One for the lads

The British tackled their own education gender gap by letting boys be boys -- with mixed results.

By Amy Benfer
Published February 5, 2002 8:32PM (EST)

The lackluster academic performance of boys is headline news in the United Kingdom (and to a lesser extent, Australia), where schools already have taken steps to combat perceived discrimination in the classroom.

Most of the British initiatives adopted to deal with what they call "laddism" closely resemble the back-to-basics, anti-progressive programs favored by Christina Hoff Sommers and other researchers who believe that boys need to be engaged in school as boys, separate in learning styles from girls. The measures in place favor structured, teacher-led work, with an emphasis on silent work, frequent tests and strict discipline in the classroom.

Unfortunately for those American researchers who might wish to end the debate about how boys learn, and whether it is substantially different from the way girls do, there is little in the British experiment so far to give either side a basis for victory.

In 1998, in response to public concern about low reading scores, particularly among boys, the British government launched the "Literacy Hour," a compulsory reading program in all primary schools. The goal of the program was to have 80 percent of 11-year-olds reading at or above grade level by fall 2002. (British Secretary of Education David Blunkett even promised to resign if the target was not met.)

The "Literacy Hour" model emphasizes phonics, spelling, diction and grammar and requires highly structured whole-class (as opposed to individual, or student-led) instruction. Teachers and parents are advised not to urge their children to do advanced reading until they have mastered the basics. Parents also are encouraged to read with their children for at least 20 minutes a day (and employers are encouraged to give parents time off to read to their children).

The results of the "Literacy Hour," which is still ongoing, have been mixed so far: Reading scores have improved by 10 percentage points over the last three years (and math scores by 12 percentage points), but progress may have stalled. In 2001, most age groups showed no improvement at all from the previous year.

Since the late 1980s, some British schools also have been experimenting with programs targeted explicitly at boys, operating on the assumption, favored by one wing of American researchers, that boys and girls are genetically programmed with different learning styles. To both acknowledge and accommodate the special needs of boys, the British programs have called upon schools to hire more male teachers to mentor boys, load their reading curricula with boy-centric books and institute single-sex reading classes.

Has this approach worked? The answer seems to be a definite "well, sometimes."

In a London Times article from June 2001, reporter Julie Hendry noted that "the Department for Education and Employment's own analysis shows that girls seem to be gaining more from the strategies that schools have adopted than the boys they are aimed at."

Another article from the London Sunday Times, also from last year, describes how a British high school used a "gender agenda" to bring boys academically up to speed and, ultimately, surpass girls in grades and reading scores. Reporter Lucy Adams described the school's special approach thusly: "Books which specifically appeal to boys, such as Orwell's 'Animal Farm,' were introduced to the curriculum, and single-sex classes were created for boys to avoid the embarrassment of discussing metaphors in front of girls."

In the article, Adams focused on one young man, a football player, who discovered that "English might not be so bad after all" after his teacher assigned him to write a sonnet to his favorite football team. The results: "A year later he was savouring the narrative of 'To Kill a Mockingbird' and the blood and guts of 'Hamlet.'"

This sounds like success, but one has to wonder: When did the public schools stop teaching books like "Animal Farm"? And isn't asking a boy to write a sonnet to a football team just as sexist as teaching female engineering students how to design shopping carts (which professors at Smith College's engineering project purportedly did last year)? What's more, the fact that girls' scores did not keep up suggests that perhaps the boy-based curriculum may have been at their expense.

What seems more likely to have worked in this school, and in the British schools with special programs aimed at boys, is the same thing that works for children of any gender anywhere: The boys were singled out for special attention. Their parents were asked to limit TV and video games; they were given a strict homework schedule, which their parents were asked to check each night.

In fact, several recent studies seem to confirm that any gains made by schoolchildren may have less to do with teaching to gender and more to do with simply paying more attention to students. A study conducted by the Centre for Educational Sociology at Edinburgh University reported in the fall of 2001 that "while most teachers and pupils believed single-sex classes were the best way to bridge the gender gap in achievement, smaller [mixed gender] classes were much more effective." (In addition, these researchers found that more than half of boys think that appearing to work hard is "uncool," while only one quarter of girls feel the same way.)

Children develop their learning styles between the ages of four and eight, according to another study conducted in Glasgow. But 10 percent of girls "learned like boys" (i.e., were more visual-kinesthetic learners, more spatially aware, preferred active rather than passive learning and wanted to know "the big picture"), and 20 percent of boys "learned like girls" (i.e., they were more auditory learners and linear thinkers, more interested in verbal and linguistic expression and more detail-oriented). The finding suggests that dividing children into single-sex classrooms in an attempt to accommodate gender differences may actually put a significant portion of students at a disadvantage.

It remains to be seen whether the inconclusive outcome of British attempts to teach to gender will have an impact on how Americans decide to help boys. But for the moment, lads in both places still have much in common: In an international survey conducted last year by the Program for International Assessment, a French-based international consortium of educational researchers, American girls beat the boys by 28 points in reading; British boys were bested by a 26-point margin.

Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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