Curriculum, Policy, Teaching

Failing Boys! Beyond Crisis, Moral Panic and Limiting Stereotypes

In 2010, The Globe and Mail identified eight issues that will challenge Canada in the next decade and beyond and devoted a week to covering each of the designated topics, ranging from the role of Canada’s military post-Afghanistan to addressing the problems afflicting the publicly funded health care system in Canada.  Included in this list, and pitched equally in terms of inciting some degree of urgency and encapsulating a prevailing angst, was a discussion devoted to “Failing Boys”.  For some time now, school boards, Ministries of Education, and the popular media have been expressing concerns about failing boys and how best to meet their needs, framing these concerns in terms of a crisis in which boys are often cast as the “new disadvantaged”. 

Statistics are often used to draw comparisons and to highlight the plight of boys. For example, we know that boys have higher suspension and expulsion rates, as well as higher dropout rates. We also know that boys’ literacy scores on standardized tests are lower than those of girls.[1] As reported in the Globe and Mail series, there is a sense that “the pendulum has swung too far” in favour of girls. In fact, conveyed in such media reports is a perception that boys are being “disregarded” and left to “find their own way in a feminized education system.”  As the Globe and Mail report acknowledges, some people are afraid that even admitting that there is a problem with boys is considered politically incorrect, even anti-feminist.  However, statistics and perspectives such as these do not provide an accurate representation of the problem and, in fact, detract from deepening our understanding of which boys and which girls are actually at risk.

Not all Boys!

We know from disaggregating achievement data that not all boys are at risk of failing or dropping out. For example, the Toronto District School Board published a report in 2006 that identified specific groups at risk of underachieving in Toronto schools.[2] These groups include students from low-income neighbourhoods, those born in the English-speaking Caribbean, Central and South America/Mexico, and Eastern Africa, as well as those speaking Portuguese, Spanish, and Somali. The report is careful to highlight that higher representation of underachievement along class, ethnicity, and race lines “does not mean causation.” This is important because simply identifying groups by race or culture also fails to address the issue of differentiation within these groups. But breaking down statistics in this way is important because it provides a clearer picture of who is actually at risk and provides a more informed basis for addressing the problem. In short, it draws attention to the fundamental problem of homogenization in terms of how boys as a group are represented and the consequences of this for limiting both our understanding of the problem and how to address it.  

In a report entitled: The Truth About Boys and Girls, for example, Sarah Mead states that: “the current boy crisis hype and debate around it are based more on hopes and fears than evidence. The debate benefits neither boys nor girls, while distracting attention from more serious educational problems – such as large racial and economic gaps – and practical ways to help both boys and girls succeed in schools.”[3]

Mead further claims that “the so-called boy crisis” also feeds on “a lack of solid research evidence” or rather on a research base that is “internally contradictory, making it easy to find superficial support for a wide variety of explanations but difficult for the media and the public to evaluate the quality of evidence cited.”[4] This problem relates directly to the tendency to justify certain explanations about boys’ and girls’ different learning styles in light of selectively chosen literature about brain-sex differences.

The Sexy Nature of Brain-Sex Research

The framework or lens for understanding the problem then becomes one of the major issues in these debates about the “boy crisis”. It is often taken for granted that boys are innately different from girls and that these differences are grounded in their biological and brain-sex differences. For instance, there is a tendency to explain the gender achievement gap and differences in terms of the failure of schools to cater adequately for boys’ more distinctive kinesthetic learning styles.  Such views drive concerns about the ways in which schools are designed to cater for the natural inclinations of girls in terms of fostering behaviours such as sitting still, working collaboratively and expressing thoughts and feelings.  However, neuroscientist, Dr. Lise Eliot at the Chicago Medical School at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science, claims that the differences between girls and boys are very small and that there is far more overlap than separation between the sexes in terms of brain-sex differences.[5] Eliot claims that studies which result in finding a statistically significant difference between men and women are more likely to be published than studies finding no difference and highlights the role of the media in taking up such studies before actual verification can be undertaken.  She refers to a case in point involving a study about the gender difference in sizes of the corpus callosum – the bundle of nerve fibres that connect the right and left side of the brain – which was published in the journal, Science in 1982. This study found that the corpus callosum was proportionately larger in women than in men, but Eliot points out that the study was based on five female and nine male subjects. Despite its small sample size and limited value for generalization, the media used it to endorse generalizations about brain-sex differences. Eliot further states that a later review of 50 such studies in 1997 found no significant sex differences in the corpus callosum of adults and that more recent studies have failed to detect any significant differences for boys and girls. In spite of such research, however, many advocates of boys’ education still rely on such research or theories to endorse single-sex schools for boys and the boy-friendly curriculum.[6]

