Getting Past It: Let’s Look for Ways to Serve Multiple Intelligences
Young girl seated at desk in classroom in Chicago, Illinois, 1949. Image from Look Magazine feature 'Chicago city of contrasts'; photographer Stanley Kubrick. US Library of Congress
by Julia Sneden
Since the resurgence of feminism in the '60s, 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.
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