What Boys and Girls Alike Need to Succeed at School

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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.

Is There a Crisis in Boys’ Education?

I feel as though I spend a great deal of my parenting energy fighting boy behaviour.  While I’ve given up entirely on stopping my three boys from making guns out of whatever material comes to hand, I feel I wage a constant battle to put a stop to other undesirable boy behaviour: taming their tendency towards violent play, stopping rough-housing before it gets out of hand, keeping the noise levels tolerable, taking their dinner chairs away and making them stand if I have to ask them too many times to just sit down and eat for the love of god, discouraging loud burps and farts.  I do not look at my battle as a war on boyhood.  I look at it as a civilizing mission.  I’m not telling them that what they are and how they want to play is bad; I’m making sure that their choices are consistent with civility and with a mission to do no harm, to self or to society.  If I surrendered to my instincts, I’d stay in bed all day with a book.  Neither that nor running screaming through the streets, as Youngest is wont to do, is going to do anyone any good if it’s the norm rather than the exception.

the-element-bookI agree that the model of education in most schools is guilty of a similar suppression of a lot of boy energy, and  I applaud teachers who are keen to get their students up and moving and using all their different kinds of intelligence.   Inspired by Sarah Easterbrook’s interview last week, I watched all the You Tube videos I could find of Ken Robinson, then I read his book, The Element.  He is wonderful about teaching us about the outliers who do not fit the mold, and who shine when they are able to be their true selves.  But there is still a time when bums have to be in seats and lips zipped.  We have to hold kids accountable to that, too.  We have to be clear that we have expectations, and we have to encourage our boys to meet them.

I was saddened to read in the first article in the Globe and Mail series from 2010 that

Nearly 70 per cent of parents said they expected their 15-year-old daughters would complete a university degree. Yet only 60 per cent had the same expectation of their 15-year-old sons.

“I think too many of us accept the failure of boys, we say, ‘Well, that’s just the way boys are,’ there’s a social impulse in that direction, that even our expectations are lower,” Dr. Cappon said. “We don’t pay nearly enough attention to their needs and aspirations, take seriously their interests, and what motivates them, whether it’s reading comics or science fiction. It isn’t at all clear that schools have taken account of that.”

But if part of the problem is having lower expectations of boys, then isn’t part of the solution to have high expectations of all students?

I spent a year teaching literacy to adults, teaching men who went from functional illiteracy to Grade 9 or Grade 12 equivalency.  My students were all men, injured at work and having to go back to school to get new jobs through a government re-training programme.  They had all dropped out or been kicked out of school; they were able to find work that suited them better.  Until they could no longer do that work, I don’t think any of them would have gone back to school, and believe me when I tell you that some of them very much resented having to go back to what was obviously something they thought they’d left behind.  They all earned 80% or higher on all of their work.  (For the Americans in the audience, that’s an A- in Canada.)  We had high expectations of this group of students: 80% was our passing mark, and they all did it.  It took injury and many hours of intensive teaching and studying, but they graduated with marks that I’m sure their younger selves would never have expected.  I could not have been more different from those men, but I hope we shared the same degree of pride at their success.

If I am perfectly honest, I know that it was that job that taught me how to punctuate a sentence properly, and not my own experience of Grade 9 to Grade 12.  I could not have recited the rule for semi-colon use before that job, nor could I recite the six occasions on which it is appropriate to use a comma; now I can.  I got through graduate school without the command of grammar that I am convinced can only come from having to teach it.  I persuade myself every day that Eldest will eventually learn to write in full sentences by default and that Middlest will remember to put a period at the end of every sentence.  One day, it will, finally, sink in.

I do worry a little about the boys’ reading and writing.  They were all late readers, and they are not great writers.  I view that as a need for more training, not a lack of ability, and we supplement school with writing instruction to help bring them up to speed.  I aim to read to them for an hour a day, and I pick the books.  (They can read whatever they want to when they get their own time with books.  Who am I to dictate taste?  As long as I don’t have to read a Lego Ninjago book, I’m good.)  I don’t manage it every day, and sometimes we have to surrender reading to rink time or the almighty clock, but I work really, really hard to make sure that more often than not, we end the day with an hour of books that we all enjoy.  Is this to make up for a boy deficit in language?  No.  It’s because it’s a passion and the boys experience it as one.  They will grow up knowing that books are precious, that time to read is made and not found, and, for now, that is more important than their punctuating perfectly or beating the girls’ average in English class.

And the boys do all have girls in their classes.  I do not think that an all-boys’ school is the answer to boys’ educational needs.  They need to see girls and women as leaders, colleagues and competitors.

Eldest is thrilled to have a male teacher this year.  Why?  Because he does not believe in homework.  That’s not gender-specific.  Of course, I’m happy that my boys are happy when they have male teachers.  I’m not worried that there are too few; I’m worried that we undervalue teaching as a profession.  I’m not surprised that more men are not attracted to the profession.  We do not respect or reward our teachers nearly enough.  One proposal from an advocate for getting more men into teaching is to have

A marketing campaign, similar to billboards used to attract women to apprenticeship programs, … with images of men working with young children, so society can see men that way, and men can see themselves that way.

I’d rather see those dollars go towards a pay raise, for male and female teachers.  We value them too little.

Again, it’s part of my civilizing mission to make sure that my kids do respect the adult at the front of the class, male or female.  I do not advocate blind adherence to authority, but I insist on respect for the person whose job it is to take care of you: babysitter, teacher, coach, grandparent or parent.  My message is always the same: work hard, have fun, but don’t make it anyone else’s job to manage your behaviour.

Is there a crisis in boys’ education?  I don’t think it’s productive or necessary to ring alarm bells.  Men still earn more than women.  Men still outnumber women in positions of power and prestige.   But we do all need to work hard to keep all of our kids engaged and living up to their potential.