You’ve all heard the remarks. The quotes.
Boys and their toys.
Boys will be boys.
Boys are so much sillier than girls!
And then you have the academic concerns cropping up over the last little while.
Boys ‘lag behind girls’ by the age of five.
Boys falling further and further behind at school.
Boys develop slower than girls. You don’t want your son to be born in December!
Boys hate books.
Okay, so clearly there’s a behavioural pattern being observed here. Not many people would disagree that boys tend to be more hyperactive than girls, tend to enjoy rough-and-tumble games, tend to enjoy sports more, and of course, tend to fall behind girls in school.
More specifically (an alarmingly), our standardized tests show that our boys to score lower than girls in the realm of language arts.
As a result of these findings, educators are scrambling to unearth the magical tome carrying elusive pedagogical spells that can help us “cure” our boys. “There is a problem with all these boys that can’t and won’t read!” we cry, dismayed. “We must find a way to fix them all! There has to be a solution!”
Hold the phone.
Fix our boys?
Who says our boys need any fixing?
As much as I agree with existing gender differences, it’s strange for me to think of our boys as… well… educational liabilities. Lumping them together and trying to come up with a dossier of strategies that are supposed to, in effect, save our boys. But perhaps I’m being too sensitive. They DO have target groups like this in the non-profit world for girls, such as the most recent campaign called Because I Am a Girl, and no one really complains about groups like that. As a society, we can see that girls are at a disadvantage, so we actively try to even the odds.
Why, then, do I feel so uneasy about this push for Literacy, targeted directly at our boys?
I think what bothers me about this whole initiative is the way it has been played out in the classroom. Because of the conscious effort that teachers are trying to make in differentiating their reading program, I am finding that gender differences are being leveraged in a way that segregates students and creates negative stereotypes within the class. Rather than celebrating differences, the differences are merely identified… and it is up to the students themselves to discern whether or not these differences are positive or negative.
Given the negative connotations about intelligence associated with low academic achievement, children have naturally assumed that boys are not as smart as girls. So begins the cycle of self-fulfilling prophecy: the belief that one is dumb, and so he will not perform his best.
So what do we do then? It’s not as though we should stop being aware of the fact that certain teaching and assessment strategies will more effectively engage our boys in reading. We are not going to stop integrating more hands-on activities into our lessons, designed to create meaning. We are not going to stop grouping our students according to their varied reading interests. We are certainly not going to stop differentiating our reading program to better suit the hyperactive tendencies of our boys.
So what do we do then?
Clearly, one other awareness piece needs to be in place in our pedagogy.
Yes, we need to cater to the needs of our boys. This much is clear. We need to change the way we teach and assess so that our boys can develop their love of reading in an environment that works for them. But it is also absolutely crucial that we do not systematically discriminate against them through the routines of our reading program.
What does this mean?
It means that we need to:
1) Avoid physical isolation and segregation. Some suggest creating gender-specific reading groups and creating a space within the classroom that is set aside specifically for boys. I disagree with this, because boys are not the only ones who enjoy books about dinosaurs and cars, nor are boys the only ones who may struggle with reading. There are girls who do too, on both accounts, so create reading groups according to the actual interests of the children, not by their gender.
2) Avoid using language that psychologically segregates our students by gender. For example, avoid making comments such as, “the girls are sitting so nicely and quietly” because chances are, not all the girls are sitting nicely and quietly, and not all the boys are running around wreaking havoc in the classroom. Speak to the specific child with the behaviour, not the gender of the child.
3) Make use of differentiated instruction strategically and purposefully for all students. The accommodations suggested for boys in current literature work for everyone, so it is more important that the students understand that every individual is being accommodated for. Get to know the boys in your class, and the girls too. You may be surprised at the common interests between your students!
Boys and their toys. Boys will be boys. But the boy is so much more than just the common behaviour patterns of his gender. The boy is a person, just like any other child. Let’s try to see beyond his gender then, shall we?