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Engendering Participation, Deliberating Dependence: Inner-City Adolescents' Perceptions of Classroom Practice

by Terri Patchen - 2006

This ethnographic study of high school students' classroom practices and perceptions about participation reveals the extent to which students' perceptions determine their understandings of practice, even when these understandings conflict with researcher observations and the bulk of the literature on gender and participation. This study shows, moreover, that although there were gender-stratified patterns of participation in the classroom between girls and boys, the underlying conceptualizations about what constituted a supportive environment for participation differed little between genders: Both girls and boys revealed themselves as dependent upon teachers, peers, and "knowing." What did differ were the ways in which girls and boys described this dependence and the ways in which they understood what occurred in classrooms. Conducted at a large inner-city high school in California populated primarily by low-income, first-generation Latina/Latino students, classroom research took place over a period of 2 years in a series of Life Skills for the 21st Century classes. Dependent primarily upon formal interviews and participant observations, this research focus was on how particular participation strategies were understood and made manifest in the classroom. Beyond the contributions of new information on the importance of the relationship of perception to practice, this research shows that we need to be cautious when we think about gender issues, and how students, particularly ethnic minorities, understand the classroom dynamic.

For a long time, scholars and practitioners alike have recognized the conflictive nature of schooling to the extent that today, it is almost impossible to find a single proposal for educational change in the United States that can unite the many competing perspectives, voices, and actors. Modifications in class size, money allocation, teacher training, or student uniforms are seen either with suspicion or welcoming enthusiasm, but it is seldom that a proposal for changing some aspect of the daily experience of millions of students in schools is received with consensual comments and approval. One of the rare concepts that generates almost unanimous approval in the United States is student participation (Cole, 1996; Delamont, 1990; Delgado-Gaitan & Trueba, 1991; Eckert & McConnell-Ginet, 1992; Finn, 1989; Finn & Voelkl, 1993; Lave & Wenger, 1991; Stanton-Salazar, 1997).

Classroom participation shapes who and how we are, and how we interpret others in communities of practice (Wenger, 1998), and it does so in three ways. First, oral participation fosters cognitive and linguistic advancement (Fennema & Peterson, 1985; Swann, 1989); second, it provides the mechanisms necessary for psychological and social development (Eccles & Midgley, 1989); and third, participation simultaneously creates and builds upon processes encoded in everyday activities in order to further cultivate each of the aforementioned domains (i.e., linguistic, cognitive, psychological, and social) in practice (Bourdieu, 1977; Cole, 1996; Eckert, 2000; Lave & Wenger, 1991). It is, moreover, a manifestation of the process of socialization of girls and boys, and women and men, genderwise. For this reason alone, it is an important aspect of the education process.

In an effort to reveal both the structural and symbolic forces at work in the development of classroom participation, this study explores the relationship between gender and participation in an ethnographic examination of Latina/Latino high school students’ classroom practices and perceptions.1 Specifically, I focused on the three questions: (1) How do the ways in which adolescent Latinas/Latinos conceptualize classroom participation processes shape active oral participation? (2) How do girls and boys understand the relationship of gender to participation? (3) What, if any, are the mitigating factors influencing classroom participation?

The results of my research show that Latina/Latino adolescents’ perceptions of participation vary widely, largely because participation is not explicitly or jointly (between the teacher and the students) determined in the classroom. More important, this study reveals the extent to which students’ perceptions of participation determine their understandings of participation, even when these understandings conflict with observations and the bulk of the literature on gender and participation. Beyond the contributions of this new information to the relationship of perceptions to practice, this research shows that we need to be cautious when we think about gender issues and how students understand the classroom dynamic.


As students perpetuate specific participation practices made common across classrooms (e.g., keeping quiet, answering questions when asked, or, the rarest still, asking questions), they are simultaneously enacting and representing their understandings of what is allowed, what is right, and what is safe. According to Finn (1989; see also Finn & Rock, 1997, Finn & Voelkl, 1993), classroom participation exists within a hierarchy predicated upon students’ increasing engagement with school. At the first level of participation, students attend school regularly, follow school and classroom rules, pay attention to the teacher, respond to teacher prompts, and complete assignments; at the second level, students initiate dialogue or ask questions; and at the third level, students participate in extracurricular, social, or athletic school activities. This study focuses on the first two of Finn’s three levels of participation.

Finn’s typology notwithstanding, classroom participation, one of the principal means by which students express and determine understandings of themselves and others in schools, remains an amorphous construct. Conceptualized and realized in a diversified set of actions, spawned by the dynamic interplay between perceptions and practices, participation tends to be an unarticulated expectation in many classrooms. Most teachers expect students to participate orally in class, but few explicitly define what they want, and fewer students know specifically what these expectations entail. As students and teachers, we shift around, toward and against abstract notions of what constitutes participation, infrequently sure of how we might best participate or support participation.

Further confounding this is the fact that, as important as student participation is to education (Cole, 1996; Eckert & McConnell-Ginet, 1992; Finn, 1989; Finn & Voelkl, 1993; Lave & Wenger, 1991; Stanton-Salazar, 1997), researchers have neglected to examine the particular ways in which gendered perceptions of participation and participation practices influence each other. Previous research has shown that gendered forms of classroom participation give girls and boys different understandings of educational access and opportunity (Eckert, 2000; Eckert & McConnell-Ginet; Gal, 1991), but there is little empirical analysis of the benefits of particular participation strategies to girls and boys, and even less from the perspectives of ethnic minority students.


Meaning and meaning making unfold in classrooms in distinct ways, but gender studies in education have tended to trade in subjects and not subjectivities, avoiding the more complex relationship dynamics within classrooms, and focusing instead on dichotomizing gender divisions in language, sports, and math. Few gender studies consider the complexity of variables influencing participation within a specific context or from students’ perspectives. Fewer still weigh the context as heavily as the content in any examination of gender relations. And, as may well be imagined, almost none of this work focuses on ethnic minority adolescents. Gender studies, although varied, tend to swing from the acutely personal (how one perceives of oneself) to the obtusely general (how the force of a masculine or feminine nature determines one’s identity or role).

