Can Boys Do Better?  Robert Bray, Christopher Gardner, Nigel Parsons, Peter Downes, Geoff Hannan, KIng’s Wood, Bristol, 1997, 53 pages.

A much repeated fact in many of the books reviewed in this blog is the fact that males are disproportionately represented in the numbers of those with learning disabilities, behavioural disabilities, as well as those requiring modified or special education programs.  Even beyond the scope of these disabilities or dysfunctions, there is a generally recognized lack of engagement in school that is significantly more apparent in males than females.  This is not a problem confined to one country or region but seems in fact to be an increasing problem throughout much if not all of the English speaking world. Some countries, having been made aware of the problem, have made efforts in varying degrees to address the situation.  Others, have seemingly chosen to simply ignore it.  As it presently stands, there seems to be a general acceptance of the problem now as an ongoing and permanent characteristic of the educational landscape.

These issues were first identified in the 1980’s and gave rise to growing public awareness and varied responses.  The United States under President Clinton introduced legislation authorizing the establishment of same sex public educational alternatives as well as studies of their performance.  Similar actions were taken in England and Australia.  Experiments were also conducted in adjusting teaching practices and delivery in accordance with gender.  Canada was singular in its lack of concrete measures to react to the problem much less to recognize it as a problem capable of solution.

The publication currently under review is an interesting booklet produced on behalf of the SHA or Senior Heads Association in the UK that arose out of studies to identify the issue of overall student performance.  From this study it became apparent that improving the performance of boys was a “key target”:

“More boys than girls are excluded from school and there are six times as many boys as girls in special schools for pupils with behavioural difficulties.  Our prison population is 90% male.  There is a growth industry in developing policies, procedures, and equipment for the high profile issues of school security.”

Under the chapter heading of What is Causing Boys to Underachieve? The authors make the following observations:

  • pre-school girls seem to be better equipped for learning in terms of listening and reading
  • one in five 14 year old boys spend more than 20 hours a week playing video games and are addicted to the activity
  • creating a ‘cool to achieve’ environment is essential
  • boys want and need more active lessons and physical involvement rather than sitting and listening
  • we need to find different ways of validating what boys do
  • here is a need for firm deadlines, strict homework checks and consistently applied sanctions if work is not done
  • there is a need for clear guidance and defined objectives within a structured environment
  • boys openly work the system and disrupt poor teachers
  • boys need external approval for credibility other than their own performance
  • boys live on a mythology that there are jobs out there regardless of their school results and efforts
  • unacceptable behaviour needs correction and teacher vigilance
  • expectations of boys performance levels needs to be raised
  • diagnostic tests should be conducted in early years and parents alerted to downwards spirals
  • there should be a display of students work and photographs to highlight achievement
  • rewards should be presented in assemblies.

They go on to identify some specific research findings:

  • teenage girls tend to have social lives based upon communication where boys tend towards individual or group action
  • girls generally under-estimate their abilities and work harder to compensate where boys are frequently over-confident and over-estimate their abilities while at the same time fearing failure and the scorn of their peer group
  • girls are much better readers than boys by the age of 11
  • girls are more hard-working, organized and have a greater sense of individual progress than boys

Their conclusion:  “Girls, it would seem have both Nature and Nurture on their side.”

In the remaining chapters there are brief accounts of experimental approaches by various schools in dealing with the problem and their conclusions.  Some of these include:

  • that separate classes have a positive effect on both boys and girls
  • that not only content but teaching strategies need to be adjusted on the basis of gender
  • that boys generally require extra language tuition
  • that boys respond better to short term targets
  • that early intervention and raised expectations improve the performance of boys
  • that there is a need to confront head on the boys’ culture that sees hard work and effort as undesirable traits

Perhaps as telling as anything in this booklet are facts (collected over past few years-various sources) found in Appendix 1 – Some Research Findings:

