Why our schools are failing boys

Robert Smol

Looking at the demographics of university-bound students today, it is hard to believe that not so long ago we were developing programs to get more girls into university.

By all indications now, that same spirit of reform and innovation is needed to push more boys into higher education — for all that may be worth.

These days I need only peek into a class and I can tell by the gender makeup whether or not it is academic or applied.

Those classes where the majority are female students are invariably academic. Those where the majority is male are not.

No surprise then that the face of university education in this country is increasingly becoming female as women have been overtaking men in both the participation rate as well as in the percentage who graduate.

In September 2009, Monica Garcia, president of the Los Angeles public school system, tours L.A.'s first middle school to teach boys and girls in single-gender core classes. (Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press)

According to the federal department of human resources and skills development, 18 per cent of young men 18-24 were in university in 2005-06. The equivalent figure for young women was 28 per cent.

At the same time, the high school dropout rate for male students has remained consistently higher in recent decades than that for girls, another indicator that our education system is failing our boys.

There is clearly a problem here. 

Increasingly female

I am blaming "the system" for this because we shouldn't be blaming young male students for the difficulties they face in what is arguably an increasingly female-programmed educational culture.

Some, such as Michael Reist, an Ontario teacher and author of The Dysfunctional School: Uncomfortable Truths and Awkward Insights on School, Learning, and Education, blame the problem on research that suggests the brains of boys and girls are "wired" differently.

They argue that boys' brains are more able to deal with spatial problems and girls tend to be more developed in language and communication, which, if true, is certainly a concern when one looks at the way many class lessons are now organized.

"Classrooms keep getting set up more and more around the verbal and less around the kinesthetic and active," says Michael Gurian author of Boys and Girls Learn Differently. "They are increasingly becoming environments that favour the girls' brain."

And as enticing as the notion may be to some radical feminists, we simply cannot re-engineer the male brain. From a teacher's perspective, at least, boys and girls are simply different.

Boys can learn

As Gurian says, "You can't treat boys as defective, they are not defective, they are really good learners.

"But they are not going to learn well in the environments that we are putting in front of them."   Apart from being hands-on learners, boys tend to have a preference for informational text as opposed to narrative, according to some research.

In fiction, they like text that is funny and they like material with action and description. They also seem to like to solve problems.

So why do we not treat this male brain as a springboard from which we can set the groundwork for a new generation of male scientists, engineers, teachers, journalists and businessmen? As a change from our current one-size-fits-all approach.  

Today, in a desperate attempt to address the gender-learning gap, "alternate" boy strategies and "supplementary" reading material are being offered to teachers, to try to re-engage the males in our classrooms.

But as much as I try I cannot help but see the word CHARITY written in big letters in the overriding attitude of everything that has come my way.

We will not get very far if we merely give underachieving boys some alternative, not-intellectually-stimulating material and treat them as academic charity cases.

Instead, there must be genuine recognition and appreciation of boys' different learning styles, regardless of how these styles are viewed by those currently in charge.

A different path

Institutionally, this may yet play out in the new emphasis on skilled-trade education that is sweeping across the country.

In some places, it is being aggressively packaged as one possible solution to help boys succeed better in the educational system.

But we won't get the clientele that can really thrive in this program unless we treat this as a viable and respectable non-university career path, indeed one that could even exceed the material success of many in the university-bound cohort.

In today's economic climate, skilled-trade education, with its focus on hands-on informational and problem-solving skills, should no longer be seen as low-value "compromise" education.

I certainly do not see this when I encounter former students, now working as plumbers or electricians, who are making more money than their university-educated teachers.

So many of them are doing very well in the real world. We just now have to find a way of getting them to thrive in our schools.