In this study, I adopt a perspective that gender is a relationship at once hierarchical, individual, structural, and symbolic (Cameron, 1996; Eckert & McConnell-Ginet, 1992; Leadbeater & Way, 1996). In general day-to-day practice, this means that boys benefit at the expense of girls, and they do so in ways that are literally and figuratively built into the systems in which we exist here in the United States. There are studies of how girls and boys communicate differently (Coates, 1989), how boys monopolize teachers’ and other students’ time and space in the classroom (Delamont, 1990; Fennema & Peterson, 1985), studies that assert (still) that girls tend to be more subdued in classes (Eccles & Blumenfeld, 1985), and studies that cry out for more equitable treatment of girls by teachers (and especially in relation to getting girls into and through math and science classes; Eccles & Blumenfeld; Swann, 1989).

In addition, as they develop, girls are socialized to pay attention to personal relations and to develop such traits as sensitivity, empathy, warmth, and concern about others. They are encouraged to overemphasize physical appearance, dating, popularity, intimacy, emotionality, and other behaviors and qualities usually associated with their roles as wife, mother, and caretaker (De Leon, 1996). Cameron (1996) explained that this differentiation, whereby girls learn to interact, engage, and participate with their environment in one way and boys in another, is hardly arbitrary in terms of the larger social structure. She argued, ‘‘it could be characterized as a training for boys for public and girls for private life; or as a training for boys in the exercise of power and for girls in its abdication’’ (p. 44; see also Delamont, 1990). In the classroom, girls schooled in the art of accepting, tolerating, and empathizing learn to participate with boys who are not so. Privileging men and boys in the most subtle and not-so-subtle ways, gender influences not only what we do and how we do it, but more pertinent to this study, how we perceive what we do.


Eckert and McConnell-Ginet (1992), in an effort to more deeply link the development of sex roles to participation, effectively “gendered” Lave and Wenger’s (1991) work on participation. They argued that gender is constructed through participation in a complex array of everyday social practices that ‘‘in many cases connect to personal attributes and to power relations but that do so in varied, subtle, and changing ways’’ (p. 484). Part of the reason (and way) that gender does this is that it is but one of many in the constellation of factors that shape identity. Always dynamically interactive with race, class, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, generation, time-in-country, and language in the construction of roles and relationships, gender is never, however, merely one more independent variable in an aggregative equation (i.e., gender+class+language, etc.) (Eckert & McConnell-Ginet). Gender is materially, socially, and ideologically constructed and embedded in the lives we live (Bannerji, 1995; di Leonardo, 1991).

Further complicating our understanding of the full force of gendered participation processes are arguments claiming that girls, who tend to be more rule oriented, submissive, and polite than boys, actually benefit in terms of teacher assessment and grade reports in their classrooms (Finn & Rock, 1997) because they are in all their docility, model students (Eccles & Blumenfeld, 1985). Much of this model behavior is peripherally or centrally attributed to girls’ dependence on teachers, classroom rules (Lee & Grop-per, 1974), or peer approval (Eckert, 2000). Thus, contingent upon the lengths they go to be “normal,” girls find their capacity for full participation reduced (Eckert & McConnell-Ginet, 1992). These “reductions” can result in distinct notions of the forms of participation possible, appropriate, or right for students based upon their gender. Unfortunately, statistical analyses of gender and interaction do not reveal how these distinct notions shape practice. Understanding how gender influences classroom participation depends upon an integration of student practices and perceptions.

It is important to assert at this point that the systems of domination and subordination constructed in the classroom are not instituted and perpetuated by men or boys alone. Men and women, teachers and students, and girls and boys create and construct these hierarchies through their interactions, and they do it in three ways. First, they do it together (Swann, 1989). Second, when they do it, girls but not boys learn and employ the strategies of both sexes; boys seem to be able to impose their strategies on girls in cross-sex interaction (Gal, 1991). And third, girls’ needs do not result in the same sort of attention that boys’ do; boys garner more notice for more reasons (Webb & Kenderski, 1985). Thus, even as girls go to the lengths of collaborating with, adapting to, and accepting less than boys, they still appear to lose.

Girls’ participation strategies, enacted within systems of situational disadvantage, end up (at the very least) conveying the appearance of an acceptance of subordination (Eckert & McConnell-Ginet, 1992; Gal, 1991). According to Delamont (1990), these patterns continue because ‘‘from their earliest hours, boys and girls are brought up in different ways, to reinforce different behaviors, and punish or prevent ‘wrong’ activities. There is no real evidence on how far parents, teachers, and others are conscious or unconscious of dividing and segregating the young in this way’’ (p. 25). In the absence of real evidence, we have only the real consequences: Contrasting possibilities position the perspectives and practices of children and adolescents (through everyday actions) as those of girls and boys (i.e., as gendered).


Ever-presciently in 1938, Dewey (1938/1997) argued that ‘‘the trouble with traditional education was not that it emphasized the external conditions that enter into the control of the experiences but that it paid so little attention to the internal factors which also decide what kind of experience is had’’ (p. 42). And yet, for many researchers, the tendency has been to depend on either teachers’ perceptions of students or researcher observations of students in determining what goes on in classrooms and what students are experiencing. Even though students are the ones most immediately and deeply impacted by schooling processes, they are infrequently asked about their experiences (Nieto, 1994) or included in the decision-making process. Moreover, what we know about student participation is generally derived from research that privileges one of two perspectives: teachers’ observations of students or researcher observations of teacher-student attention. Acknowledging what some researchers have described as the neglect of students’ consciousness and agency in education and research (Dewey, 1938/ 1997; Suarez-Orozco & Suarez-Orozco, 2001), in this study, students’ experiences and understandings were front and center. Furthermore, as a gendered study of participation, this is an exploration of relationships, dependent upon an exploration not only of student practices but also of students’ understandings of these practices.



