Once upon a time a huge giant let out a terrifying roar when she discovered that her golden egg had been stolen.
“Stop changing things”
Once upon a time a little boy called Little Red Riding Hood was told to stick to the path.
“Why do you keep messing up the story”
Once upon a time a little boy called Goldilocks peered through the window of a cottage in the woods.
“I know why he’s doing it – he’s testing how much we know about fairy-tales”
Once upon a time a little girl called Jack climbed the top of a huge beanstalk.
“That’s not true, girls don’t go on adventures and they don’t climb beanstalks”
It’s that time of year again. All across Scotland children in P1 – 3 will be wandering through the fairyland topic learning about magically fairies, beautiful princesses and boys who go on adventures.
We recently collaborated with a P1/2 at the beginning of their fairyland topic. I began by questioning the characters, storylines, the goodies and the baddies. I decided to disrupt some of the well-known narratives by making changes to the gender of the characters – the pupils started to get agitated – not because of the magical portal that transports characters from this world to fairyland, but because I suggested Little Red was a boy and that Goldilocks and Jack were girls.
I wanted to agitate the situation even more as I could see they were animated, passionate, annoyed!! I wondered what would happen if the girl Little Red came across the Beanstalk:
“She would probably just walk away”
“No – she would climb half way up then get scared and go back down”
“Maybe she would just chop it down because she doesn’t go on adventures”
There were some mild challenges from classmates but a general consensus amongst the 6-year-olds. I kept prodding – what if the boy Jack meet the Big Bad Wolf in the forest:
“He would chop him up”
“He would chop down a tree, to fall on its head and kill it”
The pupils were able to demonstrate an awareness of how someone’s gender apparently affects how they deal with a situation differently – girls shy away and boys turn to violence. At the age of 6 they have a clear understanding of what boys and girls are supposed to do. If we transfer this to attainment – we start to see girls shying away as the boys will step in and save the day. We can see boys’ unwillingness to display thoughtful, empathetic and conciliatory behaviours for fear of not appearing masculine in front of their peers. These (perhaps) more ‘feminine’ qualities of thoughtfulness, empathy and conciliation are often the very ones children need to attain well in schools.
What is the purpose of education? To inculcate conformity or to liberate young people from misconceptions and prejudices?
We now know a class of 6-year-olds have already constructed dispositions and attachments towards gender which may not serve them well in life – what do we do?
What else are they thinking about which has the potential to impact on their attainment: class, religion, sexuality, race, nationhood?
Do we create opportunities for some of these solidifying thoughts and feelings to be challenged or do we validate and normalise them by making giant paper beanstalks and pipe-cleaners forests, and telling stories of little girls who should stick to the path?
I don’t want my daughter to stick to the path – I don’t want her to even know one exists. I want her to climb beanstalks, go on adventures, make friends with wolves, chop down trees and build houses in the woods. This will only happen if fairyland is disrupted and potentially doesn’t end with a happy ever after.