Girls are doing better?

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The score was 2-nil. The crowd knew it. The players knew it (and knew who’d headed the ball into the net and struck home the penalty goal). But when the whistle blew to signal the end of the game it was declared a draw.

No record of the final score was taken. It wasn’t even mentioned. No tally of goals or player-of-the-match award. Just polite clapping.

The strangeness of it all, and the uneasiness I felt, was not lessened by a teacher assuring me that ‘participation’ was all that mattered—that score-keeping was competitive and damaging to children’s ‘self-esteem’. A new-era in education was dawning, she told me: one that would end inequality. The irony that declaring a ‘draw’ was tantamount to assuming a final (albeit wrong) score was lost on her.

I could not see her point.

But my daughter and her friends had seen who had put the ball in the net. They knew who were the most skilled in the team; they rejoiced (loudly) in their prowess; and delighted in the fact their team had won. Reality bit, despite the rhetoric. 2-nil.

The training they’d done was worth it. They got their reward. Even if the school refused to acknowledge it.

I had been told years before that girls weren’t competitive. Policy at my daughter’s school assumed that if they were (an admission in itself), they could be made to be otherwise, and that it was desirable to make them so. The policy erred, and thankfully failed.

Girls are competitive and policy can’t change the fact. And it is not just girls. It is a human disposition. A good one: it drives innovation and leads people to excel. Sport is an arena that make this transparently obvious. Technology is another. Schooling should be a third.

One Tuesday, years ago, at 10.45am, I came to realise how competitive girls are. It was a new semester and I had been transferred to an all girls’ school to teach. A bit of an experiment and a nod to changing times: first male on the staff. I had taught all the headmistresses’ sons at another school, and she picked me for the post as she trusted me.

27 seventeen year-old girls, immaculately dressed were waiting for me. A highly intelligent mass of observational power. I had never felt self-conscious in a classroom before; I did then. There was no noise, no hubbub, no friendly banter (my experience of teaching boys). Just 27 girls, alert, watching me, listening to me; trying to figure out what it was that stood in front of them. But ready to work, if, they chose to take me seriously.

Over the following weeks I learned (1) it was unwise to speak sharply to them. A wall would be up for the next lesson, and the next, and the next…

With the boys, you could have a pretty brutal set-too on an issue—the sloppiness of their work, their inattentiveness, etc.—and it would be all smiles next day. Perhaps shorter memories or a more happy-go-lucky attitude.

I also learned (2) that girls were not only competitive, but they were leaving boys behind academically (and in many ways socially). At the close of the year 48 of my 54 female students achieved A+ (the six others gaining straight As).

The girls were more focused and more ambitious, too. They enjoyed learning for its own sake and knew where they were going.

All this means that if you are a teacher who really loves your material and can communicate that love well and to good ends, then teaching in an all-girls environment is an energizing, almost electrifying experience. The excitement of learning becomes self-sustaining, with students moving from mastery of a subject area to creative application.

Over the last 10 years, the observation that girls are academically ambitious has been confirmed. Girls are running away with the prizes. While women have not achieved parity in senior executive and board room levels yet, it is only a matter of time until they do so. In schools and universities they are excelling.

This is fantastic news and it will be even better news when it becomes a global trend. Girls are doing really well in Australia, New Zealand, America and much of the West, but in many parts of the globe it is more difficult for them to do so.

As well as an upward swing for girls academically, however, there appears to be a downward one for boys. And this is not such good news. It’s not simply that girls are doing really well (and boys are achieving much the same results as they have always achieved); it is boys are not doing as well as they have done, historically.

There is an increasing level of anxiety among policymakers and educators about boys’ underachievement. The subject has drawn a lot media discussion; and there is a growing body of research on the issue, also.

The research seems to confirm that especially during their teenage years, girls are more focused, disciplined and collaborative than boys in the classroom. Further, they exhibit higher degrees of self-regulation—of planning work and completing tasks. There is evidence, too, that suggests girls are better than boys at following guidelines, directions and instructions. In short, they are more attentive.

As I’ve already noted, girls are certainly competitive (highly so); additionally, research tells us they currently possess much higher literacy levels (they read more deeply and more widely than boys), and they’ve higher expectations of themselves, and bigger aspirations than their counterparts.

What are other possible reasons for the growing gap between boys and girls’ achievement?

A classic response highlights differences in maturity levels: girls mature quicker than boys (who at 16 are more interested in cars, sport and goofing around than in academy—than in being ‘coneheads’). If this is true, then just as girls are maturing earlier, so boys now seem to be maturing later (or hardly at all during their teenage years!). What are the biological and/or social and cultural factors that might’ve brought this about?

It is difficult to know. Some commentators tell us that in the educational sphere the feminisation of the curriculum is one cultural factor.

