Feminization of Schools

If young boys are being left behind, what targeted teaching strategies can lead them to reach their potential? by JANET D. MULVEY

The evidence is clear: America’s boys are being left behind by current practices in the classroom. Statistically, they are performing less well than they were 10 years ago. Boys are dropping out of high schools in significant numbers, failing to complete college degrees and behaving more violently.

We should pay close attention to the statistics that track these trends, seriously regard the research, and immediately incorporate changes in our elementary and secondary schools that will bring boys back into an environment that motivates them to learn to the fullest.

Janet MulveyJanet Mulvey is an assistant professor of education at Pace University in New York City.

The 21st century is becoming the era of the woman. The feminization of our schools and other learning organizations has placed females in a role of increasing achievement while leaving behind their male counterparts. Women have begun to use their own strengths in leadership to excel in corporate industry and at higher education institutions competing with men. The natural tendencies of women to work in teams, build consensus and communicate openly are encouraged and reinforced in our schools from kindergarten through the high school years.

Enrollment of boys in colleges and universities nationwide is declining, and many institutions now worry seriously about the widening gender gap on their campuses, estimated nationally at 56 percent girls versus 44 percent boys in a 2006 U.S. Census Bureau report. Even in the hard sciences and engineering, where males traditionally have dominated, the margin is narrowing. Recent data compiled by the U.S. Department of Education indicate college-bound females are more apt than males both to complete college-preparatory courses in secondary school and to finish their college degrees.

In their November 2004 Educational Leadership article, “With Boys and Girls in Mind,” Michael Gurian and Kathy Stevens report that boys account for 70 percent of the D’s and F’s in schools. Boys also account for two-thirds of disability diagnoses and represent 90 percent of discipline referrals. Alarmingly, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, reporting on a three-year study of knowledge and skills of males and females in 35 industrialized nations, including the United States, found “girls outperformed boys in every country.”

Just a decade ago, concerns that elementary and secondary schools were not addressing the needs of girls in the fields of math and science became a national discourse. New strategies and targeted programs favored the more cooperative and noncompetitive style of teaching and learning that better suited girls’ learning needs. The results are proving to be most beneficial to girls, but concern about boys is beginning to emerge.

Early Readiness
Mandates placed on young elementary students affect their readiness to process and achieve grade-level expectations. Kindergarten at age 5 has become the year that formal reading and writing instruction now begins.

Boys who are two years behind girls in their readiness for formal reading and writing instruction now are asked to master skills in these subjects even earlier. Girls are ready to sit and are more passive in their behaviors and cooperative in their learning styles. Boys at age 5 are impulsive, less mature and physiologically less able to acquire the skills necessary for the reading and writing process.

Advances in brain imaging have shown differences between the sexes in brain development, leading to identifiable differences in learning strengths and styles between boys and girls. The area connecting the left and right hemispheres of the brain is 25 percent larger in girls than in boys. This strength allows girls to remember details, make connections with those details, and pay better attention to lessons and directions at an earlier age.

The language areas of the brain also develop sooner, resulting in better language acquisition and vocabularies among girls. Boys, whose physiological brain development is two years behind and who are less mature than girls, have a difficult time with the early demands of classroom instruction.

Instead of being able to build with blocks, handle manipulatives and remain fairly active in kindergarten classes, boys are expected to sit on the carpet, listen to stories and write their letters in coherent form. The lack of ability to explore and design with their natural spatial capabilities not only frustrates but discourages them right from the beginning of their school careers.

Thus the problem for boys begins early on and influences their feeling about school. The problems in learning in the early years affect many boys through their middle and high school years, leading to achievement gaps between the genders.

Classroom Culture
Enter almost any elementary school classroom or, in some cases, prekindergarten room and notice the neat tables with crayons, large-lined writing paper, oversized pencils with finger grips and lots of picture books. Buried in the back corners of the rooms are the blocks, interlocking logs and other materials that engage the young male minds in creative and imaginative play. The location of these materials immediately sets the tone that designates what is most important in the classroom and school.

Take the example as illustrated by psychologist Michael Thompson in his documentary film Raising Cain. Thompson observes and consults with researchers and educators to investigate the dissonances that are present for young boys in the classroom. The story of a kindergarten teacher who scribes the tales told by her 5-year-old pupils reveals the imaginations and inner emotions of both boys and girls. The stories then are read aloud to the class by the teacher for discussion.
The film shows a young boy’s dictated story that results in the death of one of the characters — something that occurs in many of his dictations.

When the girls object to the ending, the class discusses how it could be changed to satisfy the class. Consensus is reached that the death of the characters is not an acceptable ending. The young boy then becomes unable to create or relate any stories to his teacher and withdraws from the story circle. This rejection of his ideas and creations by the class has an impact that stifles his motivation and results in his withdrawal from the schooling process.

