To reach girls in classroom, align practices to specific learning needs

Biology student studying plants


Lessons with hands-on learning, elements of creativity, multimodal projects, and class discussions all worked to stimulate girls’ interest in the classroom.


Boys’ struggles in schools have generated ongoing discussion for more than two decades. Girls continue to outperform boys academically in schools when making comparisons across every social category, such as race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status (DiPrete & Buchmann, 2013), a condition that causes teachers and parents of boys to wring their hands with concern. Books such as Why Gender Matters (Sax, 2005) and The Trouble with Boys (Tyre, 2008) provide vigorous, sometimes polemical, commentary about the issues. Such conversations concerning gender differences in educational achievement inspired Reichert and Hawley (2010a, 2010b) to ask what we actually know about teaching boys. In an earlier issue of Kappan (2010b), Reichert and Hawley described the results of their study, which surveyed over 1,500 male students ages 12-19 and 1,000 teachers in all-boys schools in the United States and internationally to explore the lessons and teaching practices that were engaging to boys. They found that:

  • Boys’ relationships with teachers are key to their learning;
  • Boys elicit the kinds of teaching that they need; and
  • Lessons with an element that arouses their interest connect boys
    to broader learning outcomes.

So far, no one has asked the same question about girls — what do we know about teaching practices that engage girls in learning? Our study addresses this question by using Reichert and Hawley’s (2010a) survey to identify the teaching practices and lessons that are effective and engaging for girls. We believe that we can better situate girls for success beyond high school if educators, practitioners, and researchers begin paying attention to what girls need in grades 7 through 12. This is vital because boys’ struggles in school and girls’ academic success often obscure the ongoing gender inequality between women and men in the workplace and society (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2013).

What we studied 

In our study, we wanted to begin a conversation about what lessons, topics, and classroom practices girls find particularly engaging and effective. Similar to the work of Reichert and Hawley, a compelling aspect of our study is that we listened to students and teachers explain what lessons and practices have been effective and powerful for girls. We collected over 2,000 rich narratives that detail the experiences of teachers and girls in all-girls schools across the country. Who better to tell us what works in schools than students who learn in them? In addition to student perspectives, we examined teacher responses to discover where student and teacher responses aligned and where they differed.

To accomplish this task, we recruited 14 all-girls schools across the United States that reflected various philosophical orientations and student demographics. Participating schools varied in terms of type (religiously affiliated, public, and independent), geographic location, and size (ranging from 300 students to over 1,000). The 1,328 student participants in grades 6-12 created a diverse sample in terms of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, achievement, grade level, and number of years that they had attended an all-girls school. The 560 teacher participants were also diverse, reflecting different races, ethnicities, ages, genders, subjects taught, and years of experience.

We asked students and teachers to respond to an online survey that had the following prompt — a modified version of Reichert and Hawley’s (2010a):

Please tell us a story of a class experience at this school that stands out as being especially memorable to you. By this, we mean that it was especially interesting, engaging, or motivating for you. It might be a particular lesson, unit of study, a choice of text or subject matter, a class activity or exercise, or a project or assignment.

Our analysis of the teacher and student responses revealed the contours of the pedagogy, practices, and lesson content that girls found particularly engaging. Without having been asked to write about their teachers, the largest percentage of girls wrote about how much teachers mattered to their engagement in class. Girls described how their teachers’ passion for teaching, their deep knowledge of their subject, and the academic and emotional support they provided all contributed deeply to their learning. Beyond the centrality of teachers, we identified eight components of lessons that teachers and students brought up repeatedly as being particularly effective and engaging for girls. These components fell into two main categories: characteristics of the lesson and particular activities.

  • Characteristics of lessons
    Clear lessons;
    Lessons relevant to students’ lives; and
    Collaborative lessons.
  • Particular activities
    Class discussions;
    Creativity and the creative arts; and
    Out-of-class experiences.

Girls liked lessons that were clear, relevant to their lives, and provided opportunities for collaboration. They were engaged by activities that were hands-on and multimodal and included discussions and elements of creativity and the creative arts. Lessons that provided out-of-class experiences also stood out to participants.

The responses from both students and teachers were rich, detailed, and multilayered. This example from a middle school student at an independent school illustrates this:

In 6th grade, our science teacher gave us a project about the environment. We were given a group, and we had to research about green houses and how they work. After we had a complete understanding of green houses, we had to design and make a blueprint of our own. We had to write in detail about the house and everything in it and how it helps the environment. Then we used cardboard and any recycled items we could find, and we constructed our house. This entire project taught me more about teamwork. Since it was a very large project and was graded, we had to work together and agree on everything. Even though we got frustrated sometimes, we learned how to deal with it. We had to present our house to the entire grade, and our teacher handed out awards. Our group’s house won an award for being one of the best houses made. Our group had a really fun time and was proud of our work.