This study was conducted over a period of two semesters at Truman High School,2 a Title 1 year-round inner-city school populated primarily by low-income, first-generation Latina/Latino students. Classroom research took place in a series of Life Skills for the 21st Century classes3 (LS21st) at Truman High. This class was selected because it is mandated by the state as a graduation requirement, and all high school students must take the class at some point (most are enrolled in the 9th or 10th grade). Thus, it assured a degree of universality and randomness. Universality was further secured because the instructor for all four classes remained constant, and LS21st is a scripted class (i.e., the course follows a specific script for each lesson each day). Worksheets, activities, and assessments are all predetermined for the course. The primary methodological distinction between the classes included in this study was the language in which each was taught (English or Spanish) and the amount of time that students had been in the U.S. school system, under 1 year or over 1 year. In the data, those students who had been in the U.S. public school system more than a year are identified as Truman students, and those more recently emigrated to the United States (within 1 year of entering the public high school) are identified as Recien students.

The students who participated in the study (albeit all ‘‘Latina/Latino’’) had only one externally recognizable characteristic in common: they were enrolled in an LS21st class in a densely populated inner-city high school.4 Beyond that, their distinctions (e.g., gender, age, ethnicity, nativity, membership, language use, and academic achievement level) were manifold. Interviews were conducted with students who ranged in age from 14 to 18 and were born in Mexico/El Salvador/Honduras/Ecuador/Guatemala; played school basketball/soccer/baseball/the flute/the trumpet; belonged to the leadership club/the environmental club/Paisas; lived with both parents/ one parent/no parents; spoke fluent English/some English/fluent Spanish/ some Spanish; worked in the wage-labor force or did not; and/or were straight/gay.

Dependent primarily on formal interviews, participant observations, and informal conversations with students, the research focus was on the ways that particular participation strategies were understood and made manifest by students. In interviews, students responded to scenarios culled from actual classroom processes, reporting their perceptions of what transpired, what their roles were, and how they thought that such participatory strategies might benefit or handicap them within the classroom.


Any gender study intent on revealing the ways in which socialization processes are internalized and acted upon by both girls and boys needs to begin with a relational locus (Crawford, 1995), one that considers the construction of classroom processes as students conceptualize and practice them. It is sometimes easy to forget that gender is not just about girls; it is located within the social relations and processes of girls and boys, women and men. Directing such a relational lens toward participation perceptions and practices can disclose systematic and structural gender biases made manifest, perpetuated, and legitimated by girls and boys within everyday classroom and school processes.

This qualitative study was designed to gather inductive data on Latina/ Latino adolescents’ classroom participation experiences. I spent an average of two mornings a week, over a period of two semesters,5 observing in four LS21st classrooms detailing and cataloging specific practices, processes, and patterns of participation (Spradley, 1980). I generally sat near the back of the classroom in whatever seat was empty.6 Although I occasionally fielded questions from students interested in my interest in them or assisted them in some class-related task, informal conversations were kept to a friendly and casual minimum as I focused on what was transpiring in the classroom. My presence in the classroom was relegated to a couple of days a week, and in those days, the students had little free time to interact with each other, much less me.

The length of the observations ranged from 1 to 3 hours, with a modal observation length of about 1 1/2 hours. In the observations, gendered details about the type, degree, and frequency of particular participation strategies were noted (e.g., who initiated oral participation, students or the teacher; who responded to a prompt; who asked a question; and who remained silent). Close attention was also paid to gendered peer-to-peer interaction, language use, and any forms of participation that deviated from the traditional initiation-response-evaluation (I-R-E) mode (Mehan, 1979). Specific scenarios culled from these classroom observations not only revealed gender differences in students’ participation strategies, but they also were used in the design of interview questions and as prompts for supporting student understandings during the interview process (Bogden & Biklen, 1992).

As a bilingual Anglo woman, I anticipated having to wrest my attention away from the girls in the classroom to assure an equitable amount of attention was placed on the boys. In practice, however, I found initially that I was drawn into the boys’ attention-getting maneuvers (which ranged from a more immediate and audible friendly curiosity to requests for classroom assistance). Compounding this, it was initially difficult to focus on the students because I had been trained for years, from elementary school to graduate school, to focus on the teacher. Aware of my gender and ethnic identity, I was prepared to actively balance and constantly redirect my focus in relation to those variables, but I initially had trouble redirecting my observational gaze from the teacher.

To rectify this, even though I was interested in the motivations and interests of the teacher of these four classes, I left the teacher out of the data and out of the analysis. In conceptualizing the research project, I wanted an “almost” control-group setting, live and in practice. As luck would have it, I was able to use one teacher as the one constant variable over four classes and two semesters. In exchange for such fortuitous constancy, I deliberately relinquished teacher access in order to gain unfettered access to the processes of the classroom. This absolution, besides securing access to the classroom, also supported my efforts to keep my eyes and ears on the students and to redirect what was almost an institutional imperative—on my part, as both student of teachers and teacher of teachers—to focus on the teacher.

Near the end of the school year, I conducted formal, audiotaped, and transcribed interviews with each student in the ethnographic sample. Out of the four LS21st classrooms observed, 31 students (11 Truman girls, 6 Recien girls, 9 Truman boys, 5 Recien boys) shared their perceptions of classroom participation in interviews with this researcher. I deliberately sampled students from the LS21st classrooms to represent a range of adolescents with varying academic skills and ethnic and linguistic backgrounds. The interviews took place in an empty classroom and lasted about 45 minutes. Because of the students’ familiarity with the researcher, most talked openly and easily, and indeed, many seemed eager to share their understandings of classroom practices. Interviews were conducted in English or Spanish, and occasionally both languages, as the student preferred.

