With boys lagging behind girls in Canadian schools, it’s time to address an “elephant in the classroom.”
Why are boys lagging behind girls in today’s schools? A couple of weeks ago, the Globe and Mail published an in-depth six-part series called “Failing Boys,” focusing on the so-called “boy problem” in Canadian schools and in the wider North American society.
How times have changed in education. As recently as 1998, the popular press was full of stories about schools short-changing girls and residual examples of gender bias in our supposedly sanitized, politically correct textbooks. There is definitely a new gender gap in education: in Canada and the United States boys now rank behind girls on nearly every measure of academic achievement, and young men are gradually being superseded in universities and the professions.
The “boy problem” has crept up on us, but the basic facts can no longer be ignored. According to the Globe and Mail, the overall pattern in elementary and secondary education can be summarized as follows:
- Only 31.9 per cent of boys have overall marks of at least 80 per cent, compared with 46.3 per cent of girls who make the top grade (i.e. A-level)
- On standardized reading tests, only 20.4 per cent of boys score in the top 25 per cent, compared with 30.1 per cent of girls. Thirty per cent of boys score in the bottom 25 per cent, while only 19 per cent of girls do so.
- Nearly one in 10 boys repeat a grade (9.9 per cent), compared with 6.5 per cent of girls.
- Boys are diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and prescribed medication three times as often as girls.
- In Ontario, just 27 per cent of practising teachers are male, down from 31 per cent a decade ago. In B.C., 28 per cent of teachers are male.
- In most university classes, young men are now the minority, and women account for about 60 per cent of all Canadian undergraduates.
Searching for the root cause of these discrepancies leads us in many different directions. In a fine Overview piece (Oct. 16, 2010), Globe education reporter Kate Hammer identified five key factors: the feminization of education, the appeal of video games, the boy code of behaviour, developmental differences, and the lack of positive role models. The most contentious of these is “feminization” because it raises fundamental questions about the unintended consequences of one of the most important social movements of the 1960s and 70s.
Until recently, talking about the possible feminization of education has been frowned upon, at least within the public education system. It’s already a raging debate in Western Europe, where the “feminized pedagogy” is a divisive political issue and scholars openly debate whether “feminization” has led to a “softer” curriculum less suited to boys than to girls.
A couple of weeks ago, I attended the Biennial Canadian History of Education Conference in Toronto, where Greetje Timmerman of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands presented a fascinating academic paper on the subject. The paper, “Tough or Soft?: The Invention of Feminine Pedagogy as a Cause for Educational Crisis,” raised a few eyebrows.
Progressive educational philosophies, rooted in the writings of Rousseau, Herbart, Froebel, and Dewey, continue to exert a powerful influence in modern education. It has resulted in “child-centred education,” wherein teachers strive to make schoolwork not only relevant, but sensitive to the interests of children. Instead of challenging pupils to master content, they simply entertain them (i.e. try to make learning interesting or stimulating). Educational reformers seeking higher standards have termed this approach “soft pedagogy” and contend that it has been furthered by the feminization of the teaching ranks, especially in the western world. Pupils, they say, are no longer trained to have the strength of will to do the hard and uninteresting work of life. School leaves them weak and flabby, demanding continual entertainment and capable of doing only that which appeals to their inclinations.
In Canada, the best examples can be found in high-school English classrooms. English literature teachers, in particular, are often accused of loading their course reading lists with “women’s books” by Margaret Atwood, Carol Shields, Lucy Maud Montgomery, and the Brontë sisters.
In its 2009 Annual Report the Ontario Education Quality and Accountability Office noted that boys are not reading as much outside of class, with those reading three-plus hours per week dropping in one year by four percentage points to only 32 per cent. In class, the mostly female teacher force generally finds today’s adolescent boys unruly, tuned-out, or inclined to skip heavy-reading classes.
It’s time to ask a few uncomfortable questions: How has the feminization of the teaching profession impacted the education of boys? Do modern teaching methods such as pair-and-share, cooperative learning, and other “soft” pedagogies work to the disadvantage of boys?
Even though “feminine” or “soft” pedagogy is a serious public issue in Europe, here in Canada and in the U.S., raising the matter remains an educational taboo. When we can discuss it freely and openly, then we will be discussing another “elephant in the classroom.”