Effect of gender-neutral pedagogy on literacy

About a month ago, I read Michael Levin’s (1987) Feminism and Freedom. There are many things to enjoy about this book, one of which is his incredibly detailed discussion on feminist pedagogy. Levin describes how most of the major textbook and educational book publishers have shifted towards gender-neutral language within their books, short stories, etc. This likely has negative effects. The following paragraphs are from the book,

“The pronoun he receives much attention. “It may sometimes be best to use the generic he frequently,” McGraw-Hill notes, “but to add, in the preface and as often as necessary in the text, emphatic statements to the effect that the masculine pronouns are being used for succinctness and are intended to refer to both females and males.” McGraw-Hill does not indicate who might be unaware that “he” denotes both males and females, nor does it show concern about inducing in young people an aversion to something as pointedly associated with masculinity as the pronoun he. This quest for equality in language has the ironic effect of making these guidelines for writers promote bad prose. The wish to avoid “he” moves South-Western to recommend the passive voice over the active, so that the phrase “why he should feature the merchandise,” for example, is to be replaced by “why the merchandise should be featured.” Another favored circumvention of English pronominalization is the repetition of antecedents. A sample “bad” paragraph runs:
A farmer may have harvested 10,000 bushels of wheat. If the price of wheat is $3 a bushel, he may sell all his wheat; but if it is only $2 a bushel, he may sell only enough to supply himself with sufficient cash until he can dispose of the rest at a better price.
The approved paragraph runs:
A farmer may have harvested 10,000 bushels of wheat. If the price of wheat is $3 a bushel, the farmer may sell all the wheat; but if it is only $2 a bushel, the farmer may sell only enough to provide sufficient cash until the rest can be sold at a better price.
This is not only wretched writing, it is inaccurate. The phrase “to provide sufficient cash” does not say who gets the cash, as the phrase “to supply himself with sufficient cash” does. The usual aim of instruction in writing is to foster the exact use of words; the approved prose here promotes clumsiness and turgidity as standards to emulate. . . .
Appropriate experiments are not difficult to design. . . .
3. Reading. Administer age-appropriate reading comprehension tests, giving the experimental group a passage using the “he or she” construction and controls the same passage in standard English. Vary by using “he or she” in the testing instructions/ Administer the tests to children of different ages, including children reading above and below their grade level.
4. Administer reading tests normed at a level of difficulty just above that achieved by the subjects, to test the effect of “he or she” and allied constructions on students pushed to the limits of their reading competence…”

So, here we have an obvious issue within feminist/gender-neutral pedagogy and even a proposed experimental design from Levin as to how we can test it. (Side note: I also brought this up with a friend who is not very conservative and even he agrees the change in pedagogy is absurd.) This book was written in 1987 so I was intrigued to look for data on this topic. First, I’ll explain a study which was sent to me a while back claiming feminist pedagogy is very helpful. Then I’ll discuss the research currently proving Levin’s hypothesis to some extent. Finally, I’ll elaborate on a possible research opportunity.

Table of Contents:
1: Is Feminist Pedagogy Successful?
2: Evidence for Levin’s Hypothesis
3: Egalia as a Research Opportunity
4: Conclusions

Is Feminist Pedagogy Successful?

I was sent a study done in China (Wang, Chao, and Liao, 2010) which focused on implementing ‘poststructural feminist pedagogy’ in vocational-technical-education. In Chinese schools, the teachers take a very authoritarian position and students are supposed to remain silent. They state,

“A poststructural feminist classroom is intended to change the negative effects of power imbalances in the hierarchical class structure. Traditionally, teachers have been regarded as the sole authority in terms of their professional knowledge and expertise, and a hierarchical relationship arises between teachers and their students (Hooks 1994). However, in the poststructural feminist English classroom in which dialogical interactions are promoted and knowledge is viewed as socially constructed and culturally-bound (Lather 1992; Jackson 1997), by downplaying the authority of the teacher, students can openly share and communicate with the teacher and their classmates and be actively involved in the knowledge construction. . . .
Poststructural feminist pedagogy is intended to not only deconstruct the patriarchal (subject/object, active/passive) education structure defining teachers and students but also to deconstruct the unbalanced (center-margin) structural relationship between mainstream education students and marginalized students. There are some characteristics shared in poststructural feminist pedagogy, as defined by many writers (Bakhtin 1981; Bulter 1990; De Lauretis 1984; English 2005; Foucault 1982; hooks 1989; Maher and Tetreault 1994; Orner 1992; Tisdell 1998, 2000; Weiler 1991). Poststructural feminist pedagogy is also intended to empower students and give them voices, as in a traditional classroom setting students’ voices are often silenced or trivialized. Poststructural feminist pedagogy seeks to interrupt the reinforced patriarchal dominance in the classroom, giving power to all students, especially female and marginalized students. . . .”