Through these scripted, open-ended, in-depth interviews, I tried to understand how Latina/Latino adolescents constructed and perceived classroom participation (Becker, 1996; Hammersley & Atkinson, 1983). I first asked the students to define participation (i.e., What is it?) and then followed up with questions that addressed the following three levels of participation: (1) the students’ individual range of participation practices; (2) the participation practices of their peers; and (3) the range and value of classroom participation practices in general. Probes culled from observational fieldnotes were used on occasion to support student understandings of the interview questions. Most students had elaborated conceptualizations of participation but sometimes needed a concrete example or reference to get started. None had ever participated in a research project before.


Because this was an ethnographic study, data and interpretation evolved simultaneously as the study unfolded, and I attempted to understand participation from the students’ perspectives (Spindler & Spindler, 1987). As the data accrued, they provided continuing points of illustration or comparison, acted as mechanisms for assuring validity, and suggested directions for further inquiry (Wolcott, 1987). They were, moreover, considered in light of an evolving theoretical framework. Staying on top of the literature as I was collecting and analyzing data, I was able to think about what I was seeing, hearing, and understanding on a consistent basis, in light of previous research.

Throughout the research process, the specific dimensions of this study were broken down into three units of analysis: (1) student participation practices, (2) student perceptions of participation, and (3) the relationship of perceptions to practice. Each of these segments was reflexive (Coffey & Atkinson, 1996), facilitating and expanding the analysis of each of the others in the pursuit of the larger research inquiry into the relationships of participation processes. This constant and simultaneous reflection helped to see how meaning was constructed in and through relationships, not only between students within the classroom or within the data collected themselves, but between student perceptions and practice (Emerson, Fretz, & Shaw, 1995).

Intensive, focused analysis of the fieldwork observations and interviews began once the final semester of the year of study was over. At that time, systematic open-coding methods (Emerson et al., 1995; Strauss & Corbin, 1990) were used to identify the ways that students characterized their own and others’ participation practices. Open coding entailed breaking down, examining, comparing, and categorizing data in order to answer the following three questions: (1) How do the ways in which adolescent Latinas/ Latinos conceptualize classroom participation processes shape active oral participation? (2) How do girls and boys understand the relationship of gender to participation? (3) What, if any, are the mitigating factors influencing classroom participation?

Glaser and Strauss’ (1967) constant-comparison method was then used to examine these categories in terms of the strategies that students used in the classroom and how students understood these strategies, and to determine the relationship of students’ perceptions to classroom practice (in this case, their oral participation). When relationships were uncovered, the data were checked and rechecked against the experiences of same-gender and different-gender students to ensure that the patterns illuminated consistent trends and not just intriguing aberrations. In examining differences in the codes between boys and girls, the most striking patterns uncovered related less to the notion of distinct gendered practice and more to the various, complex ways in which students conceptualized participation.



In observations, I focused on oral participation in tasks and adapted criteria for identification of participation strategies from studies on participation and interaction (Cazden, 1988; Finn, 1989; Mehan, 1979). Because opportunities for participation were so few, any and all on-task oral contributions were counted (including, for example, participation solicited by the teacher; student volunteered participation; participation attached to a hand raised; that without a hand raised; and questions and answers). Table 1 shows the frequency of oral on-task participation observed in the classrooms, by gender.

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In observations, students regularly participated in a few modes, at certain times, and often in gendered ways; boys actively and verbally engaged as individuals in whole-classroom tasks at a far greater rate and in more diverse ways than most girls, while some girls were more responsive to particular types of teacher prompts. In all the classes observed, boys’ contributions exceeded the number of teacher prompts, and in three of the classes, boys participated at a rate at least two times the rate of the girls (and in one case, the boys’ participation rate was triple the rate of the girls). These observational findings are aligned with the research on classroom participation that states that boys participate more actively and more often in classrooms than do girls (see e.g., Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, & Tarule, 1986/1997; Fennema & Peterson, 1985; Okpala, 1996; Sadker & Sadker, 1985; Wilkinson & Marrett, 1985).


In an effort to decipher gendered perceptions of participation and the relationship of gender to teacher practices, all the students were asked the following three questions: (1) Who participates most, girls or boys? (2) Do you participate? (3) How do you define participation?

In an analysis of the data from the first question, more of the Truman boys, as well as the Truman girls, said that girls participated more; Recien boys said that boys participated more; and Recien girls said that girls and boys participated equally. Of all the groups, only the Truman girls didn’t have anyone respond that both boys and girls participated equally.

Given other studies of classroom participation, what is surprising about these findings is how many more girls and boys said that girls, or both girls and boys, participated more in their classrooms. Although boys participated audibly and visibly more than girls in the classrooms, in interviews, more of the students (boys and girls) said that girls participated at higher rates than boys. The discrepancy between student perceptions and the observational data problematizes the relationship of perception to practice. If three of the groups said either that girls participated more or as much as the boys, why wasn’t either of these findings corroborated in observation data? The only group who attributed increased levels of participation to the boys was the Recien boys, who said 3 to 1 that boys participated more. Why the discrepancy between the groups?


