The Inclusive Classroom


Teaching Peace Values to Prevent Gender Violence

by Priyadarshini Rajagopalan

There is a lot of talk in education about creating an ‘inclusive educational environment’ in schools. This term immediately suggests the process of integrating children with special educational needs into a regular classroom.[i] However, that would be a very narrow view of the term inclusive as it presupposes that the existing population of the classroom is ‘included’.

Inclusion in its entirety is not just about sharing space, but about respecting differences, accepting individuality and disallowing stereotypes. If that is true, then it is about creating an environment where there is no discrimination, intentional or otherwise, of race, socio economic status, ability or gender, to name a few. While some inequalities are apparent and therefore consciously addressed, many practices go unnoticed either because they are steeped in the culture of our society or because people are unaware of its role in perpetuating stereotypes. Skewed gender perspectives, unfortunately, go unnoticed for both reasons.

So where does it all begin? In many parts of the world, it begins with the color of the room and motifs on the nursery wall, while in others it begins with the name and preferential treatment for one gender, or the presence of stereotypical role models. The list is endless, but the result is similar; children learn early on in life that regardless of how many women police officers they see, the word ‘police’ is almost always associated with a male first.

To quote a 6 year old:

I know what a tomcat is; it’s a girl cat that thinks it’s a boy.”

I think this sets the stage for reflection. At six, this child had generalised the idea of a ‘tomboy’ and applied that belief to a tomcat. One can only assume that she had been called a ‘tomboy’ one too many times, thus the generalisation. This stereotyping of what girls are like and not like begins early[ii]. While not everyone is consciously teaching this divide, the message gets across.

Let us look at this language. If we are to try and break down ‘tomboy’ into specific characteristics, the list may read as follows:

  • Physically active – enjoys high-energy physical activity, including sports
  • Outspoken – shares ideas loudly, vocal about views
  • Practical clothing style – prefers comfortable clothing that allows for movement

Is there anything particularly related to ’boy’ here? We can say this about many people regardless of gender. While the behaviour is not necessarily gender specific, the cultural connotation is. Society has its ‘norms’ for girl behaviour and boy behaviour; therefore, displaying one not associated with your gender warrants a label.

So, what seems like an innocuous remark, in realty, hides century-old biases and goes on to contaminate many areas of gender equality. From this stem many other gender assumptions on what are considered male vs. female occupations to idiomatic language usage such as ‘girly’, ‘macho’ and  ‘effeminate’ among others.

Sometimes, the environment subtly suggests a ‘gender’ appropriateness where there should be none. For example, a friend reported how a student of hers saw a young man waiting for an interview with the Principal of the school and asked him what he was here for. The man replied that he had come to apply for the position of a teacher. The boy, all of 8 years, told him “don’t bother, she will not hire you as a teacher, you can be the gardener or watchman or bus driver but not a teacher.” Obviously, his remark came from his observations of the school environment.

Add to these the numerous intentional ways gender roles are typified and we have the makings of a generation growing up believing that the ‘male ‘and ‘female’ domains are markedly different. That men are meant to be a certain way. This belief leads to many practices, from tolerating violence to resigning oneself to many discriminations. For example, if we did find the two genders sharing equal space and responsibility at work, they are more than likely to be perceived and treated differently. This may lead to a possible pay gap between the genders.

The reason such phenomena exist is because somehow, somewhere, generations of women are willing to believe that men should be paid more to do the same job they do, because ‘they do it better’, ‘they have a family to support on their earnings’, ‘they are better leaders’ and a multitude of other such justifications. This continues to happen in hospitals, schools and in most spaces where men and women can hold comparable positions.[iii]. And yes! There are still professions that will not allow women to even apply to certain high-ranking positions.

Since a child’s first exposure to society is through home and school, if adults in these environments can become conscious of the messages that imply a gender imbalance and work towards changing them, then the child has something to compare with and question outside influences.

There are some direct and indirect ways to do this. While the skill of using non-judgmental language can be actively taught, that of acceptance and respect are better modelled. However, for both, it is important that adults be equally cognizant of their own views and ensure that they only influence children in a positive manner.

Becoming conscious and cautious with language usage is one way, as many gender biases can be perpetuated just by unintentional utterings. Adults can go a step further and challenge and discuss any preconceived idea a child may have been exposed to. This will ensure that children clarify their own thoughts and have the vocabulary and arguments to challenge these notions elsewhere.

Another way to move forward would be to make informed choices for content children are exposed to, and review/modify it if needed. To take an example from lessons at school, often the top 5  ‘inventions and inventors’‘ mentioned in text books are male, particularly if it is a scientific or mathematical invention. Having resources for students to have access to many examples, including different genders, would certainly open their mind to the possibility.

Teachers can also consciously encourage all students across all subject areas and activities. The classic line – ’girls are bad at math’ or ‘girls don’t like math’ is easy to spot and change. However, we often don’t realise how something as simple as inviting girls to decorate something or boys to help lift a table is strengthening the gender myth. It is these small impressions that can later form stereotypes. At home, not many parents spontaneously call boys to help them cut vegetables or set the table. Parents have different rules for how late their child can stay out at a friend’s place based on their gender. There are many such examples that adults need to become conscious of. That is not to say we must be contrived and begin calling only boys to cut vegetables and only girls to mow the lawn, but that we must, until it comes naturally to us, consciously offer the choice to either gender.

Another important example to set for children is for adults to stand up against biases and discrimination. As it is often said, gender violence is not just about the perpetrator, but also the silent spectators and victims who choose to tolerate the violence and don’t speak up about it. A simple step to intervene, offer/seek help and find solutions to a situation goes a long way in helping children feel empowered to do the same.

Acceptance is best demonstrated when adults treat other adults in the environment, regardless of skill, ability, gender, occupation etc., with respect. In schools, this may be as simple as making the effort to thank whoever performs a service for you, be it the person tending the garden or a teacher. The same applies to adult-child interactions as well.

There are several ways adults can help children experience a balanced gender approach in schools[iv]. To highlight a few:

  • survey and clear the environment of subtle biases
  • become conscious of one’s own views and behaviours[v]
  • consciously change and challenge discriminatory behavior
  • use non-judgmental, unbiased language[vi]
  • encourage dialogue, debate and discussions on issues of equality
  • internalize the message offered by role models

Therefore, while it would be great to have everyone treat all genders as one, it must begin with individual effort. If each committed adult consciously stops perpetuating myths, then at some point this cycle should stop.

(Priyadarshini Rajagopalan is a Montessori educator and has been a part of Prajnya’s Education for Peace Initiative since its inception.)