers called on boys much more frequently than they called on girls that teachers were often not consciously aware of their behavior. They might say when being interviewed that they had no discrimination based on gender whatsoever but when they’d let’s say, be videotaped and when they’d watch the video of their own classroom behavior teachers would realize to their shock that in fact they were favoring the boys! That’s just one example of the kind of research that was being done.

Also, there was some important research that was looking not specifically at girls in school but simply at adolescent girls psychological growth and development and their inner experience. And there was a lot of discussion about girls “losing their voice.”- the phrase that came out of the Harvard project on the development of girls- the sense that adolescent girls really were losing trust in themselves, doubting their own voices, doubting the validity of their own goals, and perceptions and experience.

Adolescence is a hard time for many young people. Again there was some attention to the particular way it was hard on girls, the messages that the culture send to girls, the ways in which school sometimes reinforces those messages, and that the way that let’s say, and this very general but I think it will resonate with many people, that if a boy is struggling in school or struggling as an adolescent, its often very visible.
Classically and more typically a boy might be”acting out”- that a boy for whom school was not working might be the disruptive one. The one that was making trouble in class, interrupting the teacher. The girl in school on the other hand might look fine on the outside; she’s the one sitting quietly in the corner not making any outward trouble!
So that’s the type of discrepancies in the way this plays out-what with all those studies and reports and getting a lot of popular attention. getting picked up by the popular press, these were university studies- and what I noticed , as I was following these things closely, was the assumptions that girls go to school was a given. One of the studies even said in passing that all girls go to school.

The point was therefore we need to look at the way schools treat girls- extremely valid point. But meanwhile I knew of course through my work and my interactions in knew and dealt with and in some cases worked closely with girls who didn’t go to school; in some cases girls who had never gone to school a day in their lives. Who had grown completely outside of that very typical experience.

And I was working with girls only through the magazine “growing without schooling” as well as discussion groups for teenagers and through mentoring young writers and so forth. So I had a lot of contact with teenagers of both gender, but I was also aware of the girls that i knew well and they didn’t fit the descriptions that i was reading so much about.

I would read about girls who were losing their voices, getting less confident, distrusting themselves, feeling alienated from their own goals, and that just kept not fitting the girls that i knew well. They were having a very different experience. So I thought that it would be interesting and worth while as a contribution to this whole discussion to study girls who were learning outside of school and ask them many of the same interview questions actually that girls in these other studies had been asked and see how that all came out.

And that’s what a sense of self was ultimately about. It was the result of 55 interviews with homeschooled girls age 11 to 16 across the united states and they were in depth interviews- this was not a statistical study - this was qualitative interviews research where its all about the answers that the girls gave give in talking and reflecting in conversation. I did indeed find that the girls experience was in many ways quite different from their peers in school.

Can you underline some of those difference again?

Yes-first of all the summary was that they were not experiencing the same kind of decline over time that was demonstrated in some of the other studies and what I’m going to say about the other studies is something that I think does resonant with a lot of adult women. That people talk about age 10 or so, as being the high point of their girl hood- it’s when a girl often feels very confident and on top of the world and then as the girl begins to absorb the cultural messages of what’s expected of females in this culture that things begin to get much harder and she as Carol Gilger and her colleagues, “goes underground.”

She doesn’t feel comfortable saying what she really thinks, focuses on what others want (this is all very much shorthanded) And the girls I was talking to were reporting the opposite. A 15 year old girl might report that she felt more sure of herself, more trusting of her own experience than she had 3 years before, for example. You saw a different kind of progression.

Another really classic distinction was the other studies had found that girls became increasingly uncomfortable with disagreement among friends. For example,you think of the classic sense we have of social life of girls in school-like it’s very,very important to conform, to fit it, to go along with what the norms are, what the leader of your clique demands and so the one of the interview questions is about how do you speak up when you disagree with a friend and that sort of thing- and that was a place where the homeschool girls were almost unanimous one of 2 exceptions in the 55 girls I interviewed.

They expressed comfort with disagreement; they sort of expected to disagree with friends a about one thing or the other and didn’t assume that that precluded friendship. After all these are girls that are doing something so different with so much of their lives and so often having to explain themselves so that if they needed to agree about everything with a friend they would have a very limited pool- so they become much more comfortable with that sort of thing- with being different and yet having relationships with people. They don’t think you have to be the same in order to have a close relationship.

There is something important to understand. Ultimately, although these interview questions on both sides look at something pretty internal, and subjective and kind of subjective in a way, ultimately it’s very much connected to the outer experience

Psychologists ask how can we help them-to identify with their own goals, To feel more connected? And my point, was well conventional schooling is not really based on that. Schooling is not about helping to identify their own goals and helping them with that. Schools tell you this is what you need to learn this is how you are going to go about it. We will test to see if you’ve learned it - that sort of thing.
In a setting where you are learning outside of school, you are being asked to reflect on your own goals. You are learning to ask the question what do I want out of life? Not just education. What do I care about, what seems important to pursue? Those are the questions that a typical teenager of any gender are being invited to ask. So it those students eventually then feel more comfortable and identify with their goals, it’s not actually surprising.


Anonymous said...

What Susannah has written is not surprising to me at all. As an educator, first in schools and then with home educated kids, I have witnessed the same thing. Girls who are educated outside of institutions seem generally more comfortable around other girls their age and adults as well-more sure of themselves and that others will find what they have to contribute of use and worthy.

Anonymous said...

Sadly, most people can't unschool. Too bad this is a life style choice for the well to do.

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