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Boys at School

By Harald Breiding-Buss

Are boys dumber than girls, or why is it that they are lagging behind at school almost from day one? If you had been listening to Youth Minister Laila Harre at the last social policy forum organised by the Father&Child Trust in Wellington, you would have thought this is pretty much what the government thinks.

Now that discrimination against girls is removed from schools, their true light simply shines through, the argument goes.

But doing parent helps at my daughters’ primary school, I can’t help but noticing that many teachers do not seem to be very good in managing the boys. There is sometimes heavy stereotyping and blaming, and I get the feeling as far as some teachers are concerned, boys are from a different planet. They have given up on them even before they entered the classroom.

I also can’t help but feeling that many children, and a lot of them boys, are pressed into a system of learning that clearly doesn’t suit them.

Children with short attention spans are no less smarter than others, but they do not learn well if they have to endure prolonged periods of sitting still and listening.

The occasional bout of stretching does not help much in this respect. These kids, and boys are very much overrepresented in this category, need to learn by doing, by having fun.

Steve Biddulph, in his book Raising Boys, says boys are not really ready to start school before they are six.

Some teachers agree with him, but.the main reason behind this assumption seems to be many boys’ struggling with picking up reading and writing, which is the first thing taught at school.

As a group, however, they still learn to handle numbers and maths faster than girls even at this level. Furthermore, in every class you also find one or two boys at the very top in reading and writing.

What may be true when comparing boys and girls as groups may not be true for individuals.

Maths, of course, appeals to short attention spans. Add two numbers up and you have a result. It takes you a few seconds to do that and gives instant satisfaction.

Even the more complicated mathematical problems at a higher level provide this satisfaction: there is a clear solution for the problem and you just have to work it out. It is a process very much aking to “fixing” something.

Learning to read is a much more protracted process, and the child cannot really understand the benefits of being able to read. The daily work at school becomes a chore and some boys will try to find shortcuts by muddling their way through.

In international comparisons of education outcomes, Japanese students regularly come out on top. What researchers have discovered when they started asking why is not so much an education system that enforces discipline much more strictly than we do.

The Japanese also teach in entirely different ways. They use a discovery method of teaching.

It works this way: students are presented with a problem they cannot yet solve with the tools they have learned so far. As they are presented with the problem they start thinking about what they need to solve it, and some of this happens in working groups, some of it in the whole class.

As the class goes along, the teacher provides the tools and the information the students need, bit by bit, as they require.

This method of teaching is almost the direct opposite of the style used in our schools, where the tools are given first, and then practiced through exercises.

At early primary level, a large part of teaching consists of plain copying and involves very little challenge for the brain.

Both teaching styles are suitable for different learning styles; however the Japanese method seems to be more successful with boys, as it appeals to their sense of exploration and adventure.

In our schools, this sense is seen more as a problem: it causes boys to be unruly and to engage in risk taking. I believe we need to start seeing it as a potential. We want our men to be problem-solvers after all.

If you are faced with a burning building, you have to solve the problems of rescuing whatever needs to be saved without handbooks.

The police, computer jobs, management – all those jobs have a strong element of relatively fast problem-solving by analysing the problem quickly and acting on it. All those jobs are dominated by men.

But how much of the problem that boys are lagging behind in schools is caused by the fact that most teachers, especially at primary level, are female?

Research has actually found that boys learn to read and write faster from female teachers than male ones – the opposite of what you would expect if a lack of male role models was the problem.

However, it could also be that male teachers have a lower priority in teaching boys to read and write as early as possible, and put more emphasis on exploring their other potentials instead.

If my impression is true that many female teachers simply don’t understand how some boys “work”, more male input in the education of boys must be hugely beneficial.

This doesn’t necessarily require more male teachers, but certainly more male parents, teacher aids or other volunteers actively involved in the classroom, and actively involved in designing teaching plans.

It requires both, dads rolling their sleeves up and getting involved, and schools doing much more to accommodate and welcome men.

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