Sunday, 11 September 2011

Gendered education

Coasting around some teaching resources I came across this blog post from an educator in Thailand who is connected to an international school.

The author has been looking into boys education and they're concerned with the way education seems to have been benefiting girls in the past few decades. He says:
...the evidence has been emerging around the world since the late 90’s showing that boys are struggling in school far more than their fathers’ ever did. The evidence shows that "girls on average outperform boys in school, when measured by report card grades, in most subjects and in all age groups."
I don't know if these grades are against criteria or against groups, but there are a lot of factors that could skew these results. For instance, in my father's generation, students who were typically non-academic would have left in Year 8 and gone onto (respected) career-specific training, thus removing themselves from the cohort who would contribute to this kind of data. These days non-academic students are kept in school and their contributions may create a lower average. There're also the changes in teacher education and possibly generational attitudes towards genders and how teacher might grade a student's understanding. Although I don't understand how this kind of skewing could be accounted for in statistics, I am trusting it's been absorbed and suitable allowances made.

Now, I've read a few things about gender and gender issues in education, but I haven't written much on the matter. So please bare with me as I bash out my gut feelings about this***. These are the areas that the author is discussing. They seem to be sourced from some texts on the topic. I'm going to group them into two areas: differences that can be quantified and differences that are hard to quantify.

Areas that I think can be quantified:
  • Girls are born with more sensitive hearing than boys and this difference increases with age.
  • Girls develop a link between the amygdala and the cerebral cortex much earlier than boys.
  • There is apparently a difference in the anatomy of the eye in which the male retina is thicker than a female’s due to cell composition. This leads to preferences regarding colours and motion.
  • ... males and females navigate differently and will give directions using different words.
  • And one I'm tentative about: ...boys tend to be ready later for being introduced to the skills of reading and writing than girls. This is most probably due to the fact that boys and girls brains develop in a different sequence
Areas that I think are hard to quantify:
  • Boys and girls like to read different types of books because of the way their brain develops. Girls enjoy fiction, short stories and novels....Boys on the other hand prefer nonfiction, action books with strong male characters who often act as brave heroes.
  • Boys and girls have different perspectives about friendships. Girls enjoy spending time together, face to face, talking and sharing secrets and self disclosure. Whereas boys friendships tend to develop out of shared interest in a game or activity.
  • Males are innately more aggressive than females due to the hormone testosterone. Boys enjoy ‘rough and tumble’ play fighting as it releases aggression, whereas girls do not have this need.
  • Boys find risks irresistible, they admire others who take risks and get a thrill from physically risky activities.
So about half the differences of concern are, in my non-psychologically-qualified opinion, very difficult to measure. As far as gathering evidence goes, how these conclusions can possibly be separated from a child's training and cultural influence concerns me. So I shall go through these assertions with these disclosures*:
  • Types of books: In my class, on average, there are a few more boys than girls who enjoy war stories, and the Horrible Histories. The war stories ones are clearly pitched at boys, though, so it's hard to gauge what's causing that preference.
    However, series that are about child spies, or apocalyptic situations where violence or death are involved, are enjoyed equally by boys and girls. The girls love strong characters like Ellie Linton, or James Adams, just like the boys do.
    I had a new student start with us, from South Korea, and he was a fantastic person and quickly settled into the class, making lots of friends. His first books were The Baby Sitters Club, partly for the reading level and partly for the topic. It was two weeks before one of the boys pointed out it was generally 'a girls' book' but I did like the way he said "Just so you know" to insist that he wasn't teasing.
    The boys don't read the 'girls'' stories as much as the girls read the 'boys''. But I don't think this is an 'topic per gender' issue. Most of the stories promoted to us are male stories, and just as it's now OK for girls to wear pants, its more acceptable for a girl to read 'boys'' stories than vice versa. This issue is more complicated that individual preference.
  • Perspectives about friendship: The boys worry and care about friendships as much as the girls. Not every girl wants a 'friendship' with their teacher, and many of the boys do. Physical contact (or lack of) from a teacher has its place for all students, and whether and when it's used depends on the student and their needs at the time much more than their gender.
  • Boys being 'more aggressive': This is a gross simplification of the way boys play. Their play can be better characterised by contact and this is sometimes aggressive.
    When Year 5 and 6 classes move around the school there are often pairs of girls, individual girls and boys and one or two amoeba-like masses of boys. They're not fighting or rough-housing as such, but they like the contact. The way they seek contact with their female friends is different. (It's worth noting too, that there are fewer acceptable ways for them to do this, without people linking it to romance, even if it isn't there.)
    I suspect it would be hard to tell the difference between a desire for aggressive play and a desire for contact that can be justified with socially-acceptable aggressive play. This aspect relates back to the previous point of contact in friendships and contact when working with boys.
  • Boys find risks irresistible: If I say "Well, boys will be boys" is it clear that I'm using that phrase ironically? Boys are taught that risky behaviour is boyish. I just don't see it at school. Girls do risky behaviour as well, often during class, and both groups do it physical and socially.
With differences that are quantifiable, I believe these needs can be supported in the classroom with differentiated lessons and delivery. With the other points, there are simply too many contradictions to the rule to allow these trends to be guiding forces in large educational reform.

The author finishes with some questions, including these two, which I'll answer from my point of view.

Should boys and girls be subjected to the same set of discipline codes and procedures?

Yes, as we all should (and often do) in the rest of the world.

Biggest question of all, should boys and girls be educated in the same school?

Yes, if a family should choose it and they should have the right to decide this.

I think some boys and some girls would be suited to gendered education, but not all, and possibly not for their entire education. Consider this:
  • If men are so different to me, how would an "exclusive girls' education" prepare me to understand, work and live with them?

  • How many wonderful, enriching friendships would I miss if I couldn't meet all those male people?

  • How would a boys' school counterbalance the 'boys will be boys' excuses in the more damaging behaviours in our society. There are men who have an overblown sense of entitlement and are dysfunctional towards women**; how will a boys' education adequately and respectfully support equity and equality across the genders when one is absent and (possibly) silenced? How would an exclusive girls' education address this issue?

  • How would gendered education, which is basing itself on generally shared tendencies, cater for and support intersex or transgender students?
The author's ultimate suggestion is to seriously consider an education system that is completely single-sex (possibly with boys and girls classes within a co-ed campus, but this is me hoping). Shall I expect, then, a suitably divided society in the future? Shall I expect blog posts on "We need schools for slightly effeminate boys who may or may not be gay"?

There are differences between girls and boys, but there is an significant overlap in that Venn diagram. I'm not suggesting we ignore the needs of boys or the needs of girls; I am suggesting that to treat them all as though they're two distinct and separate groups is risky for their education and disrespectful to their individuality.

*I teach 10-12 year olds in a co-ed government school in eastern Melbourne, Australia. We have a thriving and competitive sport program and a number of extension opportunities for academically strong students. On average the cohort performs at or above standard against our curriculum and on most competition tests. The community is very culturally diverse with families coming from Angelo-Saxon Australian, Indian, Chinese and many other countries. Last year I have 11 different languages spoken at home, this year, seven. Our families would be considered affluent, with a strong work ethic and value for education. We have girls teams for both soccer and Australian Rules Football.
** Need I mention the challenges presented in male sports?
*** Any tips? I've made an effort to keep the gendered language neutral but I'm unpractised - any advice welcome.

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