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Insight 09/11/2021

Gender-responsive pedagogy in computer science and computational thinking at CLC

The Connected Learning Centre (CLC), part of Education Development Trust, supports schools and other settings in using digital technologies creatively and critically. Importantly, it makes technology accessible to girls through the use of gender-responsive pedagogy– and engages teachers, leaders, parents and communities to do the same.

Poor levels of female representation in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers are having a detrimental impact on gender equality across society. In her recent blog, Rowan Roberts, Teaching and Learning Consultant and STEM lead for the CLC, highlighted one example that illustrates the problem clearly: “most crash test dummies are almost exclusively designed based on male anatomy and that this makes safety measures in vehicles less effective for most women.” A more recent example lies in the fact that men and women experienced different side effects to the Covid-19 vaccine, but these differences were not investigated during trials. It is vitally important that we seek to thoroughly understand why there is such a great gender discrepancy in STEM disciplines, starting in the very early stages of education, and build solutions to address them – and our Connected Learning Centre (CLC) in London is doing just that.

The team at CLC designs teaching and learning approaches and materials for computer science and computational thinking based on the known differences in girls’ and boys’ aspirations in relation to technology, as well as how they engage with and learn through technology. Where there is pedagogical value in doing so, this will sometimes involve separating boys and girls for specific activities. Through these approaches, they aim to solidly dispel persistent myths about gendered aptitudes in computing and technology, to foster enjoyment in the learning process, and mitigate the risks of an ever-increasing gender divide in STEM. This case study explores the many ways in which we are seeking to understand the issues and address them through our work.

Working with girls, boys and parents to change perceptions of what girls can do and achieve in STEM

The CLC has been running the IBM Robo-challenge competition for children in Year 5 or Year 6 (aged 9-11) in England for over a decade. Initially, it was requested that schools had mixed teams, but in practice, the team observed that the division of labour in the teams became quite gendered. Girls were not doing as much programming as boys, favouring ‘design’ activities. They felt that this was due to the children’s own perceived expectations and (socially constructed) preferences, and therefore made the radical decision in 2018 to make the event girls-only – which had the desired effect of engaging them more in the programming elements of the challenge and enabling them to exceed their own expectations. (For more information on why the CLC made the bold choice to make the event exclusively for girls, read this blog.)

Within its day-to-day work, the CLC welcomes children, school staff and a few parents to its premises for computer science lessons. Through this experience, the team has found that parents often demonstrate gendered attitudes towards who needs help and take very different approaches when encouraging boys and girls. Most parents do not often have the type of conversations that teachers tend to have about gender and inclusion and sometimes need more support to acknowledge and address unconscious gender biases. In its work with parents, the CLC therefore tries to set expectations on how they should work with all children during the sessions, promoting positive and inclusive language and behaviours.

Engaging with communities to support girls to access and achieve in STEM subjects

Up to 2017, the CLC team worked with families, running learning projects through Lambeth council in community children’s centres. They used technology in a creative way with families to help parents improve their own digital skills, develop an understanding of what children can do with technology, and give parents and children an opportunity to learn from each other and nurture positive relationships in relation to technology. They also ran some adult learning courses developing functional skills in the use of technology, such as learning how to use Microsoft Word, and government online services.

In addition, through its Digital Champions project in Lambeth, the team worked with a network of adults in the community to help improve their digital skills. This included work-related skills like word processing and CV writing, as well as accessing government digital services and other forms of technological literacy. Some of the most engaged learners were then employed to recruit and support other, less confident learners, helping disseminate new skills among harder-to-reach members of the community and creating job opportunities. A high proportion of the learners were women; often mothers with minimal work experience, so one of the key achievements of the project was to help equip these women with the technological skills needed to flourish in the modern workplace.

Working with teachers and school leaders to tailor teaching to the different needs, aspirations and interests of girls and boys to raise outcomes for all children

To ensure learning and equity, CLC teaches computational thinking through inclusive practice, based on a deep understanding of gender disparities and the different starting points for girls and boys in different contexts. Through its ERASMUS project, working across the UK, Denmark, Netherlands and Sweden, the team adapted the children’s experiences to the differences in attitudes, aspirations and preferences of boys and girls, families and teaching staff. Among Finnish educators, for example, it would be less typical to see an intervention that specifically targets girls. This would be seen as unfair and not inclusive. In this context, if one were to notice a gap and want to address it, one would have to do things that are more appealing to girls, without excluding anyone. The Dutch partners took a more ‘laissez-faire’ approach, with a general attitude of ‘kids like what they like and whatever that is, is fine’. It was challenging to find an approach to achieving the aims of the project that was sensitive to these differing contexts, and the solutions proposed had to be culturally aware, as well as inclusive amid a gradual collective mindset shift towards a greater understanding of these differences and how to address them.

This project also required the tailoring of teaching techniques in line with the interests of different groups of children. Teachers in the project reported that boys were more engaged in physical education and computing but girls were more engaged with dance, so the CLC team used this contextual information to combine computer science with dancing to make it more appealing to girls. In its ‘dance computational thinking’ learnathon, children developed a choreography and coded it for another child to understand and then replicate. Other, more generalisable differences include the fact that programming with storytelling was more compelling for girls than game design, which is typically used when teaching programming to children. Activities that invite children to simply copy code from an example tend to be less appealing to girls than boys, so the team encouraged collaborative programming to build communication into the activity and make it more interactive. Algorithmic and linguistic approaches to programming were more effective with girls, and this knowledge was used by the team to develop activities in which girls would feel more confident and inspired to engage with technology.

Supporting girls to transition out of school to higher education, technical and vocational activities and the world of work

Through the TechPathways London project, CLC worked with educators of 11-to-24-year-olds in London to equip them as champions of tech-based disciplines and career opportunities. The project was funded by the Mayor of London to show young people what jobs in technology industries look like and how they can access them. The project team developed case studies of people in industry, built online courses and wrote blogs. When identifying role models to share their experience and disseminate messages to champions and adolescents, CLC was very mindful to ensure good gender representation and positive messaging around all children's capabilities. 

Similarly, as part of the CLC’s work in supporting all children to transition out of school into higher education and/or technical and vocational activities, they developed an unconscious bias toolkit to equip teachers to be more inclusive in the way they talk about careers education and planning with all learners. They also partnered with the Global Equality Collective on a number of courses and events, with a particular focus on gender equality in computing.

Moving forward, the CLC has plans to gather more data on the outcomes and impact of its gender-responsive teaching and learning to help inform the global evidence base on what works (and what does not) for girls and boys in computing and technology education. One example is the upcoming Game Changer Challenge project, which will invite Key Stage 2 pupils (aged 7-11) to collaboratively programme games through the free online platform Scratch. Given that there are likely to be gendered preconceptions among the participants about who can, should and does play games, activities have been specifically designed to help challenge any prejudices head on – by demonstrating that girls play a crucial role in both the creation and consumption of computer games. Through these activities, the team hopes to be able to share examples of children’s perspectives on this issue, and how they can be shifted through helpful discussions and experiences.


To find out more about the Connected Learning Centre, please click here.