Students appeared to explain both girls’ and boys’ levels of participation with a kind of personal attribution theory. For example, according to the girls who said boys participated more, boys ‘‘are more: ‘opened’ [sic]’’; screamers; smart; confident; attentive; and/or they like to show off, don’t care what others think, or ‘‘‘wanna’ be talking.’’ Similarly, the boys who said girls participated more said girls ‘‘are: not that shy; eager to answer; smarter; more open; more developed; dedicated; expressive; and/or don’t care what others think.’’ Moreover, this conceptual scenario was inverted and then repeated in the explanations of girls and boys about why their own gender does not participate as much as the other. The girls who said that girls do not participate as much as boys, said that girls ‘‘are: language dependent; shy; not smart; and/or afraid of humiliation/embarrassment.’’ And the boys were no different in this process of inversion; they said that boys do not participate as much as girls because boys ‘‘are more: shy; embarrassed; insecure; inattentive; and/or afraid of what others think.’’

Without getting into a ‘‘men are from Mars, women are from Venus’’ line of argumentation, a quick comparison of two students’ responses on who participates more reveals the depth of inverted similarity summarized above. The first student, Maria, explained that boys participate more because

Boys tend not to be shy. I don’t know why I see it like that. But, to me boys—it’s like—they don’t care what a girl thinks most of the time, you know. And girls always go, ‘‘My god how do I look,” “Oh my god if I say this wrong they’re gonna laugh at me, they’re gonna say something,’’ you know. But I think boys—you know—participate way more than girls, most of the time.

Conversely, the second student, Juan, used the same rationale to explain why girls participate more:

‘Cuz they—boys still have a mentality of being like—they still think they’re boys but supposedly growing into men. They like playing around a lot. Guys are more scared of what the other kids are gonna think of them. Girls are more open, they don’t really care what other guys think about ‘em or other people. So in general they have the instinct of just working—they like working. Women or girls like working.

Q And you don’t think guys do?

A: They do—it’s just they don’t have—they’re more concerned of what other people think about them.

Both students described their own gender as preoccupied with what others think, and neither gender appeared in these gendered perceptions to have cornered the market on any of the attributes that students’ associated with increased participation. Even when a student described one gender as the arbiter of particular characteristics pertinent to participation, further elaboration revealed the complexities involved in determining exactly who participates and how. For example, when asked who participates more, Carolina said,

Boys. They’re more opened [sic], I think. I mean, us, we like to be— like, we’re our own. But they like to show off—they like to—they’re always screaming expressing theirself [sic]. Not like us, we’re like calm and—they like—I mean, they do act more in class, but it’s mostly girls that do more of the work.

Carolina allowed that boys ‘‘act more in class,’’ but she also argued that what you hear isn’t always all you get. Boys may be more verbal, but girls do ‘‘more of the work.’’ This type of logic may undergird the general attribution of greater participation rates to girls, but it is unclear. In students’ descriptions of who participates more, positively correlated characteristics appeared to be randomly distributed by and among girls and boys. It would seem likely, then, that such random assignation would result in a greater number of students attributing participation to both genders, given that both genders are linked positively to participation characteristics. Yet, only the Recien girls, by a 4 to 1 margin, said that both girls and boys participate in equal numbers.


The discrepancy between student conceptualizations and the observation data may be resolved in this section as we consider how students responded to the question, ‘‘Do you participate?’’ and examine their definitions of participation.

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When asked if they participated in class, both girls and boys replied easily and immediately, but they didn’t all answer in the affirmative, and their answers varied by gender. In an analysis of the students’ responses to the question, ‘‘Do you participate in your classes?’’ over half of the boys said definitively that they participated in their classes, but participation was not so assured among the girls. As Table 2 shows, fewer than half of the girls responded in the affirmative; the majority qualified their answer with ‘‘it depends’’ or “sometimes.”

The girls’ answers to the question, ‘‘Do you participate?’’ were the most diversified and the most likely to be contingent upon some other factor. Rocio’s statement below—affirmative, contingent, and complex—exemplifies one of the more prevalent types of the girls’ responses. When asked if she participates, she replied,

Yes I do—well, I only participate when I know something. If I don’t know it, I can’t, you know, why would I say it? You know? It’s not that I’ll sound crazy or something—but it—I don’t do that. If I know it, I’ll say it. If I know something about it, I might say whatever I know about it—and that’s it. But—’cuz sometimes, you know—if there’s something and you just talk about it and it doesn’t makes sense—so I’d just rather like be quiet and listen—you know? Or if somebody tells me like yeah, I’ll go up and back it up a little with whatever else I know—and that’s it.

Rocio began by answering affirmatively, but her response was rapidly qualified. In order of appearance: (1) she only participates when she knows something; (2) she wants to make sense when she participates; (3) if she won’t make sense, she prefers to be quiet and listen; and (4) if mandated, she will go up and contribute. Her response not only reveals its contingent nature substantively, but it also does so structurally: If she can make sense, she will participate, and if she can’t, she won’t—except if she’s told to do so, and then she will. Within all these conditional strategies, Rocio also managed to argue for the recognition of the role of listening in the conceptualization of participation. In her reply, she unambiguously argued that participating isn’t solely, or primarily, about speaking; listening is an integral dimension of the classroom participation dynamic as well.

Rocio continued in this vein, and as she spoke, she further clarified her understanding of the classroom dynamic. According to her, participation is not only dependent upon “knowing” subject matter, or doing what you’re told; it’s about respecting relationships in the classroom. Given that she said she only participated when she knew something, Rocio was asked if she would ever participate if she was not sure of an answer. She replied,

When I’m insecure? When nobody’s saying anything? Of course I go up and say —’cuz—yes, it irritates me—’cuz, you know, I wanna become a teacher and I know how teachers become when nobody answers them. And I’m like, oh, ok I’ll just say something, ‘cuz it’s irritating. When I become a teacher I don’t want kids to just look at me like they’re somewhere in the skies.

Articulating an awareness of what I call ‘‘responsible responsiveness,’’ Rocio’s statement was the most acute of a strain apparent in the girls’ recognition of the importance of relationships in the classroom. Not only did Rocio explicitly empathize with her teachers, but she also identified a responsibility that students have as members of a classroom community in the construction of a mutually responsive environment. Even when Rocio lacks security in her response (the one thing she said earlier she needed to respond), she transcends her own needs and acts out of her conceptualization of the classroom as a whole.