Changing Practices
Several years ago an experiment involving a single-gender math class was conducted at the elementary school in Van Cortlandtville, N.Y., where I served as principal for 13 years. Concerned that the 6th-grade girls were being overwhelmed by the natural, rambunctious and aggressive behaviors of the boys, we experimented with single-gender classes in math. Strong female and male teachers were assigned to the groups with cohesive lesson plans and consistent objectives for both classes.

Through consistent assessment, observation and analysis, we found both groups did extremely well and on the average scored equally on the assessments. What began as a program to benefit girls in math in fact benefited both genders. The girls approached the subject through a more exploratory process and verbal analysis in a cooperative style, while the boys were allowed to use their more competitive and abstract styles without distraction and correction for impulsiveness.

Because our schools have become more feminized, where many boys are not meeting their potential to achieve, we put in place strategies to ensure both genders receive the best opportunities for an education that meets their needs and desires. Girls’ more natural tendencies for language are motivated by literature to read and write. Boys often find the writing process tortuous and have difficulty developing stories from books and classroom activities.

Ndidi Evans, primary school teacher at St. Johns Upper Holloway School in London, England, explained in a case study developed by the Islington Learning Team her inspiration for engaging young boys in the writing process. Evans struggled to motivate the boys in her class to write. Frustrations — theirs and hers — became apparent.

She began to observe boys’ behaviors outside the classroom. Watching them use imaginative play with superheroes as their characters, she asked them to express in words what the characters were doing. She exposed the boys to Discover Story, a place in Stratford, England, where they could make their stories come alive. In the classroom, she gave them materials to recreate their characters and the boys eventually began to respond with picture stories. This engagement and excitement in creating stories led to dictation and finally inventive and traditional writing.

Possible Solutions
The evidence seems apparent that boys are being left behind. What is it we can do to continue supporting girls while beginning to help boys re-engage in learning?

•  Examine pre-service and in-service development courses. Undergraduate, graduate and professional development courses offered by colleges, universities and school districts have emphasized the cooperative and consensus-building learning styles in their methodology classes. Group planning and projects, literacy concentration in all classes, and a noncompetitive format are the lessons for the day.

Classroom teachers at all grade levels need to understand the learning preferences for both sexes. Brain research, learning styles, developmental readiness and statistical analysis on success rates should be an integral part of the curriculum for current and future teachers. 

•  Implement single-sex classrooms in public schools. Families currently can select a single-sex private or parochial school. Why shouldn’t they be offered the opportunity for single-sex classrooms within the regular public schools? In public schools, single-sex classrooms for some subjects, in fact, may motivate both sexes to engage in the type of learning that benefits their gender- and brain-based styles. 

•  Combine cooperative and competitive learning strategies. In classrooms where both boys and girls participate, combine both the cooperative learning strategies that now exist with a more abstract and competitive plan of action, and then allow choice for participation for both sexes. Allow for imaginative play to motivate and create opportunities for expression. Differentiation for learning levels is practiced in classrooms, so why not learning styles?

•  Delay formal reading and writing instruction until boys are ready developmentally. Delayed initiation for boys into the formal reading and writing process may decrease the feeling of failure at the early stages. Brain-based research indicates that the part of the brain for memory and language acquisition is not only 20 percent larger in girls but also develops earlier in girls than in boys. Give the boys an opportunity to use their exploratory and spatial strengths early on, to build confidence and positive feeling toward school and learning, with the reading and writing instruction coming when they are ready.

•  Adjust middle school instruction in math and science to the learning preferences of the sexes. Subjects such as science and math that seem to be in the middle of the controversy, especially at the middle and high schools levels, can be taught according to the learning preferences of the male student (more individualized and competitive) and the female student (more cooperative and specific). 

•  Include written-analytical formats for girls while allowing boys to use spatial (abstract) formats to get to the answer. Assessments and evaluations that measure the mastery of the subjects should be designed so boys and girls can demonstrate their levels of attainment either through the verbal and written analytical format favored by girls or the more straightforward and abstract format favored by boys. Authentic assessments from projects and hands-on activities may inspire and engage male students.

•  Lobby and educate legislators. Help state and federal lawmakers create a new vision of America’s schooling by providing poignant and understandable data on where we are failing our boys in particular. Assist them in replacing the No Child Left Behind Act with its irresponsible mandate of testing young children and labeling them failures before they have had a chance to succeed. Encourage legislators to study systems in other countries that delay the age of entry into formal education until the age of 7 and that outperform us in almost every area.

Janet Mulvey is an assistant professor of education at Pace University in New York City. E-mail: jmulvey@pace.edu