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The Girls Are Picking On Us

Someone wrote a rather off the wall editorial in USA Today this week complaining that there is a gender gap between boys and girls in school and the boys are on the losing end of things. Now that’s a huge switch from what we were always told. It was usually the guys who had the advantage and we needed special programs to encourage girls, especially in math and science.

One reason boys are losing academic ground to girls appears linked to a shift by schools to more word-based learning for which girls’ brains are believed to have an advantage. Over the years, even math problems have become more word oriented, according to education researchers. But because schools are doing little to help boys adjust, males risk becoming second-class academic citizens. Already the academic success girls enjoy in high school translates into more college acceptances — 56% of the students on campuses are female.

Sorry, but I don’t see anything new here. I taught math for many years and always emphasized analysis of problems over rote memorization of algorithms ("word problems" over "drill and kill" practice). The girls in my classes as a group usually did better than the boys, especially in the higher level classes. When students, boys or girls, had difficulties with the work it was almost always due to poor reading comprehension skills. And that was true in science, social studies, even music.

The editorial goes on to outline some ways that boys are being shortchanged in their education, among them that "boys and girls learn differently" No shit sherlock! But good teachers will tell you it’s not that simple. All students have their particular learning styles and those styles can even differ for one person based on the type of material being studied.

The writer also says that "future teachers aren’t trained to deal with learning differences" and that statement is right on the money, even for many current teachers. However, training teachers to work with and adapt to the various learning styles of all students is not a short process or an easy one. In fact, to be done right, it’s going to require major changes in the way that schools are structured, eliminating the traditional view of teachers as independent contractors, each in their own space. Schools, and even groups of schools, need to be organized as "learning communities" in which every teacher is responsible for every student and subjects are not locked in their individual cages. Unfortunately, I doubt that the American education business is prepared to make that kind of radical change, or major overhauls of any kind for that matter.

1 Comment

  1. J.P. Laurier

    On average, my female students (middle school aged) have done better in my math classes than have the boys. The average 11- or 12-year old girl is better at the kinds of things one needs to do to succeed in school…sit still for extended periods of time, pay attention to lengthy verbal presentations of information, conform to behavioral rules, etc. I have found this to be true whether or not my instruction is problem-solving based or algorithm-based.

    It’s just an aggregate impression, though. I’ve had many, many very good male math students, and lots of girls that have struggled, too. What tips the balance is the much larger number of boys that have been serious discipline problems in class. Some social scientists think that the way classrooms and schools are structured works against the naturally active and aggressive male, but I think the problem runs much deeper and reflects unstable home lives and a problem in the broader culture….

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