Most of the boys revealed no such holistic conceptualization in their definitions of participation. In discussing whether they participated in their classes, their responses were more normative—yes, they participated—but it was just something that they did because it was a requirement. One third of the boys did say that participation depended on the teacher, but here this relational contingency was smuggled within a more opaque determinant— “boringness”— with boringness a stand-in for everything from how a teacher teaches, through whether a class was interesting, to a student’s English language fluency. For example, when asked if he participates, Gustavo replied,

Um . . . well, it depends. Like if, it’s really boring, then, I won’t participate.

Q: And if it’s not really boring?

A: If it’s not really boring, then I’ll participate like 100%. Ok like, um, for example, history class, history class is kind of boring right now— like it’s hard for me—there’s like, my teacher asks me for—for different papers at the same time and I need like more time to do one then start another one. So, it’s kind of hard for me. And then you know reading history is kind of boring for me, I’m not into history that much. And then there’s um, interesting, let me think . . . like the digital imagination—that’s interesting for me, like I’ll draw and stuff, you know. I’ll get really into it, and um, another class would be English, I’m also into English.

Gustavo then explained that he enjoys English class because he gets to pick out the books he reads, and he likes that. In the classes where he has more independence—both because of supportive practices from the teacher and subject competence—he participates more. In classes that are “boring,” however, he doesn’t. Boringness also allowed some boys to locate participatory responsibility at once on the shoulders of the student and her or his teacher. Ivan provided a good example of this distribution of responsibility:

When a like, teacher, when he talks a lot, or she talks a lot—you know that makes you like, tired and makes you like all bored, you know. And um . . . just stuff like that. I use boring as like, as a teacher he’s just, like, talking, or she’s like just, just talking for the whole period. And then you just get boooored. Or you’re like reading outta a book and you just get tired of that. Like that . . . I mean, when it’s boring I guess I get, like, like, lazy you know, and I really like, don’t do anything. But when it’s fun, I just like, do my work, you know.

Ivan didn’t say he was lazy, but he did say that a boring class provoked laziness and, in so doing, articulated one of the ways that participation is contingent upon a student’s relationship with her or his teacher. When teachers don’t consider their audiences (i.e., their students), they aren’t doing all they might to expand educational opportunity. Moreover, by acknowledging his fallibility in the face of boringness, Ivan’s response identifies the joint responsibility that students and teachers have in perpetuating dynamics that do not support oral participation, language development, or classroom engagement.


In designing a matrix of definitions, answers were organized according to the prevalence of same or similar responses. Once this matrix was completed, it became clear that the students did not have a singular definition of participation. Definitions aligned with the traditional teacher initiated-student response model were the most ubiquitous, but students described a wide range of responses. For many of the students, even coming up with a definition was initially perplexing. A couple of students jumped right in and defined participations as, “well . . . participating,” but many more students asked, “What do you mean?” or “Como?” when asked to define it. Whenever this occurred, efforts were made to explicitly link students’ understanding to their prior responses to the question, “Do you participate?”; students were asked to think about what participation meant to them when they answered that question. Most students were then able to outline a definition. Table 3 illustrates the range of participation possibilities that the students offered. Because students frequently provided more than one strategy, strategies outnumber the student sample.

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There are similarities between how many of these students conceptualized participation and the perspectives elaborated by Cazden (1988) and Mehan (1079) (perhaps the most influential and recognized scholars in the field of classroom interaction). In defining participation primarily as “answer questions if asked,” scholars and students alike are conceptualizing participation within a teacher-initiated, teacher-directed dynamic (what Mehan referred to as initiation-response-evaluation (I-R-E)7 and Finn (1989) considers the lowest level of participation). It is possible of course that in their definitions of participation students were attending to larger societal assumptions about how participation is best made manifest (by answering questions when asked) and what is generally construed as the right way to participate (waiting to be called on). Yet, in examining observation data alongside student definitions, it is clear that the majority of the boys and girls in this study participated as they defined: by answering questions when specifically asked.


Although classroom observations showed boys participating more often than girls, only the Recien boys concurred with the observation data. The rest of the students said either that girls participated more or that both sexes participated equally. Complicating this finding, all the students appeared to randomly attribute positive participation characteristics to both sexes, but in the assignment of who participates more, the Truman students attributed increased participation to the girls alone. Given the lower rates of oral participation by girls, this was a conundrum. It was less puzzling, however, when one considered that more students defined participation as “answering questions when asked” than anything else, and the girls’ affinity for this particular strategy was noted by both sexes.

In a detailed analysis of observations from the four classrooms, although no girls participated more than boys, it was the case that in each class, one girl participated as much as—and in one of the classes, more than—most boys. But in no way did as many girls participate as boys, or in as many ways as boys. What did occur, and with regular frequency, was that one girl (and only one girl) in each class participated as much as, if not more often than, anyone else, boys or girls. Acknowledging this distinction, it may be more accurate to say girl participates more than boys. Girls in general, however, and in Recien classrooms in particular, did not participate more often or in more modes than more of the boys.

Having said this, there were instances in which girls’ participation was practically assured. Visible in the observation data, and brought up by some of the students, Marco explained that

Girls are shy; they don’t talk much. When the teacher asks them a question directly, yes, they’ll respond. But when it’s a question to the group, a general question—I think that in my class, the girls—I mean the boys—if the teacher asks a question to the group, they won’t stay quiet.

