What did the researchers want to know?
Do older students perceive stronger gender stereotypes among musical instruments than younger students? Can exposure to counter-stereotyped musicians affect students’ instrument preferences?
Does an empathic mindset related to student misbehavior result in more positive outcomes than a punitive mindset?
What did the researchers do?
Pickering and Repacholi conducted a study involving 156 kindergarten students and 158 fourth-grade students. They showed the students videos of high-school musicians playing one of eight instruments that had previously been identified as either feminine (flute, violin, clarinet, cello) or masculine (drum, saxophone, trumpet, trombone) by Australian adults. The musicians wore school uniforms and all played the same musical excerpt. Participants were divided into three groups: one who viewed videos that aligned with gender stereotypes (e.g., females playing “feminine” instruments and males playing “masculine” instruments), one who viewed “counter-stereotyped” musicians (e.g., males playing “feminine” instruments and females playing “masculine” instruments), and one who simply viewed a static image of the instrument (with no musician visible). Pickering and Repacholi had each student view their assigned videos individually (in a room separate from their classroom) and then asked them which instrument they would most like to play.
Okonofua, Paunesku, and Walton conducted three experiments. In Experiment 1, they randomly assigned 39 teachers to either an empathic- or punitive-mindset condition. Each teacher was asked to read a short article in which they were reminded either “that ‘good teacher-student relationships are critical for students to learn self-control’ (empathic mindset) or that ‘punishment is critical for teachers to take control of the classroom’ (punitive mindset)” (p. 5221). Then they read three minor misbehavior records, described how they would discipline each student, and rated the extent to which they considered each student a “troublemaker.”
In Experiment 2, the researchers asked 302 college students to “imagine themselves as middle-school students who had disrupted class by repeatedly walking around to throw away trash” (p. 5222). Each student then read a description for how their imaginary teacher (“Mrs. Smith”) responded—either by giving them detention and sending them to the principal (punitive) or by asking them about their behavior and moving the trashcan closer to their desk (empathic). After this, the students rated how much respect they would have for Mrs. Smith and their motivation to behave well in the future.
Experiment 3 was a longitudinal study in which the researchers “tested whether encouraging an empathic mindset about discipline would reduce student suspension rates over an academic year” (p. 5222). Thirty-one teachers at five diverse middle schools in California participated in this study. These teachers participated in two online modules, the purpose of which they were told was “to review common but sometimes neglected wisdom about teaching and to collect their perspectives as experienced teachers on how to best handle difficult interactions with students” (p. 5223). After consenting to participate, each teacher was randomly assigned to either the empathic mindset condition or the control condition. Modules in the control condition focused on using technology to promote learning. For the empathic-condition, the first module focused on “non-pejorative reasons why students sometimes misbehave in class and how positive relationships with teachers can facilitate students’ growth” (p. 5223). The materials encouraged teachers to “understand and value students’ experiences and negative feelings that can cause misbehavior” and reminded them that “a teacher who makes … students feel hear, valued, and respected shows them that school is fair and they can grow and succeed there” (p. 5223). This included stories from students and opportunities for teachers to reflect on how they could incorporate the ideas into their teaching. Two months later, teachers completed the second module, which in the empathic condition focused on reminding them that “students’ feelings about and behavior in school can and do improve when teachers successfully convey the care and respect students crave” (p. 5223). At this time, students were also asked to complete a survey assessing the school climate, specifically focusing on perceived respect from teachers and other school adults. At the end of the school year, the researchers collected students’ suspension rates from each school.
What did the researchers find?
Students in the control group (who saw static images rather than musicians) were significantly more likely to select instruments consistent with gender stereotypes than those inconsistent with gender stereotypes. There were, however, no significant differences in stereotyping by gender or age.
When all three groups were compared, Pickering and Repacholi found that students in the control group and the gender-consistent group were equally likely to prefer gender-consistent instruments. However, students exposed to the counter-examples were significantly less likely to choose gender-consistent instruments.
The results of Experiment 1 showed the teachers with an empathic mindset chose to punish students less severely and were less likely to label students as troublemakers than the teachers with a punitive mindset.
In Experiment 2, students whose teacher responded with empathy reported having greater respect for the teacher and being more motivated to behave well in the future than students whose teacher responded punitively. Furthermore, the greater the respect the student reported having for the teacher, the more motivated they were to behave well in the future.
Experiment 3 results showed that students whose teachers received the empathic-mindset intervention were half as likely to be suspended as students of the control teachers, even when statistically controlled for race, gender, and prior-year suspensions. In addition, students with a history of prior suspension whose teachers received the empathic-mindset condition reported feeling more respected by their teachers than did those who were students of the control teachers.
What does this mean for my classroom?
The issue of gender-stereotyping of instruments persists in music education. However, the results of this study suggest that exposing students to musicians who defy gender stereotypes can help them resist rather than perpetuate these stereotypes. When choosing audio/video or live examples for use in the music classroom, music educators should be conscious of who is represented and work to actively combat gender stereotypes. In addition to noticing the gender of instrumentalists featured in the music classroom, teachers should also pay attention to the gender of composers and conductors so that students see women represented in these roles. Music educators might also notice who is (or is not) represented in our professional materials, such as textbooks and journals. (For example, this study shows that women have been much less likely to be represented as conductors in photographs published in the Music Educators Journal.) Similarly, teachers can notice the race/ethnicity of those who are represented. This noticing is the first step to taking action in ensuring that the representation in our classrooms is one that allows ALL students to see themselves represented in a diversity of musical roles.
Students whose teachers take a punitive approach to discipline may feel less respected and less inclined to behave well in class. However, students will likely feel more cared for and respected if we try to have empathy for them, to understand the reasons behind their misbehavior, and to assume positive (or at least neutral) intentions. Doing so can help build a positive, caring relationship with the student, which may lead them to want to do better in the future.
Some ideas from teachers who participated in this study include the following:
“When asked how they ‘would like … to improve your relationships with your students?’ teachers powerfully echoed the intervention themes: For example,
- ‘[I] greet every student at the door with a smile every day no matter what has occurred the day before’;
- ‘[I] answer their questions thoughtfully and respectfully no matter what their academic history with me has been’; and
- ‘I NEVER hold grudges. I try to remember that they are all the son or daughter of someone who loves them more than anything in the world. They are the light of someone’s life!’” (p. 5223)
This research was featured in the New York Times.
This article provides further insight into teaching with empathy.
This article has ideas for helping students learn empathy.
Dr. Okonofua also co-authored this research study on race and perceptions of student misbehavior.