Among the eight components that we identified as contributing to effective and engaging lessons, the components reflected in the above narrative are relevance to this girl’s life and group collaboration. The respondent celebrates how the activity helped her and her teammates focus on environmental issues that were important to them. The hands-on activity and its requirement that the team design and construct its own green house as well as its multimodality — constructing the green house, writing about how it could help the environment, and then presenting their work to peers — all engaged this girl’s imagination and energy. The hundreds of narratives we received like this one provided thoughtful, detailed, and often instructive ways to best reach girls in the classroom. Overall, our findings both paralleled and contrasted with those of Reichert and Hawley (2010a, 2010b).

happy little girl learning in the classroom

Contrasting girls and boys

One central finding of Reichert and Hawley (2010b) is that boys elicit the kinds of teaching they need. Teachers in their sample described boys actively displaying their disengagement in the classroom, prompting teachers to revise their practices in order to better engage male students. We did not find that tendency in our study. Instead, we found a remarkable alignment between teacher and student responses. The characteristics and elements of effective lessons that girls described were echoed, sometimes almost verbatim, by their teachers. The fact that the teacher and student responses were so closely aligned is a powerful statement about what effective teaching looks like for girls. Teachers designed lessons that captured student attention, which led to more meaningful classroom learning. This suggests that girls, like boys, elicit the pedagogy they need, though perhaps without (overtly) displaying resistance to the degree that boys do, and that both male and female teachers of girls are especially attuned to what girls need in terms of pedagogy and activities that maximize girls’ engagement.

Finding #1:
Boys as relational learners with teachers, girls as expansive relational learners

Another key finding of Reichert and Hawley (2010b) is that boys are relational learners. They argue, “Establishing an affective relationship is a precondition to successful teaching for boys” (p. 36). Boys in their sample found their teachers’ attentiveness to their learning and overall well-being key to establishing personal connections between themselves and their teachers and central to their motivation in the classroom. We found that girls are also relational learners, but they also highly value opportunities for connection, bonding, and collaboration with classmates in addition to teachers. As Reichert and Hawley found, though we asked students to discuss specific lessons and classroom practices, a significant percentage of the girls in our study attributed their engagement to their relationships with particular teachers. These relationships took the form of academic support through individual conferences and help sessions and emotional support in ways that showed that teachers knew the girls beyond their academic selves. A high school student from an independent school captured such relationships in the following narrative:

I finally came in to meet with my teacher one-on-one after she had told me to many times. She simply told me that she knew I had it in me. Those simple words were pretty life-changing. I could tell by her care and the time she took to meet with me one-on-one every week after that first meeting that she wanted to see me do well, and she thought I could do well . . . I began to love Spanish and ended the class with a B+. The teacher, who at the beginning I thought hated me, really admired my growth, so she put me into the honors Spanish class for the next year . . . I had her as a teacher again, and, because of her motivation, three years later, I’m now in Honors Spanish IV. I’m light years away from how I began freshman year.

This response illustrates how one-on-one conferences stimulated and sustained the student’s motivation and interest because the conferences indicated that her teacher believed in her and cared about her success.

Finding #2:
Girls’ relational learning extends beyond their teachers

Departing from Reichert and Hawley’s findings regarding boys, we found that girls are relational learners with their classmates as well as their teachers. Girls frequently described their peer relationships as being particularly central to their engagement in the classroom. They cited collaborative lessons and bonding activities as being instrumental in helping them master a particular concept and providing them opportunities to get to know themselves and their
classmates better. In turn, they demonstrated how these connections contributed to deeper learning experiences.

In this example, a middle school student from a religiously affiliated school describes how working in a group increased her learning:

This year, in 7th grade, we built fake limbs for science class. This was an alternative assessment for our midterm project. Our assignment was to create a fake arm or leg that could either pick up a cup or kick a tennis ball into a mini goal. We could only use materials supplied by [our teacher]. These materials included cut-up cereal boxes, duct tape, wooden sticks, paper cups, rubber bands, metal fasteners, and a material of our choice. We were put into groups of two or three, and we were given a week and a half to build a fully functioning prosthetic limb and record our progress for that class period . . . We had to show the whole class our [“leg”] and demonstrate its ability to get the tennis ball into the makeshift goal. We pulled the strings, and the ball hit the edge of the goal. We got a second shot, and the ball flew into the center of the box. We were finally done with our midterm! My group had a great time working together. I really liked this project because it helped me further understand how the leg functions.In this example, the student’s learning was not only occurring in the small group but also fostered collaboration at the classroom level.

These examples of collaborative learning illustrate the centrality of relationships in engaging girls. Other student narratives described debates, presenting and performing for one another, and schoolwide bonding activities on class trips — all of which illustrate how teachers were able to leverage the powerful influence of relational learning so girls broadened their understanding by feeling more connected to the lessons.