Buried in Marco’s argument that boys participate more (“they don’t stay quiet”), especially when participation is a whole-group collaboration, is the charge that when teachers ask girls directly, they will respond. Marco’s attention to this particular strategy, “answer questions when asked,” is significant because it was the most common participation definition provided by Truman girls. And, although this response didn’t come up in Recien girls’ definitions, it was prevalent in their descriptions of what they do when they participate. Thus, it may be that in disassembling the classroom dynamic, Truman boys and girls primarily conceptualize participation in the teacher-directed student-response mode so evident in student definitions. In doing so, they may be simultaneously defaulting to an attribution of classroom participation to girls merely because of their unique visibility in this particular form of participation.


At some point in the interviews, almost every student talked about how participation is not guaranteed. Even those students like Rocio, who stated indisputably that they participated, subsequently revealed that participation was contingent upon at least one of a variety of factors. Furthermore, although the majority of boys didn’t initially say that their participation depended upon a specific variable, most did state in later questions that participation was influenced to some extent by one of a few key variables. In their responses to questions about classroom dynamics, participation strategies, and gender differences, students discussed participation in terms of teachers, peers, subject comprehension, and language (which, when it came up, was usually linked to peer relations and the threat of peer humiliation). In other words, relationships—with people or subject material— structured the way students viewed and considered participation. This dependence on relationships in the construction of classroom participation structures was revealed throughout the data by boys and girls, in direct contrast with researchers’ tendency to associate dependence primarily with girls (Fennema & Peterson, 1985). It was analytically significant, therefore, to see how broadly dependence was manifested among girls and boys in the data.

In this study, boys and girls both revealed similarly structured dependencies in their perceptions of classroom participation, but it was the boys who said that boys needed more attention. Although the boys did not use the word dependent in their responses, their conceptualizations of participation revealed a dependency manifested in gender-differentiated classroom practices that had both positive and negative consequences for the classroom dynamic. Some boys worked actively in the construction of more democratic modes of participation (e.g., asking questions or generating topics of inquiry), while some of their same-sex peers struggled to dismantle any such possibility (e.g., engaging in off-task activities or disturbing the on-task efforts of their peers). In their efforts to get attention, boys were at once the more dynamic of on-task participators, and the more disruptive.

The girls, on the other hand, generally tended to conceptualize participation within a responsibly responsive framework. Delamont (1983) has argued that “in most classrooms, playing the teacher’s game means responding—that is, answering the teachers’ questions, preferably correctly” (p. 124). By responding when asked specifically, but not initiating contact, girls achieved two things at once: They veered from appearing dependent on teacher contact for their educational progress as they simultaneously fulfilled traditional expectations of what constitutes participation. In this way, they could attend to relationships in the classroom and the “dependence” or expectations of their teachers, while minimizing the potential for risks, one of the biggest factors in their lack of participation. Girls could diminish their dependence on others while assuring that they were participating as needed, and as they thought their teachers expected them to.

This interpretation of the data accepts the proposition that girls acknowledge dependence in the classroom more so than boys but rejects the proposition that they are more dependent on others than boys. Even though most people would have to admit to some sort of dependency on someone or some thing, few people acknowledge dependency using anything but negative terms (Bowlby, 1982). Attributing dependence solely or primarily to girls implicates them in a deficit model that conveys their subordination to boys in the perpetuation of hierarchically divided, oppositional gender politics. Moreover, such attribution to girls results in the obfuscation of boys’ dependency and, with the force of oppositional theories holding sway, makes even the mere consideration of boys’ practices as dependent close to impossible to conceive.


This article has shown that Latina/Latino adolescents’ perceptions of participation can vary widely, largely because participation is not explicitly defined in most classrooms. Given the variety of definitions, one would expect to see more students actually participating in more ways, and for some of the boys in the present study, this was the case. But the majority of these students’ actual participation practices existed within a relatively constrained field of behaviors. In practice, most students (and girls in particular) participated orally only when called upon specifically; they tended to answer the question asked, and that was it. General questions to the class resulted in a considerably diminished level of overall-class participation and seemed to prompt the same few boys to respond in each class again and again. Students rarely initiated asking a question about the subject under study, rarely followed up a response to a teacher prompt with a question of their own, rarely asked their peers to elaborate responses, and rarely attempted to generate a discussion on any topic of interest to them related to the subject under study. This was particularly disturbing given that this study took place in a course on career planning, concerned as much with preparing students to live independently in the 21st century as it was with helping them determine career options.

Although there was a great deal of variety in individual responses, few students came up with any definition that included or incorporated dialogue, discussion, argumentation, or dissent. Nevertheless, perceptions of participation did vary more than actual practices. Students were aware of options and they knew that there were distinct participation possibilities in the classroom, but they didn’t actually have the time, space, or, I would argue, the relationships, to practice them. Because the specific components of participation remain hidden, unarticulated, and undersupported within classrooms, many students are missing out on opportunities to cultivate their capacities to think and speak at the same time, to develop their English fluency, to increase their self-confidence, and to strengthen their connection to the classroom and the subject matter. Day after day, we are leaving students alone with their thoughts, their hesitations, and their insecurities— about themselves, others, and the very subjects they’re in school to learn.


This study also highlights several less visible aspects of classroom participation. First, students’ perceptions of participation appear to have been influenced by the notions of gender patterns, stereotypes, or roles that they brought to class. Of the Truman students, both girls and boys believed that girls participated more than boys, in direct contrast with researcher observations and at least two decades’ worth of research. Second, students’ perceptions of classroom participation appear to influence their understandings of classroom participation more than their actual lived experiences. If we consider participation as broadly as they did, it is clear, in examining both observational and interview data, that there are discrepancies between perceptions and practice—at the very least because students were aware of modes of participation that most of them did not come close to approximating. One reason posited for this gap between how students defined participation and what they said they did in classes was that students were merely extending their list of possible participatory acts when they defined participation; thus, replies to both questions revealed a continuum of potential. Alternatively, students may have been identifying a breach between an idealized version of what they think they are supposed to do, and what they actually do in classrooms.