From the get-go, there is a lot of room for confounding in the general principle behind this study. One can de-hiercheralize education and the power structure within it without necessarily breaking down traditional gender roles. That said, it is likely the two share some dependence.

The methodology of the study was a simple experimental design:

“During the experimental period, both the control group and the experimental group were taught by the same teacher. Although both groups received the same teaching materials, homework, and tests, only the experimental group’s instruction was based on the poststructural feminist pedagogy, in which the experimental poststructural feminist dynamic model was applied (See Fig. 1), and the control group received instruction following the traditional methods. The experiment lasted for eight weeks, three periods a week, from February 23rd to April 13th 2006. The teaching materials used in these two classes were mainly from Project Achievement Reading, published by Scholastic Inc. and from Longman English Interactive, developed by Pearson Longman ESL.”

So, the literature wasn’t actually different, and the pedagogy doesn’t entirely entail a breaking down of sex roles, rather simply encouraging a more libertarian view of knowledge. Of course, when the results showed that the education change was a success, we shouldn’t be surprised, nor should we accept that feminist pedagogy is doing any good (the study was also limited in generalizability, anyways). So, while this study was interesting, it provides no information on feminist, and particularly gender-neutral pedagogy.

Evidence for Levin’s Hypothesis:

Unfortunately, I was only able to find a couple of studies which may give evidence of Levin’s hypothesis, most of which is indirectly. Regardless, it is sound.

An interesting study by Duffy and Keir (2004) looked at student’s ability to comprehend texts when gender norms are violated or ignored. For the first experiment, they tested if the students would have a more difficult time processing the sentence if the gender stereotype of a job did not match the gender of the person doing the job. For that experiment, they found the students were not able to comprehend the sentence as well when the job did not match the gender (for example “The firefighter burned himself/herself while rescuing victims from the building.”). The second experiment was similar, but they disambiguated the gender of the person performing the job early on in the sentence. They found prior disambiguation cancelled out the effect. Unfortunately, neither of these provide what we want to know based on Levin’s hypothesis, but the study is still quite interesting. Similar results are found in experiments by Pyykkonen et al. (2010), Carreiras et al. (1996), and Oakhill et al. (2005). Most of these studies primarily show that gender mismatch is related to taking a longer time to read the text; reading speed is strongly associated with comprehension skills (Fuchs et al. 2003).

I found a paper which did not focus on the idea behind Levin’s hypothesis, but still offered some insight. A common finding in linguistics studies is that children have a more difficult time comprehending third person pronouns. What is found in this study, though, is that this is exacerbated when the third person pronoun is also gender-ambiguous. Moyer et al. (2015) states,

“Previous studies had reported that the bulk of children’s errors occurred with third person. The current study improved children’s performance for third person trials—the highest proportion of responses are correct. However, children were not perfect. When the pronoun gender feature was unambiguous (that is for male subjects in the non-addressed condition, third person trials), the performance of male subjects improved. For female participants, third person pronouns were ambiguous between all the females in the room—the two experimenters and female participants, and we did see female participants sometimes picking their own box in these trials, as in Figure 2. While this could be due to a more general bias that children have to pick their own box, looking at the breakdown of males, we see that they are not choosing their own box as much as girls are. This suggests that the performance of female participants was affected by the ambiguity, but not by much: they were nonetheless choosing the correct box most of the time.”

Like I said, I could not find a lot on this, even after over three decades since Levin’s book (if the reader does find a study, please send it to me and I will update this article). As an ending note for this section, I found a lot of interesting linguistics research focused on the importance of pronoun ambiguity/violation in general, which may lend hand to Levin’s hypothesis in principle (Kennison, 2003; MacKay and Fulkerson, 1979; Song and Fisher, 2005; Badecker and Straub, 2002; John and McClelland, 1990; many others).

