Word on the street is that boys aren’t performing as well as girls at school; as a mother of three boys I feel compelled to tune in to discussions like the ones hosted at the Globe and Mail back in 2010. I try to glean what I can from them, and I’m more than open to advice on raising sons – yet still I often find these conversations alternately a bit dull or depressing.
Whatever social biases result in girls or boys being under-serviced at school should be rooted out, obviously. But if we can operate on a slightly higher plane and assume that the playing field ought to be level, then it seems like a generalized failing of a group within an education system would only be possible by failing to see those students as individuals.
Yes, of course, let’s be sensitive to patterns of conduct and performance outcomes, but these things would be less important if, as a point of departure, our education system could recognize and nurture as individuals the students who make up a classroom. One wouldn’t then have to rely on statistical reports revealing that boys are failing at school, because one would know that Ryan and Jason and Thomas are bored/unmotivated/distracted. And if we really knew those kids, we could do something about it before the failures began.
I find the discussion about these things distressing because with classrooms of 20 or 30 students grouped exclusively according to age (as opposed to interest, need, affinity, or…?), it is hard for even the best teachers to know and nurture students as individuals. I remember once talking to a teacher who said that she would trade all the reports, all the new teaching techniques, all of the everything that gets thrown at teachers to improve student achievement for one thing: more teachers. Put all of the money poured into these studies and reports and redirect them into salaries, she said, because having a relationship with someone who knows and cares about you, made possible through low teacher to student ratios, is the one thing – and I think she may have said it’s the only thing – that consistently makes a difference. Her view had, to me, the ring of truth in it, and I’ve never forgotten it.
This individual care and attention would help make school relevant too. These marks that the boys aren’t now achieving, or that girls were once discouraged from achieving, are they worth striving for? Kids, like adults, don’t usually tune out things that matter to them, but you can’t know what those things are unless you know the children. Before we lament the lagging of student achievement at school, maybe we should question whether the education that the children are failing to acquire – the one that prizes a narrow definition of academic success according to strict age limits and few subjects – deserves the importance that is attributed to it.
I’ve chosen a holistic education for my kids – one that honours equally the contributions of the head, heart, hands and spirit (non-religious) because I’m not at all sure that the academic accomplishments so valued in our education system can serve our children well on their own. It ought to be coupled with full recognition and appreciation of their whole selves. When my boys move their bodies naturally, fluidly, in a field of sport or while exploring the depths of the ravine, I don’t see a way to let them let off steam so they can get to the real business of their worksheets: I see robust and magnificent body (or kinesthetic, if we’re being fancy) intelligence. And I think that without true development of the many intelligences that grace our world, our education system is quite seriously undermined.
I’m not an educator (and am full of respect for the many committed educators I both know and don’t know) but I have a simple view. Sometimes I think that what students really need isn’t more than same sex classes or technology or tutoring or studies but more people. Parents, teachers, mentors, and peers who are engaged with the whole person of the girl or boy before them, willing to see them through an early process of learning so that when adulthood comes, they know how to do this for themselves. I’m not sure there are any short cuts through the village.