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January 25, 2006

Oh Boy!

Amy Dunkin

Newsweek's cover story this week on "The Boy Crisis" is yet another take on why the educational system may be failing boys. In fact, BusinessWeek's own Working Life editor, Michelle Conlin, covered this subject most eloquently in her May 23, 2003 cover story, "The New Gender Gap."

I witnessed a graphic demonstration of the gender differences alluded to in both pieces just a few days ago, on a field trip with 20 third and fourth graders to a Jewish cultural museum in Manhattan.

All the kids, my 9-year-old son included, were thoroughly engaged in the hands-on, interactive exhibits about ancient Near Eastern civilization, whether it was shooting a bow and arrow or digging through sand to find archaeological treasures.

But when it came time for the discussion circle, a remarkable thing happened: The girls were doing all the talking. Meanwhile, the boys mostly were doing anything but. They were squirming, their eyes were wandering all over the room, they were biting their fingers and rolling around on the floor. Yet when I nudged my son, he insisted he was listening.

I do believe all the children learned something on this trip. But by observing how they learned, it helped me--mother of two boys--better understand what teachers have to do to keep our children involved and engaged.

Conlin hit the nail on the head in her story. I'd like to quote from it:

"It may still be a man's world. But it is no longer, in any way, a boy's. From his first days in school, an average boy is already developmentally two years behind the girls in reading and writing. Yet he's often expected to learn the same things in the same way in the same amount of time. While every nerve in his body tells him to run, he has to sit still and listen for almost eight hours a day. Biologically, he needs about four recesses a day, but he's lucky if he gets one...

"...The reigning sit-still-and-listen paradigm isn't ideal for either sex. But it's one girls often tolerate better than boys. Girls have more intricate sensory capacities and biosocial aptitudes to decipher exactly what the teacher wants, whereas boys tend to be more anti-authoritarian, competitive, and risk-taking. They often don't bother with such details as writing their names in the exact place instructed by the teacher...

"...Experts are designing new developmentally appropriate, child-initiated learning that concentrates on problem-solving, not just test-taking. This approach benefits both sexes but especially boys, given that they tend to learn best through action, not just talk. Activities are geared toward the child's interest level and temperament. Boys, for example, can learn math through counting pinecones, biology through mucking around in a pond. They can read Harry Potter instead of Little House on the Prairie, and write about aliens attacking a hospital rather than about how to care for people in the hospital. If they get antsy, they can leave a teacher's lecture and go to an activity center replete with computers and manipulable objects that support the lesson plan."

What have you observed with your own children? Do you think the boys are getting short shrift? Or is your school taking a creative approach to teaching both sexes?

02:21 PM

Education

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My second-grade son is a very good reader, and tested high enough to be put into an Advanced Reading class which meets every day. But he complained to me the first week that he didn't like to go because "it's all girls!"

Posted by: Phil at January 30, 2006 04:18 AM

Other countries with significantly better educational systems (read: most of Europe and Asia) don't seem to have this problem of boys vs. girls. Why is the US struggling with this? Can we look at other systems and borrow what they're doing to help boys and girls do better?

Posted by: Jane at February 1, 2006 06:28 PM

As a mother of three sons and an educator I agree with you. Boys do learn differently than girls however elementary classes are not geared towards their physical and emotional needs.

The negative feedback they get from teachers in the early grades because they do not sit still and "listen" affects their self esteem. Perhaps they are bored and not being challanged.

Posted by: rosanne rosenberg at February 5, 2006 10:11 PM

It really bothers me when school authorities punish kids, especially active boys, by taking away their recess. "You have to take away what they really like," one mother of a quiet girl told me. But it seems to me they're causing bigger problems. Kids NEED to run around and exercise their big muscles. ADHD, sensory impaired and otherwise active kids do much better when they get some action. My son's teacher takes away free computer time or something like that. More often she tries to allow her students to move around throughout the day, and then doesn't need to take away anything.

Posted by: Ellen at March 11, 2006 11:26 AM

I just have to nod my head as this is such common sense. Little girls and women do not know what it is to be a little boy, and what we collectively done is embarrassing. Last night at a friends house I heard her say to her son after he fumbled some game pieces to the floor- You see J, that is why girls will always be better than boys" She meant it as a joke- but after asking her myself- would she ever say to J, "You see J, that is why boys will always be better than girls" her pat response was no. The latter is unthinkable, the aforementioned I am afraid is part of the common psyche.

Posted by: TK at December 28, 2006 03:25 PM


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