The impact of conversational style on girls’ learning

Dr Yvonne Skipper is a lecturer in the School of Psychology at Keele University. Her research interests span the broad area of social influences on learning, including: feedback, collaboration, subject choice and women in science. As the Community and Schools Engagement Lead for Psychology, Yvonne runs a number of award winning outreach initiatives including ‘White Water Writers’ which gives groups of young people the chance to write and publish their own full length novel in a week.

What makes a dangerous woman?

It appears that across the ages, a woman’s voice has been seen as her most dangerous weapon. This may explain why women have less conversational air time and are more likely to be interrupted when they are talking than men. Women also often show more passive use of language, for example when speech overlap occurs, women are more likely to stop talking than men. Women also more commonly use ‘tag questions’ where the tone of voice rises at the end of a sentence, leading statements to sound like questions. These things may not necessarily be visible to participants in a conversation, unless they know what they are looking for, but they do still give a subtle indicator of where the power lies in the conversation.

However, some gender differences in communication are much clearer. We have all heard the term ‘mansplaining’, for times when men are seen to explain things to women in a patronizing and condescending way. These patterns of communication can be seen throughout society, in conversations between couples, friends, work colleagues and even between politicians. It is therefore important to understand when these different patterns of conversation develop and what impact they can have. We set out to explore this in a school setting where we were particularly interested in how conversations shaped children’s learning.

To begin, we tested children’s science knowledge around motion down an incline. This included basic knowledge, for example, whether a truck travelled further when pushed down a steep or a gentle slope. We also tested conceptual knowledge where we showed them how far a truck would travel, then changed two things (e.g. the angle of the slope and how far up the slope the truck started) and asked them to predict how far the truck would travel now.

We then put children into same gender pairs and asked them to work with their partner on science tasks across the week. These tasks were designed to enhance their knowledge of motion down an incline. We filmed them completing the tasks so we could examine how they solved them and, crucially, how they spoke about the task. Children then completed two more science tests, one at the end of the week, and one three weeks later.

The results were surprising. Both boys and girls improved their basic knowledge over time. However, in terms of conceptual knowledge, the girls showed no improvement, while the boys only improved three weeks after they had worked on tasks. We wanted to understand this better and therefore went back to our videos of the children to see what pairs of boys and pairs of girls were doing differently.

We found that the boys were more assertive in their conversations. They were more likely to interrupt, question and show dominant behaviour in conversations. In contrast, the girls were more affiliative in their conversations. They generally listened and agreed with each other and showed high levels of cooperation.

We argue that because girls were focussed on getting on with each other this harmed their learning. Disagreements are a vital part of learning. When we disagree, we need to think about our ideas in more detail to defend them. Even if we are wrong, this deeper level of thinking can help us to realise why we are wrong and improve our understanding.

It has also been suggested that when we disagree with people, we then look to our environment for information to help us to understand who was right. Thus having disagreed with someone about the task of motion down an incline, boys may look to events in the real world to understand the phenomenon better. For example, when they play on their bike, they may realise that they travel further from the top of the hill than the middle. This is not to say that they are consciously performing experiments because they remember the task from school. Instead, they may subconsciously looking for evidence in real world to provide evidence for their thoughts.

This is why we argue that boys showed improved conceptual understanding following a delay of three weeks. However, the girls who generally agreed with each other presumably did not have unanswered questions about the task and therefore did not show improvements in understanding. This is not to say that none of the girls showed assertive behaviours and none of the boys affiliative behaviours, instead we are arguing that across our sample of 341 nine year old children, these were the most common behaviours seen by boys and girls.

Also, children in our study worked in single gender pairs. If girls do not show assertive behaviours with other girls then they are even less likely to do so with more assertive boys. Thus the behaviours we see in our relationships and in workplaces as adults seem to begin at age nine or younger. This suggests that perhaps when we socialise girls with an emphasis on getting along with each other we may indirectly be harming their learning and perhaps their future relationships and careers.

Thus to answer the question ‘What makes a dangerous woman?’

Perhaps it is a woman with assertive conversational skills. Assertiveness may help girls in their learning and ensure that their insights and ideas are shared. Although assertiveness is something we can learn as adults, perhaps we should also work with the younger generation to develop these skills early on. When this becomes the norm, we may find that the next generation will be filled with powerful, rather than dangerous, women.


You can read our full paper in Child Development here.