  • Boys out-number girls 2 to 1 with learning difficulties
  • In special units the ratio is 6 to 1 in favour of boys
  • Girls outperform boys at GCSE in all but Double Science
  • Twice as many girls get a grade A at GCSE English as boys
  • Girls outperform boys generally at A Level
  • Women out-number men at university
  • Women are less likely to be unemployed after graduating
  • Boys prefer to read facts—girls prefer stories and creative accounts
  • Boys spend a lot more time watching TV and playing computer games, girls prefer to read and talk
  • By seven, about 1/3 of boys are struggling to read, only 1/5 of girls
  • Boys pretend not to be clever, girls pick on the ones who are not clever
  • 12% of boys are unhappy in secondary school-double the girls’ rate
  • Boys are twice as likely not to do homework, to play truant and miss lessons
  • Yet boys actually believe they are more clever than girls
  • 80% of girls plan to go on to college compared to 60% of boys
  • Poorly educated males are by far the most prominent group in the crime statistics
  • The suicide rate among young men has risen by 70% in the last decade and is five times that of females aged 15-24
  • Greatest influence is school improvement changing peer group culture.  Ideas include additional voluntary classes after school, recognizing and celebrating a wide range of achievements, major continuous focus on TLS (Literacy Skills)
  • We know that in reading boys already trail girls at age 7.  The gap has widened by 11.  Those who arrive at Secondary school with inadequate reading competence are predominately, but of course not solely, boys.  Their inadequacy in this respect prevents steady progress and can lead them into lack of motivation, disaffection and sometimes truancy.  Hence the gap at 16.

I think that this little booklet is an extremely good introduction to identifying the problems associated with the manner in which a substantial portion of boys are not responding positively to the existing school environments, the philosophies of education that have driven reforms in approach and thinking have assumed that gender is not an issue.  Whereas in the 60’s and 70’s the view was put forward that gender roles are solely a result of social conditioning, subsequent neurological  and behavioural studies have proven that genetic factors while perhaps not necessarily determining behavioural outcomes most certainly facilitate them.  The fact that there exists resistance or even a flat denial of that science underscores the increasingly evident fact that political positioning is all too often prepared to sacrifice objectivity on the altar of self-serving subjectivity.

The bending of reality to conform to a preferred view of the world might be said to be to some degree characteristic of all human behaviour.  However, the intransigence of belief to yield to facts is a feature that is presenting a growing peril to our individual and collective ability to confront problems social and otherwise in a realistic and productive manner.  In approaches to education, there should be an examination of facts rather than a resort to dogma. Many of the applications of progressive educational views in the public sector have been based upon self-evident truths rather than reasoned arguments and now reside as part of the general slumber of popular opinion.

It would appear that despite having the issues discussed here brought out in the open, not only do the problems still exist but there is a reluctance to address them.  Up until the 1960’s there were general prejudices in place with regards to the abilities of girls in certain subjects.  Girls, it was widely believed could not be good in sciences and math.  Many girls believed this and therefore adopted a self-limiting view of themselves.   The rare exceptions were invariably regarded as outliers both by other girls as well as by males.   Whatever factors contributed to this in the past, changes to the school system and cultural norms have now more than corrected this but the pendulum has now clearly swung in the opposite direction. 

Surely the objective of education should be to provide an environment that supports validation for boys and girls and enables them to actualize their potential.  That goal requires the development of emotional regulation and the subsequent ability to harness emotion and intellect towards productive paths leading ultimately to personal fulfilment and happiness.   School systems and philosophies that continue to not meet the needs of boys are therefore culpable at many levels.  There is the human waste of boys growing into troubled adulthood incapable of personal happiness and subject to mental illnesses.  There is also beyond this the waste to society at large where their productive lives would have contributed to the sum total of collective productivity and happiness.

There are those who may feel that the present inequality in outcome is a justifiable compensation for the past inequalities facing girls in terms of career opportunity and restrictive roles.  It is however a morally flawed opinion to assume that perceived injustices in the past can be rectified by perpetrating present ones. 

A very striking fact emerges from a review of the results and conclusions from this little booklet that indeed is echoed in much of the literature surrounding problems associated with boys and their schooling.  That fact simply stated is that many of the characteristics of ‘modern’ educational theories and practices that have replaced earlier ones work much better for girls than boys and that the previous practices worked better for boys than girls.  Perhaps the wisdom of earlier discarded methods should be respected for having evolved over time to meet needs based upon observable results.  Perhaps the baby, or at least her brother, was indeed thrown out with the bath water.

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