The school gender gap isn’t about girls anymore.
One of the greatest outcomes of the women’s movement has been to increase the resources spent on equalizing opportunities in education for North American girls. Whether it’s due to girls-only math classes, specialty science camps, or changing university entrance policies, girls have closed the gap and are consistently racing ahead in their elementary, secondary and post-secondary school performance.
This is great news for our daughters, but what’s happening with our sons? By almost any measure, Canadian boys from every demographic group are falling behind in school. Experts, administrators and teachers alike agree this national trend is reaching epidemic proportions. What’s up with these underperforming boys? How is our education system failing them? What can we do in class and at home to help bridge this gap?
The Boys’ Story
Consider these statistics:
→ Young boys are twice as likely as girls to be diagnosed with learning disabilities, held back, suspended or expelled, and four times more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder)
→ High-school boys are losing ground on standardized reading/writing tests and are 30% more likely to drop out
→ Men now make up only 40% of university graduates
→ Boys are 15 times more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol, twice as likely to die in a car crash and make up a full 85% of successful suicides.
This data is telling a story about an entire gender in crisis, and its indicators are being played out in classrooms across the country. Increasingly, boys feel they do not fit in or are not wanted in our schools.
We used to think that boys ‘aggressive’ tendencies could be tamed over time – that if exposed to the right stimuli, boys would become more ‘civilized’. Or in other words, more like girls. Research confirms, however, that innate gender differences – caused by male brain exposure to high levels of androgens (testosterone) in the uterus – to a great extent determine boys’ behaviour, the way they learn, their intrinsic abilities and their developmental trajectory.
The male brain is a biologically distinct captain driving the unique boy body. Boys are naturally more active than girls, tend to be visual rather than auditory learners, and have an easier time with gross motor and spatial abilities, but lag behind girls in fine motor and verbal skill development by up to four years.
While social/political/academic roles for girls and women changed over the years, we believed expectations for boys and men would also evolve. Yet in many ways, a boy is still at the mercy of the Boy Code – highly restrictive assumptions, models, and rules of our culture – that include proving strength, courage and manliness at the expense of his emotional well being. Big boys (still) don’t cry.
And boys are not necessarily being offered the tools to help them learn how to better manage their feelings of fear or uncertainty, or connect with others to get the help they need when they falter. The result is often a student who wears a mask of reticence, but is increasingly disconnected from his social and academic experiences at school.
More than ever, girls and boys are asked to sit still for circle time and ‘use their words’ to communicate with others as early as 3 ½ years old in junior kindergarten. Curriculum expectations have shifted significantly to include a number of stringent academic requirements – particularly around early reading and writing – well before grade 1. Many of these early expectations disadvantage active little boys whose verbal and fine motor skills are not as well developed at that age, making it harder for them to sit still, participate orally or even hold a pencil or paintbrush.
Social expectations have also radically evolved over the past 10 years: things boys enjoy, like the physical interaction of wrestling or mock fighting, or games that include pretend shooting or killing of bad guys are no longer tolerated. Even talk of violence, gross things or bodily functions (boy favourites) is consistently censured at school. A bewildered dad recently reported a substitute teacher refused to return to his son’s class due to the boy’s ‘potty talk’. The gold standard for behaviour is based on compliance and cooperation rather than inquisitiveness and competition; good news for girls but for boys, not so much.
Who is setting these standards? Generally speaking: women. Women have typically dominated preschool and early elementary education, but today positions of power and upper level administration are increasingly occupied by women. Add to this the prevalence of mothers on school councils and as primary caregivers in single parent homes (35-40% of households), and you have an entire subculture with a predisposition for gender bias throughout a boy’s education. This means that we women – as parents, caregivers, educators – would do well to exercise extra vigilance when working with boys in order to avoid falling prey to any preconceptions that may exist due to our biology or the more ‘feminine’ parts of our nature.
Right from the start, many boys are placed at a natural disadvantage in the traditional classroom. Not only are they developmentally delayed relative to their female peers, but they are also sent at every level – academically, socially, psychologically – the message that their natural interests and impulses are wrong or not good. As the years progress, academic success is increasingly narrowly defined and social expectations more stringent – boys are regularly outstripped by girls on standardized tests, but based on the Boy Code, find it almost impossible to ‘swallow their pride’ and ask for help. What boys want is respect for who they are and what they’re innately capable of; what they need is a variety of opportunities to excel on their own terms while being acknowledged as sensitive, vulnerable beings.
Making school success less of a ‘girl thing’ doesn’t mean going back to male-dominated learning environments. It is possible to find balance on the see-saw where both genders can thrive. Videogames provide good clues as to what attracts boys: 80% of videogame players are male – they like it because of the constant action, their control over the virtual environment and its level of difficulty, and the privacy of the defeat when they lose. Offering diverse opportunities for hands-on activities, project-based learning, boy-friendly literary content and interactive, multi-media modes of expression in the classroom, can appeal to both sexes.
Encouraging male mentors – dads, uncles, big brothers, etc. – is imperative for a boy’s success in school. Boys need male role models to teach them how to be both strong and sensitive, how to communicate their feelings with honesty while maintaining their sense of personal pride.
Perhaps the most powerful shift we can make, however, is in our attitudes. As women with influence in our school system, we have a responsibility to create an equal opportunity learning environment that is, above all, fair. This translates to an awareness of male student needs, sensitivity to their developmental limitations, and a tolerance of their interests. The less reactive we can be to their natural unruliness while finding opportunities for them to show what they know, the fewer boys we’ll leave behind.
MAKE IT BOY FRIENDLY
Boys like making real-life connections. They’re often interested in fact over fiction, sports, nature, music, action adventure and technology.
Use their passions to engage them:
Classrooms – offer choice, interactivity, multi-media projects & hands-on participation, plus outdoor study
Language – encourage verbal communication to build vocabulary and early language skills
Reading – try nonfiction, action & drama, graphic novels, comics, magazines, card collections, games
Writing – allow excitement, humour, ‘disgusting’ topics, irreverence for authority, originality, multi-media
Assessment – value quick pace, cinematic style, connection to popular culture, humour, independence
Play – acknowledge rambunctious play, frequent action breaks, recess & gym time are imperative; help find appropriate times & places
Behaviour – see conduct as active not aggressive, be flexible, discuss need for rules & safety procedures
Discipline – substitute collaboration for strict compliance, engage in negotiation & problem solving, offer opportunities for restoration, e.g. community service, helping others
Feelings – develop emotional literacy: build ‘feeling’ vocabulary beyond sad, mad and glad
Mentoring Boys (Barry MacDonald, Boy Smarts), www.mentoringboys.com
Understanding & Raising Boys, PBS Parents, www.pbs.org/parents/raisingboys
The Trouble with Boys, by Peg Tyre, www.pegtyre.com
Boys and Girls Learn Differently by Michael Gurian, www.gurianinstitute.com
Real Boys, Dr. W. S. Pollack, www.williampollack.com/bio.html
Game On for Learning: a hockey-based curriculum for language, math, history, art, etc. www.hockeycanada.ca/index.php/ci_id/57378/la_id/1.htm
Canadian Children’s Book Centre, www.bookcentre.ca