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Moving On

by Julia Sneden

Since the resurgence of feminism in the 60s, there have been many studies of our educational system and how it treats girls. Inequities have been noted, and the performances of girls charted in comparison to their male peers. During the late 80s and 90s, many educators enrolled in gender equity workshops and classes, in an effort to understand the problems and develop skills to deal with them.
     Then, in the past couple of years, another question has arisen. According to some writers and researchers, we are now shortchanging our boys. One psychologist feels that we do not allow male children to express their feelings, and thus society reaps anger and violence as the boys mature. Another writer has actually entitled her work: The War Against Boys.
     In the early 90s, I attended a couple of gender-equity workshops whose purpose was to show teachers that they respond differently to male and female students. In one session, we were shown a film of an actual junior high school class session, and at the end, were asked how many of us thought the teacher had given equal treatment to both girls and boys. To my horror, about 80% of our faculty raised their hands in agreement that the teacher had been evenhanded. It was clear to the rest of us that:

  • The teacher had called on the boys much more frequently. She had also asked the girls questions that required a yes/no answer whereas the boys were asked for their opinions and made to defend their thinking;
  • Every child asked to read aloud was female;
  • The teachers responses to girls answers tended to be short (Yes, Right, or even just a nod), but longer and more supportive (Well done; I like the way youetc.) to boys. 
  • Girls were the only ones asked to do helping tasks like distributing or picking up test papers.  And that was just the beginning.
      I learned a lot from the workshops, even though I was already pretty much aware of the gender gap. I attended girls schools from 5th grade on, except for the year I was 19, when I enrolled in a large, state university during a years leave of absence from my college. I had a fine time during that year (I even met the man I married, many years later), but I was stunned by the dont - bother - your - pretty - little - head - about - it  attitude of my professors. When I raised my hand, it was almost always ignored, and if I made so bold as to offer up an opinion about something, my contribution was usually received with a brief and dismissive Thank you. My grades were splendid but I was left with the uneasy feeling that I had done little to earn them. It was a relief to return to my college, where I was expected to think and to be able to defend my statements (and my grades, alas, werent nearly as good but thats another story).
     But what of the boys? What kinds of disservices do we do them? How much harm, for instance, do we cause when we shrug and mindlessly repeat old nonsense like: Boys will be boys or Big boys dont cry? Surely, looking the other way when a male child is mischievous or obstreperous does him great disservice. And requiring him to lock up his honest emotional responses is blatantly unfair. 
     Beyond that, what message do we send when we treat a male child as a preferred learner by putting down the girls in subtle ways?
     It is often noted that girls are about a year and a half ahead of boys in reading and writing 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.
     As a group, adult women score higher on tests involving verbal skills than men do, and (again, as a group) adult men score higher than women on tests involving science and mathematics. Since the first years of school involve learning to read and write and memorize number facts and processes, and the application of math and science skills comes into play later on (after elementary school), some people find it logical that the girls excel in the first years, and boys later on. If, that is, women are truly more able verbally and men are truly more able mathematically. But even that conclusion is open to question. And even if it is true, no one is certain whether the observed difference by gender is cultural or innate.
     Some people attribute the restlessness of young boys to parents who encourage them to be interested in sports and rough play, and dont teach them how to sit still long enough to focus in a classroom early on. The same people point out that, historically, girls were encouraged to enjoy quieter pursuits. 
     Then again, 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. 
     Other people are quite certain that the gender differences in learning styles and abilities are innate. 
     And some of us think that making blanket statements by gender group defeats the whole purpose of education. 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. There may be merit in looking carefully at those who deviate from that megalithic group profile. Learners who have ignored the norm and have pursued individual interests probably have much to teach us.
      Having reared three boys whose classroom performances and interests varied as widely as do their personalities, I cant help wondering if perhaps we should back off from looking for answers-by-gender. The sex of ones 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, shouldnt we be focusing on every childs whole persona and not his or her sex?
       Perhaps 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. With all the wonders of modern technology, shouldnt it be possible for teachers to handle classrooms with children working at different levels and different subjects? 
      I remember my fathers 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 Mexican children learned English the way babies do, only faster, through total immersion. The teacher, Ol Sully (Mrs. Sullivan, who was probably about 35) kept an eagle eye on everyone, 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, wouldnt 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 creativity.
     While Im 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. (As someone once said of Hitler, a brilliant monster is still a monster).      
     Surely we can find ways to tailor education to challenge academically gifted children without separating them entirely from their peers. Surely 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 humility and compassion and respect for others, and 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 are often treated unequally in the classroom. Yes, boys have tender, nurturing sides to them that often they are not encouraged to develop. But these are not the only questions to consider. They are just one aspect of what plagues our schools. Lets open up the debate to include more than gender inequities. Lets talk about serving multiple intelligences. Lets create schools where everybody can be somebody. And for heavens sake, lets get started on correcting those problems and get on with the business of treating children of both sexes as human beings, as individuals whom we are attempting to rear to be intelligent, responsible, productive citizens of the modern world.



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