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Getting Past It

by Julia Sneden

Since the resurgence of feminism in the ‘60’s, there have been many studies of our educational system and its treatment of girls. Inequities have been noted, and the performances of girls have been charted in comparison to their male peers. The consciousness of educators thus raised, girls in school have made so much progress that they now represent more than 50% of all college students.

Then, in the recent past, there has been a backlash movement. According to some writers and researchers, we are now shortchanging our boys. Some psychologists point out that we do not encourage male children to express their feelings, which, they claim, then emerge as anger and violence toward society as the boys mature. Another writer actually entitled her book: The War Against Boys.

Psychologists long ago discovered that as a group, women score better on tests of verbal ability, and men score better on tests of mathematical ability. Their discovery gave rise to arguments about genetic disposition vs cultural influence: are we born this way, or does society push us into those learning/gender profiles?

It seems that girls are about a year and a half ahead of boys in reading and writing and math during the first years of elementary school. Somewhere around fifth or sixth grade, the dynamics change, and the boys catch up. By the end of junior high school, they are ahead, especially in science and math.

A look at the first three years of school (post-kindergarten) shows us that those years are basically about learning to read and write and memorize number facts and processes. The actual application of math and science skills usually comes into play later on, after third grade, as the students are expected to move along to more abstract thinking. Some people therefore find it logical that girls excel in the first years that are devoted to verbal skills, and boys excel later on...if, that is, females really do genetically possess better verbal abilities and males really do genetically possess better math abilities.

On the other hand, the believers in cultural influence point out that those first years of school are taught in ways that favor children who are ready to sit down and listen, and who are able to concentrate well enough to memorize. The restlessness of young boys, they believe, can be attributed to parents who encourage their sons’ interests in sports and rough play, and don’t encourage them to sit still long enough to focus in a classroom. The same people point out that, historically, girls were encouraged to enjoy quieter pursuits like drawing and sewing.

Then too, some people think that because most primary school teachers are women, their styles of teaching favor girls, and that as male teachers begin to predominate in the higher grades, their styles of teaching favor boys.

And some of us think that we need to move beyond this question. It seems to me that making blanket statements by gender isn’t worth our time. A girl who is a math whiz; a boy who is a brilliant writer; a woman who chooses science as a career; a man who teaches Shakespeare with a passion: none of these fits the profile offered by our statisticians and psychologists. Perhaps we should study those who deviate from the common expectations for their gender. Learners who have ignored the “norm” and have pursued individual interests probably have much to teach us.

The sex of one’s child is only a small part of the package. If we could stop treating individuals as A Boy or A Girl, we just might find the business of educating human beings a great deal more interesting, challenging, and rewarding. Certainly we would find it less limited and limiting. In this age, when technology makes the individualization of instruction more viable than it has ever been, shouldn’t we be focusing on every child’s whole persona and not on his or her gender?

It is time to discuss ways to individualize education, to break it away from the lock step, grade-by-grade progression with curriculum set rigidly for all learners at each level. It seems to me that our current practices destroy the excitement that learning should generate in each child. Along with that goes the destruction of hope — a much more likely cause of the anger and violence that exist in our society.

With the wonders of modern technology, shouldn’t it be possible for teachers to handle classrooms with children working at different levels and different subjects?

I’ve often cited my father’s tales of his childhood, when he attended a little, one-room school in what is now Silicon Valley, CA. The children in his classroom varied widely in age and ability, but they functioned side by side. The older children helped the younger. The children of Mexican immigrants learned English the way babies do, by hearing it spoken - but they learned it faster. The teacher, “Ol’ Sully” (Miss Sullivan, who was probably about 35) kept an eagle eye on everyone, tailoring the work to each child’s strength or weakness, and produced graduates who could read and write and think with the best of them, girls as well as boys.

Instead of our modern practice of cramming classes full of students perceived to be of roughly equal ability, wouldn’t it make better sense to have small classes with students of like age, each of whom was helped to learn at the pace suited to each individual?

Slow learners and average students, after all, do not necessarily learn less than “gifted” students. They simply learn at a different speed. They are often surprisingly thorough and reflective and creative students who retain what they learn as well as or better than those who learn things faster. An example of such a student is one of the men who discovered the double helix structure of DNA. He has an IQ well in the average range. Brilliance has no lock on perseverance or creativity.

While I’m at it, the idea that all our “gifted” students will be future leaders or discoverers or inventors, etc. is ludicrous. Some of them will be stuck in boring jobs; some will be criminals (the Unabomber comes to mind); some will fritter away their lives without finding any real focus. Their intellectual gifts offer no guarantee of their goodness or effectiveness as human beings.

We can, if we put our minds to it, find ways to tailor education to challenge academically gifted children without separating them entirely from their peers. We can individualize the curriculum even as we keep them with a peer group that is representative of the real world — which is, after all, where they will have to function when they leave school. All children need lessons in compassion and respect for others, especially for others unlike themselves. None need those lessons more than do our academically gifted children.

As a retired schoolteacher, I find myself thinking that both sides are right in the “Who is shortchanged in our schools?” question. Yes, girls may learn differently from boys, and boys may learn differently from girls. But these are not the only questions to consider. They are just one aspect of what plagues our schools.

Let’s open up the debate to include more than gender inequities. Let’s look for ways to serve multiple intelligences. Let’s create schools where everybody can be a somebody. Let’s do away with large classrooms and schools and even large school districts, and opt for education on a smaller, more human scale. And for heaven’s sake, let’s get started on correcting the problems and get on with the business of treating children of both sexes as individuals whom we are attempting to rear to be intelligent, responsible, productive citizens of the modern world.

 

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