Saturday, November 14, 2009

Boys learn differently - that's why all-boys schools are best

[The Gazette, November 3, 2009]

Boys need to be taught how to access their feelings and emotions


As Phyllis Diller once said, we spend the first 12 months of our son's lives teaching them to walk and talk and the next 12 years telling them to sit down and shut up.

So, let's understand the reality: Boys and girls behave differently and learn differently. The data are irrefutable. Of children on Ritalin, 80 per cent are boys. Of college students, 60 per cent are female and the numbers are rising. The majority of children diagnosed with learning disabilities are boys and 80 per cent of high-school dropouts are also boys. In 35 industrialized nations, including Canada, the girls are getting better grades than the boys.

The statistics can be alarming for parents. A recent Newsweek article, The Trouble with Boys, claims that the widening achievement gap has profound implications for the economy, society, families and democracy. The Gates Foundation is making boys a big priority.

It's not that one type of school is superior to the other. It never is. It will always be about great teachers, the development of relationships, building character and leadership, and providing creative and challenging opportunities within a caring and supportive environment. But, an all-boys education, with a focus on best practice for boys, can be the single most valued investment in your son's education.

Nobody is saying that an all-boys education is better than a co-educational one, but the heart of the matter is that it appears an all-boys education is better for boys.

Ground-breaking brain research has shown the physical differences in the brains of boys and girls. Boys use more of their brain for spatial mechanical function, which is to say that an active boy is able to use more of his brain for learning.

The brains of boys are kinetic, messy, disorganized and brilliant, and these dispositions are hard-wired, not learned as was previously thought. Boys kick their lockers, use balled up paper to throw imaginary basketballs, and yes, they punch each other for fun.

Toe-tapping, tongue-clicking and goofing around raise blood pressure (of the teacher as well), but this is thought to make the brain more absorbent. This normal boy behaviour is labelled troublesome or disruptive in a co-ed classroom where the girls (not all, of course) are focusing, sitting quietly and getting all the As. The boys have cornered the market for Ds and Fs.

In large classrooms, teachers place a premium on sitting quietly and never speaking out of turn, inherent girl behaviour which goes on to become the gold standard, according to Michael Thompson, child psychologist and co-author of Raising Cain; Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys.

In an all-boys environment, boys are not compared to girls, which helps preserve their self-esteem. The part of the brain, the pre-frontal cortex, that controls inhibitions, and enables insight and problem-solving and the ability to have a conscience is now known to be activated by experience.

In other words, boys need to be taught how to access their feelings and emotions, whereas the current classroom setup in a co-ed environment is better suited to the neuro-development of girls. Boys reading readiness for example, is simply a matter of slower, normal brain development but when compared with the girls it is negatively labelled "delayed."

Cross-gender communication skills are an issue at the heart of co-education. Life is co-ed; therefore education should be as well. Some say that separating the boys from the girls only reinforces stereotyping. To be sure, cross-gender skills are essential in achieving a socially and emotionally effective adult life. Boy's schools have created partnerships with girls attending other schools, especially in areas such as community service and the arts, ensuring the necessary collaboration. Many boys' schools have also made gender equality a legitimate goal and the presence of a large percentage of strong, talented women teaching at boys schools has made the attainment of this goal a reality.

Without the presence of girls, the reality is that boys learn to bond with each other in their own unique way. They learn how to become friends, the value of friendship, and they understand that the cultivation of lasting friends takes a great deal of effort. They develop their own personal empathy. Boys who attend all-boys schools tend to keep their high-school friends for life. Programs like choral music, fine arts and drama (crucial in an all-male environment) can be pursued without fear of being perceived as being uncool in front of the opposite sex.

Boys are magical, exciting, energetic, caring, loving and smart. We need to understand this and create a setting that will allow our boys to develop their strengths and deal with their weaknesses. Many environments can accomplish these objectives but none better than an all boys' school.

Hal Hannaford is headmaster of Selwyn House, an all-boys school.

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