Teaching Girls and "The Confidence Gap"

Having taught at an all-girls school since 2008, this recent Atlantic cover story confirms and quantifies much of what I've seen in the classroom. As I frequently (and emphatically) remind my students, they are no less capable than the boys their age, but their confidence doesn't reflect that. I've seen this in how they react to "failure" (which they too often define as anything less than an "A"), and also in which challenges they choose to attempt. This excerpt from the article rings particularly true:

We also began to see that a lack of confidence informs a number of familiar female habits. Take the penchant many women have for assuming the blame when things go wrong, while crediting circumstance—or other people—for their successes. (Men seem to do the opposite.) David Dunning, the Cornell psychologist, offered the following case in point: In Cornell’s math Ph.D. program, he’s observed, there’s a particular course during which the going inevitably gets tough. Dunning has noticed that male students typically recognize the hurdle for what it is, and respond to their lower grades by saying, “Wow, this is a tough class.” That’s what’s known as external attribution, and in a situation like this, it’s usually a healthy sign of resilience. Women tend to respond differently. When the course gets hard, Dunning told us, their reaction is more likely to be “You see, I knew I wasn’t good enough.” That’s internal attribution, and it can be debilitating.

I've spent a lot of time thinking about this, and how to address it in the classroom. A recent article in Slate on motivating teenagers put it this way:

In my nearly 30 years as a psychologist and family therapist, I’ve learned that parents can only play one of two possible roles at any given time: cheerleader or Texas high-school football coach. The cheerleader’s main goal is to keep the spirits up. As soon as the child is born, he is offered fun activities that are sometimes mildly challenging, so long as they leave the glow of “something positive just happened” —stimulating crib toys, managed play dates, rec sports. The cheerleader has learned to “praise the effort, not the outcome” so mom and dad ignore the score and pass out prizes to all. The coach’s main job, on the other hand, is to build character. Built into that lesson is an assumption of challenge and possible, eventual failure. The aim is to develop a “character repertoire” that includes willpower and the ability to delay gratification and to accept hardship as part of life.

While the article is talking about parenting, the same is true for teaching. When I'm presented with this "confidence gap" in the classroom, I think my tendency is to become the cheerleader. And while that approach can build confidence, the students also benefit from the football coach approach. There are appropriate times for both those strategies, but it's definitely a struggle to find the balance, and I do think that balance is different in a classroom full of girls.

And there's the rub. Are my students better-suited to learn this confidence in my classroom, without any boys around? I'd like to think that's true, and obviously that's the premise of single-gender education. I'm not going to wade into the current controversies around single-gender education, but it would be irresonsible of me to not consider that as part of the confidence question.