Single-sex Schooling and the Boy-friendly Curriculum

Sara Mead agrees that education decision-makers have used isolated studies to endorse strategies, such as single-sex schooling and the boy-friendly curriculum, without first engaging with the larger body of research-based literature – thereby calling the legitimacy and justification of these strategies into question. “Building from this analysis [of brain-sex differences], a wealth of books, articles, and training programs endeavour to teach educators how to make schools more boy-friendly. Many of these suggestions – such as allowing boys to choose reading selections that appeal to their interests – are reasonable enough. But many others are based on an inappropriate application of brain research on sex differences. Many of these authors draw causal connections between brain research findings and stereotypical male or female personality traits without any evidence that such causality exists …”[7]

This highlights one of the major problems with approaches to boys’ education that have gained some currency, such as single-sex schooling and the boy-friendly curriculum. Because they are not soundly grounded in evidence-based literature, they suffer from a lack of commitment on behalf of those endorsing them to fairly weigh all of the available evidence regarding the effectiveness of these various reform strategies. The justification for such approaches, which is often founded on brain-sex differences, needs to be exposed as flawed and driven largely by an ideological agenda. As Eliot asserts: “[T]he argument that boys and girls need different educational experiences because their brains are different is patently absurd. The same goes for arguments based on cognitive abilities, which differ far more within groups of boys or girls than between the average boy and girl.”[8]

The danger here is in needlessly exaggerating and reinforcing sex differences. Perpetrating and legitimizing such stereotypes do not serve the interests of boys or girls and, in fact, result in limiting their capacities and the range of human potential. 

Embracing Alternative Theories

Rather than relying on theories and the very problematic research about brain-sex differences, neuroscientists, such as Eliot, promote a different perspective on brain-functioning which foregrounds plasticity. They argue that the brain changes in response to experience and so is capable of modifying itself depending on the task and the eternal influences at play – the brain is responding continually to life experiences and is “continually remodeled to adapt to them.” According to Eliot, the brain in childhood is particularly malleable, “writing itself in large measure, according to the experiences in which it is immersed from prenatal life through to adolescence.”[9] So if gender differences are constantly being reinforced and exaggerated – albeit not always consciously – the danger is that the harmful and limiting stereotypes about what it means or to be a boy and what it means to be a girl congeal and become cemented as truths in the minds of parents and educators. As Eliot states: “Kids rise and fall according to what we believe about them, and the more we dwell on the differences between boys and girls, the likelier such stereotypes are to crystallize into children’s self-perceptions and self-fulfilling prophecies.”[10]

If gender differences are constantly being reinforced and exaggerated – albeit not always consciously – the danger is that the harmful and limiting stereotypes about what it means or to be a boy and what it means to be a girl congeal and become cemented as truths.

And this is essentially the problem with the politics of boys’ education. It is not to deny that boys are experiencing problems in schools and in the world beyond school.  Rather, there is a need to draw attention to the limitations of defining and understanding boys in terms that emphasize physiological and biological sex differences. Once we allow ourselves to define boys in terms of these binary differences, we can justify and legitimize certain strategies without due regard for the available evidence about their effects.[11] For example, there is no evidence that single-sex education is necessarily or inherently better for boys than co-education.  In fact, the better performance of students in these schools is mainly attributed to a combination of factors such as ability intake of students, their socio-economic status, the type of school and its ethos, and more significantly to a question of pedagogy and teacher beliefs and values about boys and their masculinity.

Good Teaching Matters

Available research shows that what matters is a combination of high expectations and effective teaching, understood in terms of: (i) connecting the curriculum and assessment to the everyday lives of students; (ii) developing a range of higher order and problem-solving activities that stimulate and engage learners; (iii) building respectful and caring relationships with students in schools; and (iv) a knowledge of difference and a commitment to breaking down stereotypes of what it means to be a boy.[12] For example, we already know that stereotypes about what it means to be a real or normal boy, coupled with the expectations to present oneself as appropriately heterosexual, impact on the quality of boys’ lives and relationships both inside and outside school.[13] Boys themselves, if given the opportunity and a safe space, will talk about the impact of homophobia that is linked to the policing of masculinity and, hence, the fear of failing to live up to the expectations of their peers in terms of what it means to be appropriately masculine.[14] Acting “tough” or “cool”, which can involve avoidance of the feminine or the fear of being perceived as not masculine enough, has been linked to the sort of behaviour that puts boys at some risk psychologically, emotionally, and in terms of their engagement and participation in schooling. For example, we know that some boys have a tendency to be more disruptive in class and to be engaged in peer group dynamics that do not accord high status to devoting time and effort to high achievement.[15] In addition, we also know that boys are more likely to die in car and motorcycle accidents or to be victims of violent crimes.  Issues of masculinity are clearly at play here. The tendency to reinforce stereotypic notions of boys in terms of how they think and approach learning – a tendency which is endemic in boys’ education here in Canada and elsewhere – runs the risk of exacerbating and supporting the very versions of masculinity which we know limit boys’ human potential and capacity for building the broader repertoire of skills needed to navigate a changing, post-industrial world.