Finding #3:
Boys and transitivity, girls and relevance

Finally, Reichert and Hawley (2010b) found that a defining characteristic of lessons that were particularly engaging for boys had an element of “transitivity” to them. They defined transitivity as a particular aspect of a lesson that works to “arouse and hold student interest” (p. 39) and is connected to a particular learning outcome. For example, they described how a teacher taught male students how to swordfight as part of reading “Romeo and Juliet.” According to Reichert and Hawley, learning about and engaging in the intricacies of swordplay created a transitive experience of deeper learning for boys as they read about the play’s broader meaning.

In contrast to these findings, we discovered that a lesson’s relevance to girls’ lives encouraged and deepened their classroom engagement. Lessons about topics that were applicable to the real world or were relevant to current events, social justice, their school, a student’s personal life, or issues involving women and girls appeared to have the same effect as “transitivity” for boys in Reichert and Hawley’s study. Students and teachers commented on how the
relevance of material to the girls’ lives contributed to girls’ increased interest in class. A high school student from an independent school explained:

My favorite topic in anthropology would have to be religion . . . . Honestly, this course has helped me in many real-life situations. All of the different cultures and views that I have learned about have made me more acceptable of others. I will not look at someone odd because they are wearing clothes that cover every part of their body, I will not question a girl who has an arranged marriage, and I will not argue with a person who has different beliefs than I. Furthermore, what I have learned in anthropology has enhanced my everyday experience and my personal characteristics . . . . Every time I step foot in my anthropology class,I always get enthusiastic about [our] next study of humans. I believe that that is why I excel in the class, a class that is exciting and challenges one’s view of the world.

This student’s reflection on her learning experiences in her anthropology class illustrates how her interest in the class was sustained by her ability to connect what she learned to her daily interactions and experiences. The class not only taught her about different cultures, but it also positively changed her mindset toward people and practices that are different from her own. Courses and lessons that are relevant to girls’ lives have the power to engage them beyond the classroom and prepare them with the skills and perspective needed to navigate through our larger society.


The three major findings we have discussed here center on teachers and their adolescent female students. Good teaching is enacted by teachers who are attentive to the specific learning needs of students, who take the time to develop relationships with and among students, and who develop lessons that are relevant to students’ lives. Our findings make it clear that if we want to reach girls, we must align teaching practices with their specific needs. We found that lessons with hands-on learning, elements of creativity, multimodal projects, and class discussions all worked to stimulate girls’ interest in the classroom. Relationships with their teachers are particularly influential for girls and their educational engagement. It is not enough that they develop relationships with their teachers; they also revel in the positive relationships they form with classmates through group projects, presenting to one another, debating each other, and participating in schoolwide bonding activities. Additionally, the relevance of the classroom material to girls’ lives is key to sustaining girls’ interest. For girls, topics related to social justice, current events, and women and girls were particularly compelling. By enacting these practices, teachers have the power to effectively and productively reach and teach the girls in their classrooms.

DiPrete, T.A. & Buchmann, C. (2013). The rise of women: The growing gender gap in education and what it means for
American schools. New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.

Reichert, M. & Hawley, R. (2010a). Reaching boys, teaching boys: Strategies that work — and why. San Francisco, CA: Wiley.

Reichert, M. & Hawley, R. (2010b). Reaching boys: An international study of effective teaching practices. Phi Delta Kappan, 91 (4), 35-40.

Sax, L. (2005). Why gender matters: What parents and teachers need to know about the emerging science of sex
differences. New York, NY: Doubleday.

Tyre, P. (2008). The trouble with boys: A surprising report card on our sons, their problems at school, and what parents and educators must do. New York, NY: Random House.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2013). Highlights of women’s earnings in 2012 (Report No. 1045).

All of the authors were investigators of the Teaching Girls in the 21st Century Study.

R&D appears in each issue of Kappan with the assistance of the Deans Alliance, which is composed of the deans of
the education schools/colleges at the following universities: George Washington University, Harvard University, Michigan State University, Northwestern University, Stanford University, Teachers College Columbia University, University of California, Berkeley, University of California, Los Angeles, University of Colorado, University of Michigan, University of Pennsylvania, and University of Wisconsin.

Originally published in September 2014 Phi Delta Kappan 96 (1): 68-73. © 2014 Phi Delta Kappa International. All rights reserved.


CHARLOTTE JACOBS ( is the associate director of the Independent School Teaching Residency Program. She is a coauthor of Teaching Girls: How Teachers and Parents Can Reach Their Brains and Hearts (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017).
PETER KURILOFF ( is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. He is a coauthor of Teaching Girls: How Teachers and Parents Can Reach Their Brains and Hearts (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017). 
SHANNON ANDRUS ( is a researcher, speaker, and consultant for Teaching Girls Well Consulting (@TGWConsulting). She is a coauthor of Teaching Girls: How Teachers and Parents Can Reach Their Brains and Hearts (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017). 
AMANDA B. COX is a doctoral candidate in education and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania.

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