Finally, the data from this study revealed a set of variables that influence whether and how students participate. The cultivation of relationships— with teachers, peers, and subject matter—continued to surface in student responses as the factor that determined classroom participation. Explicitly, the students concretely outlined what participation consists of, who participates, and why and how participation matters. In these overt descriptions of participation strategies, students discussed notions of responsiveness and responsibility, care and connection, and dependence and dependability. Implicitly, in their discussions of participation, students exposed gaps in the conceptualization and realization of classroom participation without directly pointing fingers. Instead, in talking about how participation works, they simultaneously revealed what isn’t working, where there are gaps, and how things might be better.

An interesting comparison can be made with Philips’s (1982) research into the construction of interaction in law school classrooms. Philips argued that students in law school learn to participate in the same ways that they will be expected to when they enter the work force. In class, therefore, they must be prepared to answer questions, summarize legal issues, and argue points because they will have to do all these things, and more, in legal practice. Philips argued that students and professors work together in the cultivation of an explicitly determined classroom dynamic that fosters oral, engaged participation. Law school students know what to expect from peers, they know what teachers expect of them, and they act accordingly. In contrast, there was little shared understanding of such particulars of participation among the students interviewed for the present study.

Instead, the general result of the need to know for the students interviewed for this study, unlike for the law students whom Philips describes, was a diminishment of participation attempts in the classroom. In the face of insecurity, the threat of peer evaluation, peer humiliation, and, at times, teacher humiliation, students shrank from active oral participation. Absent relationships with their peers and their teachers, students couldn’t know what to expect, or really, what was expected of them. Always needing to be right, or to know the correct answer, appeared to stifle the potential for critical inquiry and interest while blunting the development of participatory possibilities beyond “answering questions when asked.” Even answering questions when asked was a more complicated and constrained strategy than it appeared at first glance. For many students, this meant only that they would answer questions when asked individually, but they would not volunteer an answer or comment when a question was asked of the class in general. If teachers called on students specifically, they felt compelled to respond; otherwise, most of them, particularly the girls, remained silent.


Although this study did not examine the impact of classroom participation on academic performance, it does have implications for future research and teacher practice aimed at understanding and diminishing disparities among girls and boys in the classroom. Substantively, it seems warranted to propose that both researchers and teachers would benefit from reorienting their work in classrooms toward a better understanding of the relationship of students’ perceptions to their practices. One implication of this observation is that as teachers, we must be prepared to better articulate just what we mean when we say “classroom participation.” If we want girls to participate more audibly and more often, we must establish the opportunities for them to do so. Moreover, if we consider participation to include discussion or dialogue, we must explicitly support these modes within our classrooms for both girls and boys. This means that we must institute policies within our classrooms that are predicated upon oral participation. The students in this research showed that they have distinct ideas about what constitutes participation, the variables that influence it, and what some of the issues are that inhibit their own participatory practices.

Knowing how students think about what goes on in the classroom provides teachers with, at the very least, information that can be used to better support the development of teacher-student and student-student relationships in the class, and ways to better conceptualize and ensure increasing participation levels. The most streamlined way for teachers to discover the understandings of their own students is to ask them. But asking questions isn’t that easy. Teachers who want to find out how their students think about classroom participation must first determine the best way to ask. It may be that students are comfortable talking in front of their peers, or from their seats, or within small groups, or one on one. Students in this research showed that preferences for the use of a particular strategy at one point doesn’t preclude the use of a different one at another time or within a different context. However, it deserves to be clearly stated that asking specific individuals questions, as opposed to asking questions to the class in general, was the best way to assure participation, particularly girls’ participation.

Methodologically, the integration of the affective with the active, or perceptions with practices, yielded complex substantive claims that research focusing on only perceptions or practices could not. One of the principal ways it did this was in the revelation of dissonance between student perceptions and classroom practice. Absent the triangulation of observation and interview data, there is no way that either method alone would have revealed this discrepancy. The integration of perceptions and practices also provided a mechanism for probing students’ conceptual and experiential understandings of participation structures in the classroom. Future research, therefore, depends on this triangulation of observation and interview data if we want to better understand the complexities of student participation practices. Future studies should also consider the relationship of teacher perceptions and practices to students’.

Theoretically, beyond the contributions of the new information on the relationship of perception to practice, this research shows that we need to be cautious when we think about gender issues, and what girls, particularly ethnic minorities, are thinking about participation. Based on early gender studies, teachers made assumptions and implemented practices concerning girls and boys in the classroom that aren’t necessarily as relevant to, or beneficial for, today’s students. This is in no way a disparagement of past gender studies, but it is a call to push them into the contemporary classroom such that they better meet and respond to the needs of our students, girls and boys.

As the Latina/Latino students in this study showed and said most consistently, classroom participation “depends,” and it does so on a variety of variables. For this reason alone, it seems reasonable to suggest that teachers talk explicitly with their students about the structure of the classroom, define terms, check for comprehension, open up the floor for discussion, and ask questions that are driven by student opinion (as opposed to those that are “right” or “wrong”). This variety of teacher-initiated strategies might provide students with better and more frequent opportunities for participation. Moreover, the act of asking reveals care, a pivotal construct in the structuring of relationships, which may be central to the structuring of participation. Participation—dynamic, active, engaged, caring participation—shows in deed and word that the classroom is a place where students and teachers work together in the development of increasingly democratic education.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 10, 2006, p. 2053-2079
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12722, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 2:13:29 PM

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About the Author
  • Terri Patchen
    California State University, Fullerton
    E-mail Author
    TERRI PATCHEN is an assistant professor, Department of Elementary and Bilingual Education, California State University, Fullerton. Her research interests include classroom participation, gender, and increasing equity for immigrant and ethnic minority students.
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