Beyond the “Boy Crisis” Hype

Rather than fuelling the current boy crisis hype, we need to weigh more carefully the evidence for many of the claims that continue to be made about boys’ disadvantaged status in schools and the broader society. This does not mean denying that a problem exists. It means making a commitment to engage more with the research-based evidence and test score data that are not disaggregated solely in terms of gender. We know that not all boys are at risk of failing or dropping out – that clearly class, race, and other factors such as sexuality, geographical location, and disability intersect with gender in significant and meaningful ways. Not all boys are losers and not all girls are winners!

Continuing to endorse stereotypes about boys and support strategies that are built on reinforcing these stereotypes is to exacerbate the very problem confronting boys by limiting the expression of their masculinity to a binary frame of reference grounded in sex differences. Rather than portraying boys as victims of an education system, which has not only neglected them, but has conspiratorially failed to address their specific learning styles and needs, we would do boys a greater service by attempting to dismantle such stereotypes. This would open up possibilities for them to embrace a broader repertoire of skills and capacities that need not be defined in terms of rigid gender binaries or biological sex differences.

EN BREF – Depuis quelque temps, les commissions et conseils scolaires, les ministères de l’Éducation et les médias font état de préoccupations au sujet de l’échec des garçons et de la meilleure façon de combler leurs besoins, brossant le tableau d’une crise où les garçons sont les « nouveaux défavorisés ». Cette façon de présenter la situation fausse le problème, nous empêchant de mieux comprendre quels garçons sont vraiment à risque. Il est souvent affirmé que les garçons sont foncièrement différents des filles, alors qu’en fait, les cerveaux des deux sexes comportent beaucoup plus de similitudes que de différences. Nous savons que la classe sociale, la race et d’autres facteurs comme la sexualité, la région géographique et les incapacités comportent des liens importants et significatifs avec le sexe d’une personne. Il n’est pas question ici de nier l’existence d’un problème, mais d’insister sur la nécessité de tenir davantage compte des preuves de recherches qui ne sont pas analysées uniquement en fonction du sexe. Pour une autre perspective sur les garçons à l’école, voir l’article de Tatiana Carapet en page 10.

[1] Carolyn Abraham, “Part 1: Failing Boys and the Powder Keg of Sexual Politics,” The Globe and Mail, 15 October 2010. www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/time-to-lead/failing-boys/part-1-failing-boys-and-the-powder-keg-of-sexual-politics/article1758791

[2] Toronto District School Board, Research Report: The TDSB Grade 9 Cohort Study: A Five-year Analysis, 2000-2005. (Toronto: Toronto District School Board, 2006).  See also Wayne Martino, Boys’ Underachievement: Which Boys Are We Talking About? 2008. www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/literacynumeracy/inspire/research/Martino.pdf 

[3] Sarah Mead, The Truth About Boys and Girls, 2006, 4. www.curriculum.org/secretariat/files/May17TruthBoysandGirls.pdf

[4] Ibid., 14.

[5] Lise Eliot, Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps and What We Can Do About It (Mariner Books, 2009).

[6] See Bob Lingard, Wayne Martino, and Martin Mills, Boys and Schooling: Beyond Structural Reform (Palgrave McMillan, 2009).

[7] Mead, 16.

[8] Eliot, 305.

[9] Eliot, 6.

[10] Ibid., 15.

[11] See Chapter 3: “Boy-friendly Schooling” and Chapter 4: “Single-sex Classes and Schools for Boys” in Lingard, Martino, and Mills.

[12] See Debra Hayes, Martin Mills, Pam Christie and Bob Lingard, Teachers and Schooling Making A Difference: Productive Pedagogies, Assessment and Performance (New South Wales: Allen & Unwin, 2005).

[13] See Wayne Martino and Maria Pallota-Chiarolli, Being Normal is the Only Way To Be: Adolescent Perspectives on Gender and School (University of New South Wales Press, 2005).

[14] See Wayne Martino Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli, Boys’ Stuff: Boys Talking about What Matters (New South Wales: Allen & Unwin, 2001).

[15] See B. Francis, Boys, Girls and Achievement: Addressing the Classroom Issues (London and New York: Routledge, 2000).

Meet the Expert(s)

Wayne Martino

Wayne Martino is Professor of Equity and Social Justice Education in the Faculty of Education at the University of Western Ontario. He has conducted major research for the Australian Government on boys’ education and, with Goli Rezai-Rashti, is currently undertaking research in Canada on the under-achievement of students in urban schools. His most recent books include Boys and schooling: Beyond Structural Reform (with Bob Lingard and Martin Mills, Palgrave) and Gender, Race and the Politics of Role Modeling: The Influence of Male Teachers (with Goli Rezai-Rashti, Routledge).

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