Classroom conflict

Making education an equally rewarding experience for both sexes is a huge challenge

He’s 13 years old and he hates school. He told an interviewer who was studying boys and education: “My English teacher wants me to write about my feelings, my history teacher wants me to give my opinions, and my science teacher wants me to write about my views on the environment! I don’t know what my feelings, opinions and views are, and I can’t write about them.

“Anyway, they’re none of their bloody business! I hate school! I only wish I could write about things I’m interested in, like sport and military aircraft.”

Adolescent angst? Or a pithy summation of the ways in which boys and schools are increasingly going their separate ways, to boys’ eternal detriment?
In the ’70s, the panic was about girls’ performance. Now the average girl outstrips the average boy: she reads earlier and more widely, works harder, behaves better, stays at school longer and, when it comes to the VCE crunch, scores higher marks in most subjects.

Now parents and teachers – and politicians, who have launched a federal parliamentary inquiry into the issue – are worried about boys. The students who are most disruptive in class and least interested in work tend to be boys; while that is not new, the problem is said to have worsened, with boys increasingly “disengaged” from school.

The alarm has been compounded by the gap between girls’ and boys’ retention rates and their achievement at VCE level; girls do better.

Boys find teachers even more tiresome than teachers find boys. A recent survey by Flinders University researchers of 1800 boys in secondary school found even high achievers think schoolwork boring and repetitive. They said teachers were lazy and authoritarian and liked girls better just because they were obedient and easy to manage.

Many boys who said they aimed to stay at school had left by the time researchers returned later in the year. At one school, all the year 11 boys failed to return after a term break. “All but a small number of the boys consistently, emphatically and despairingly talked about their achievement problems primarily in terms of `bad teachers’ who are given too much power,” reported the study.

But concerned teachers are often upset and bewildered by their failure to engage boys, says Richard Fletcher, manager of the men and boys program at the Family Action Centre at Newcastle University. He told the parliamentary inquiry of a New South Wales high school so desperate to get boys involved that it set up a cadet corps. The deputy principal called Mr Fletcher out to the yard the day of the first muster: “There were 16 girls and two boys. He had tears in his eyes …”
In the classroom, boys are also contending with the newfound confidence – if not arrogance – of girls. Ken Rowe, principal research fellow with the Australian Council for Educational Research, quotes a female year 9 coordinator in a large coed secondary college as saying: “The girls give (the boys) a very hard time. The `sisterhood’ are bitchy, socially and sexually aggressive, and nastily intolerant of the boys’ less competent verbal and academic skills.”
So why are boys in strife, and what can be done to help them?

Boys develop differently to girls. Even as babies, girls are ahead in their communication skills, gesturing to others more often than boys and in more complicated ways, according to Berenice Nyland, lecturer in early childhood at RMIT. She says boys also have higher muscle mass and energy levels, making many less suited to sitting still and paying attention for long periods.

Boys are more likely than girls to start school with problems in “auditory processing”, according to Mr Rowe, of the educational council. He heard one teacher tell a six-year-old boy: “I want you to go to the grey cupboard in the corner, pick up the green pencil from the top shelf and the purple book from the third shelf, close the door, go to our desk, get out your workbook and come and sit down with me.” The child stood mute and bewildered.

Mr Rowe says many teachers do not realise they have to offer information in small grabs and speak slower for young boys than for young girls.

He says girls on average remain two years ahead of boys in language skills until both are university age. By grade two, girls’ vocabulary is 40per cent larger than boys’, and by 14 they have read six times more material than boys. Boys are four times as likely to have reading problems and make up 90 per cent of the children diagnosed with attention deficit problems.

Boys do better on tests involving straightforward answers to factual problems, and in the past found it easier to achieve in areas such as maths and physics. But Mr Rowe says that today even those subjects need a high level of verbal reasoning and written communication skills. An exam question will present a problem that must be analysed first to work out which mathematical equation should apply.

“The level of verbal reasoning required in specialist maths and physics is four times greater than what’s required in English literature and Australian history.” Some boys’ advocates call the new emphasis on language a “feminisation” of the curriculum because it favors areas girls are good at. Mr Rowe sees it as preparing boys for a changing world: “We are living in an information society, and unless boys can access and synthesise that information, they’ve got problems.”

Some of boys’ educational problems are due to immature ideas about what it means to be a real man. A Federal Government report released last year said some boys (and some girls) belong to peer cultures of banter, bravado and bullying that undermine school achievement.

Mr Rowe sees a link between boyish bravado and early literacy problems. He says boys often say they feel they cannot do well at school or compete with the girls.

“To compensate for this, many such boys place a premium on success in sport and some of the more macho (and often delinquent) activities that yield positive feedback from their peers, rather than recognition from school staff – most of whom (the boys note) are women.” Women now make up more than half of all secondary teachers and more than three-quarters of primary teachers, the parliamentary inquiry was told.

Proposed solutions to the problems include working like fury to teach little boys to read, and involving more men in boys’ schooling, particularly fathers.

Professor Peter Hill, of the Centre for Applied Educational Research at the University of Melbourne, told the parliamentary inquiry it would cost an extra $200 million to rescue literacy’s stragglers in the early years. But the one-on-one help this would buy is very successful: “We have seen kids taken from the bottom of the class that go to the middle of the class in 12 weeks.”

Mr Fletcher runs an “Engaging Fathers Project” in Newcastle schools. He says it is important that fathers become directly involved in activities with boys.

Another project has male volunteers spend an hour a week with struggling boys, many of whom have no father at home. Mr Fletcher says: “They do not have to teach him anything; all they have to do is be interested and be able to talk to him and listen. The results are exceptional. Behavior improves, academic performance improves and the parents often report that their behavior at home improves. There is less anger, less acting out.”
But the 1800 boys in South Australia who complained bitterly about the quality of teachers are also making a crucial point. Rowe says the quality of teaching is far more significant to the success of boys and girls than any other factor.

He says gender accounts for up to 12 per cent of the variance in performance, while teacher quality accounts for 60 per cent. This makes the debate about girls versus boys “the pimple on the pumpkin”. The real question, he says, is “how do we improve the standard of teaching?”
Judy Parker, an educational consultant and author of a new book, Effective Teaching and Learning Strategies, says teenage boys in particular need schoolwork that is imaginative and personally relevant and involves more hands-on activity: “It’s got to have a visual-spatial element. If they can shape it or make it or construct it or design it, they’ll be much happier.”

First published in The Age.