How to fix boys
Let them start school later and, yes, let them fight and play with toy guns.
KATE FILLION | January 9, 2008 |
Also at Macleans.ca: Playtime's over | Not everyone believes boys are being let down by joyless, uncreative kindergartens. Some think girls are, too.
A dozen years ago, the hue and cry was about girls: girls were "silenced" at school, girls were tragic mini-Ophelias, in need of reviving. As it turned out, whatever other problems girls had, being "silenced" and "disadvantaged at school" were decidedly not among them. In fact, on most academic measures, girls outperform boys.
Hence, the new buzz: there's a crisis among boys. Like many proponents of this viewpoint, Leonard Sax argues that boys are less resilient and more prone to school failure than ever before. Sax, a family physician and research psychologist in Maryland, believes a combination of social and biological factors has created a toxic environment for boys. The result, he argues in Boys Adrift, is a generation of slackers and underachievers, so lacking in motivation that they barely notice, much less care about, their own failure to launch. Sax, who has been visiting schools in Ontario this week to speak to parents and faculty about gender differences in learning, spoke to Maclean's about the trouble with boys.
Q: So how do we know for sure there really is a problem with boys?
A: You can certainly go to the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) and find people who will vigorously contest the assertion that there's any problem at all with boys. But there are fewer boys who care about school at all, and a smaller proportion of men going on to postgraduate work. A helpful question to ask is, "What hard data do we have?" Almost exactly 50 per cent of applicants to Canadian medical schools are women, but nationally, 58 per cent of students actually attending medical school are women. Why is that? Well, because Canadian medical schools generally admit people without regard to gender, which is not the case in the U.S., and women have better grades and test scores at university than the men have, so they're better qualified. Likewise, about 60 per cent of undergraduates are women. This is a stunning reversal, according not to me but to a Statistics Canada report published in September.
Q: Why has this happened?
A: Their explanation doesn't dig very deep, but I think it's accurate. They say it can be explained on the basis of characteristics that are apparent much earlier in education. Kids who care about getting good grades in secondary school are much more likely to go on to university, and girls are much more likely to care about grades than boys are.
Q: But why do girls care more?
A: It's linked to a profound change in the way we educate kids, beginning in kindergarten, with an acceleration of the early elementary curriculum. Thirty years ago, if you walked into just about any kindergarten in North America, you would've seen kids doing lots of different activities: singing, playing, dancing, fingerpainting. There was some didactic education, but it was a very small part of the day. Today, in just about any kindergarten, public or private, the primary activity is formal didactic education, with the kids sitting still and the teacher instructing. It's all about learning to read and write. That acceleration of the curriculum took place without any awareness of the hard-wired sex differences in the trajectories of brain development. People had no understanding of this because it only became known in the past five years.
Q: What are the differences, exactly?
A: The largest study of brain development of children, conducted by the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., and published just a few months ago, shows very dramatically that the brain of the five-year-old boy — in terms of maturity, particularly in the language area — is at about the same place as the brain of a 3Â½-year-old girl. If you talk to the folks at OISE they will say, "Oh, there's lots of variation and lots of overlap between the sexes," and that's true on some parameters, but not this one. There's no overlap. Twenty years ago there was the idea that adult men and women were gendered, but six-year-olds were very much neuter. It's an old idea that goes back at least to Freud, who wrote of what he called the latency period; he thought that from about age five to the onset of puberty, gender didn't matter. It turns out the reality is just the opposite. The six-year-old boy and the six-year-old girl differ from each other much more than an adult man and adult woman do. We all wind up in the same place: there's very little difference in terms of adult men's and women's maturity, ability to sit still, how they learn. But there are huge differences in the ability of the average six-year-old girl and boy to sit still and be quiet.