Monday, 29 August 2016

Chilly Classroom Climate

Barkley (2010) discusses Hall and Sandler's research into the differential treatment of male and female students in the college classroom (1982) and refers to their term, "chilly classroom climate" to describe the way "teachers often, unknowingly, make female students feel unwelcome."

The introduction of the "chilly classroom climate" follows with suggestions to avoid it -- consistently calling students by their first or last names, greeting the class as a whole or individually each day, addressing students as they wish to be addressed, and other tips all focused on establishing basic manners in the instructor. Barkley says the inequalities felt by female students are also often felt by students because of "race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, disability, level of ability, language use, and social class" and I couldn't help but wonder two things:

1. Why is this happening?
2. Is this a phenomenon really something having good manners can address or is there something deeper at work?

A study by the National Association for Women in Education (NAWE) found the transgressions against female students went farther than not saying hello or calling them by their prefered names:

"Troublesome practices by faculty members identified by the study included: using women students as examples in hypothetical situations with sexual or other inappropriate overtones; interrupting women’s comments more than men’s; responding extensively to men’s comments with praise, criticism or coaching but to women with patronizing brush-offs; and attributing women’s achievement to luck or affirmative action but men’s to talent or ability. The study even documented the tendency of faculty members to frown more at women than men students." (Morgan, 2007).

Bernice Sandler, senior researcher in residence with the NAWE wrote a paper about this subject and outlined a few of the subtle ways instructors approached women with questions and comments not as conducive to success as those asked to men: "When did the revolution occur?" (specific, focused) for women, and "When was the revolution?" (open-ended, loose) for men -- the kind of questions where "you could really shine if you know the answer and if they don't, they can try to fake it." Men were also called on more often, received more eye contact and praise from their instructors, and were more likely to be "coached" toward deeper learning (tell me more about that, what else could have happened?)

Interestingly, the term "chilly classroom climate" did not yield search results later than 2008, which made me wonder if this is the last we heard of this topic? Was it called something else past that era? Did the research conducted ten years ago spark such outcry the phenomenon was abolished from public education forever?

I wonder. 

Current research doesn't point to gender inequality under the same moniker, but it does illustrate a similar problem where men and women are assigned different roles and attention in the classroom. With children, praise is focused on gender stereotypes: “Abhishek looks so confident, and he will make a good leader while Nazneen is so caring and she will be able to handle children well,” cites author Aparna Rayapol in her article "Gender in the Classroom" (2010). In adults, gender stereotypes continue, but with less frequency and under the scrutiny of greater sensitivity than a decade ago. But they are by no means extinct, which calls on instructors to lead the way in challenging stereotypes as a mode to deeper learning. 

"Inspiring young people to question gender stereotypes enables them to make informed choices about their futures and broaden their opportunities," according to an article published on The Line (2015). "As a teacher, you are in a position to call out examples of gender stereotyping and encourage students to question and dispute them. This might be through highlighting examples in teaching materials or through calling out students’ comments and behaviour."

"The first thing that teachers need to consciously understand is that sex is a biological fact and gender is a social construct," says Rayapol. "Boys and girls do not have any natural psychological or social differences, but it is society that makes them learn gender roles."

Now we are talking. As instructors, basic manners should indeed be extended to all students, but there is the need for deeper examination of our beliefs and social constructs if we are truly going to move forward in gender equality. 

Equality and inclusiveness has become an ingrained part of our learning as instructors. Not only is it a bullet list of points, but an obligation to promote equality and teach students to deepen their learning by keeping a watchful eye on stereotypes in the learning material.   

So, do we still have a "chilly classroom climate"? I am confident we can find instructors who still transgress in this area and who may extend the arm of "humour" or, in some cases, total oblivion too far, but the positive is awareness and advocacy in the greater realm of teaching that empowers students to not accept this behaviour.

Going back to my questions, the reason behind the "chilly classroom climate" was perhaps a sign of the times, and a by-product of the process women and others who experienced this phenomenon have had to go through to see some shred of equality in education (and other places).

While I appreciate Barkley's book is about engagement strategies, not feminist theory, I do believe the answer to keeping the climate toasty warm in the classroom goes beyond and list of points on how to be respectful. The matter's historical prevalence suggests a deeper, more thorough examination of our stereotypes, ability to think critically, and confidence to advocate -- both as students and as instructors -- is in order if we are to eradicate this problem for good. 


Barkley, Elizabeth F. (2010). Student Engagement Techniques: a handbook for college faculty. San Francisco: Jossey Bass. 

Hall, R.M., and Sandler, B. R. (1982). The classroom climate: A chilly one for women? Project on the Status and Education of Women. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges. 

Line, The (2015). Promoting gender equity in the classroom retrieved from

Morgan, Joan (2007). Women still face 'chilly classroom climate.' – classroom environment in women’s education retrieved from

Rayapol, Aparna (2010). Gender Equality in the Classroom retrieved from

Sandler, Brenice R. (2008). The Chilly Climate retrieved from

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