Egalia as a Research Opportunity:

Many are aware of Sweden and other European countries’ strong moves toward reaching gender equality. In looking into this, I found about a state funded preschool called Egalia. This school essentially does whatever possible to remove gender pronouns entirely, restricting gender norms, etc. from reaching the children. I found many different articles on the school, mostly discussing current opinion and how it is supposed to be a great move towards equality. Here and here are a couple of articles. I also found a QZ article which was very wrongly titled “Sweden’s gender-neutral preschools produce kids who are more likely to succeed”. Does the article give evidence for this? No, not at all. They say,

“Such efforts are probably paying off. In a small study published in Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, researchers at Uppsala University in Sweden report that children who attended one gender-neutral preschool were more likely to play with unfamiliar children of the opposite gender, and less likely to be influenced by culturally enforced gender stereotypes, compared to children enrolled at other pre-schools. Tests showed that the kids from the gender-neutral school were as likely as other children to group people by gender, but didn’t attach traditional associations to the concepts of “male” or “female” children to the same degree. During a matching task, for instance, they were less likely to make choices in line with cultural norms when shown images of boys or girls and jeans or dresses.
‘Together the results suggest that although gender-neutral pedagogy on its own may not reduce children’s tendency to use gender to categorize people, it reduces their tendency to gender-stereotype and gender-segregate, which could widen the opportunities available to them,” Ben Kenward, a researcher in psychology at Uppsala University and Oxford Brookes University, and lead author of the paper, explained in an Uppsala news release,
Future studies would be required to establish whether a gender-neutral kindergarten education will lead to greater success, he further elaborates in an email to Quartz, but the evidence points in that direction. “What we can say is that based on the beliefs they show when we interview them, they seem more open to certain experiences than children from more typical schools. Given that children develop through play and through interactions with peers, and that many play activities (like playing with blocks) that promote development are traditionally gendered, then it would be reasonable to assume that this is likely to improve these children’s development and future success.”
Plenty of research has explored the ways gender assumptions in the classroom are equally harmful to boys and girls. In the study, for instance, the authors point out that just as boys, not girls, are usually encouraged to play with blocks, which develops spatial skills, girls are expected to comply with an adult’s direction, a trait that’s connected to better academic performance. Psychologists have also determined that when a teacher or student believes most boys can’t sit still long enough to read, or might not have the self-discipline required to thrive in a structured setting, it appears to negatively impact boys’ grades.”

The last paragraph there may give some evidence that these schools will predict further success particularly where they say, “when a teacher or student believes most boys can’t sit still long enough to read, or might not have the self-discipline required to thrive in a structured setting, it appears to negatively impact boys’ grades.” However, this does not require removing gender entirely or removing traditional gender norms. The belief that boys can’t sit still long enough to read, for example, is not one of the major beliefs a traditionalist or conservative cares to keep around. The other point they make is that encouraging girls to play with blocks will supplement their spatial skills, though as Levin (1987) shows, there is plenty of evidence to believe that these gaps are mostly innate. There are likely reasons to doubt the results of these studies, but I’m not concerned with it.

I was more interested in the reviews I found concerning empirical evidence of the school. One was just a short review by Tuba acar erdol (2018) which, as far as I can find, really just covers how these schools reduce cultural beliefs about gender. Some longer reviews are presented by Eberhardinger as well as Tuba Acar Erdol (2019) which generally just defend the school and argue against some conservative sensationalism; basically just making the claim that this school still recognizes biological sex but impose the belief that it means nothing or little. I was unable to find any information on reading scores of children who went there. The school has been around since 2010, so there is plenty of time for the students who have gone there to transition into regular school and grades to be obtained from them. That said, this school (or most of the schools in Sweden) are an excellent research opportunity for the future.


The conclusion from all this: more research must be done, but from the couple of studies which analyze subsections of Levin’s hypothesis, we find that gender-neutral pedagogy is negatively affecting people’s reading comprehension skills. Plenty of school-level and district-level opportunities are available to test the hypothesis in an experimental fashion. This is a great research opportunity (or perhaps unfortunate one) that should be taken advantage of.

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