I would describe this as less about curriculum, and more the pedagogy; although I doubt the theory. The argument is that collaborative, discursive and explorative exercises in the classroom are somehow more feminine in character than masculine, and that therefore girls benefit from such pedagogy. That male pedagogy is didactic with a teacher telling students what they need to know like a staff sergeant drilling cadets. Even if we can describe pedagogical practices as male or female, it is not self-evident that students would benefit from specifically ‘gendered’ practices—a ‘male’ activity as opposed to a ‘female’ one. On the contrary, a mix of pedagogical activities (whether ‘male’ or ‘female’) is just about always better than one or two alone.

Other research suggests the absence of male teachers or ‘role models’ is a factor in boys underachievement and classroom disinterest. It is indisputable that there is a shortage of male teachers, especially in primary education. And the low prestige of teaching in the West, poor remuneration and the sheer hardship of the job in many schools has added to the attrition rates; additionally, there has been a series of high profile cases against male pedophiles working in child centres and elementary schools. Males who might otherwise have gone into teaching have shied away from the profession, anxious of being tainted by association.

The weight of evidence does suggest boys are inspired by strong male role models. If so then a second factor, relating to men, might also be significant in boys underachievement: an increasingly powerful voice in the discussion points to the problem of fatherlessness. Not only do many teenage boys lack a male role model in the classroom; they also are absent one at home.

The challenge of fatherlessness—or father ‘absence’—is externalised by boys by restlessness (commonly seen in the classroom), inattentiveness, and the failure to identify and pursue goals. And the unhappiness associated with it is worked out physically and too often violently.

With girls, psychologists indicate, the experience of fatherlessness (if not dealt with) is internalised and then expressed in ‘cutting’, drugs, promiscuity and binge drinking.

The point is fatherlessness or father absenteeism is commonplace in our schools and it is held to be a contributing factor in boys’ poor academic showing.

Whatever the causes of boys’ falling away in school (and university achievement) several solutions to the problem have been put forward.

Some schools have trialed more time for recess, so ‘boys can be boys’ (presumably running around and burning off more energy). In New Zealand, one school is experimenting with no banned physical activities during recess (climbing trees, wrestling, British Bulldog, etc.—). Counter-intuitively, its incidence record has improved. Others schools, adopting the same rationale, have increased gym time or sports time.

Some educators have turned to more ‘at the front teaching’ and test time, increasing the number of tests (now weekly) in an appeal to a strong forms of ‘masculine’ pedagogy.

None of these strategies seem to be helping.

My own sense is that in addition to getting more competent and decent men into the classroom, and more fathers into boys’ lives, there is a need to confront bad educational narratives (perpetuated in soap operas and popular culture) that portray boys who work hard at school and who are successful academically as nerds. Being a jock isn’t everything. But brave is the boy who says so. That needs to change.

I also think EdTech can offer something very powerful; something that great stories used to do. In the early-through-to-late twentieth century, adventure stories and comic strips grabbed boys attention; and boys read and collected them prolifically. The stories were inspiring—albeit not always in the best sense.

Boys’ focus has shifted away from adventure stories to gaming. But games have the same elements as a good story. A protagonist, a task (or mission), antagonists (the stronger the better)—and tension arising from conflict, and the question as to whether the protagonist can complete the task.

Some games have zero educational value. But games have the ability to capture boys attention; and that is gold when it comes to educating. If this is where boys are spending their time, then it is where educators must meet them. But to move forward they need to identify which games teach things that are valuable (for instance, scientific, technological, mathematical and engineering knowledge) and which do so most effectively.

Of course, EdTech isn’t all about games. Apps or programs that are effective will utilise a ‘reward’ feature applauding students for meeting goals. These will be precise in their aims, stepping stones, and measures for achievement. But many will also carry a strong narrative that will carry students forward to their learning destinations; and these will be the most engaging. We know the power a good story has to capture out imagination and to force us to think. EdTech with its visual immediacy, detail, and split-second feedback will take something basic to human experience (storytelling) and weave it into learning. For the majority of boys who struggle with printed media, but who are already adept with digital technology, this will be a godsend.

Take away points: Competition generates innovation and produces excellence. Humans enjoy competition: it is not just a male thing. Girls are competitive and they are excelling in education. They are focused, ambitious, self-regulated and attentive. Boys grades are slipping. It is not a zero-sum situation where for boys to do well in school girls must do poorly. Both sexes can excel. Reasearch is inconclusive on why boys are underachieving. Male role models, clearly defined goals, and good fathering might offer solutions. EdTech also offers a way to reengage boys in education. Apps and programs that bring play into learning (something that has always typified good teaching) will meet boys where they are. In this sense edutainment bridges boys into the joy, and then the love, of learning for its own sake—a place where Math, for instance, becomes compelling rather than a chore.

Research: The challenges for boys. Rowe: http://research.acer.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1000&context=boys_edu

Boys and schooling. Buckingham: http://www.cis.org.au/publications/occasional-papers/article/1136-boys-education-research-and-rhetoric

Girls and Education 3-16: Continuing Concerns, New Agendas: http://www.amazon.co.uk/books/dp/033523562X; http://www.agsa.org.au/icms_docs/99832_Girls_and_education.pdf

Sarah and Deborah Nemtanu—in French, but listen for the music: http://youtu.be/R-wCUL8LPZw

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