Learning and Teaching at Gilson College

Learning for living, Character for life, Hope for the Future

‘Enforced conformity in class condemns boys to mediocrity’ by David Brooks

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Being 12 in 2012 by Nicole Brady, The Age, June 24 2012


by David Brooks, Opinion, July 9 2012, accessed July 11 2010:

Male students who don’t fit the ideal are turning away from learning.

Enforced conformity in class condemns boys to mediocrity

HENRY V is one of Shakespeare’s most appealing characters. He was rambunctious when young and courageous when older. But suppose Henry went to an American school.

By about the third week of kindergarten, Henry’s teacher would be sending notes home saying that Henry ”had another hard day today.” By mid-year, there’d be sly little hints dropped that maybe Henry’s parents should think about medication for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Many of the other boys are on it, and they find school much easier.

By primary school, Henry would be lucky to get 20-minute snatches of recess. During one, he’d jump off the top of the jungle gym, and, by the time he hit the ground, the supervising teachers would be all over him for breaking the safety rules. He’d get in a serious wrestling match with his buddy Falstaff, and, by the time he got him in a headlock, there’d be suspensions all around. First, Henry would withdraw. He’d decide that the official school culture is for wimps and softies and he’d just disengage. In kindergarten, he’d wonder why he just couldn’t be good. By high school, he’d lose interest in trying and his grades would plummet.

Then he’d rebel. If the official high school culture was uber-nurturing, he’d be uber-crude. If it valued co-operation and sensitivity, he’d devote his mental energies to violent video games and aggressive music. If university wanted him to be focused and tightly ambitious, he’d exile himself into a lewd and unsupervised laddie subculture. He’d have vague high ambitions but no realistic way to realise them. Day to day, he’d look completely adrift.

This is roughly what’s happening in schools across the Western world. The education system has become culturally cohesive, rewarding and encouraging a certain sort of person: one who is nurturing, collaborative, disciplined, neat, studious, industrious and ambitious. People who don’t fit this cultural ideal respond by disengaging and rebelling.

Far from all, but many of the people who don’t fit in are boys. A decade or so ago, people started writing books and articles on the boy crisis. At the time, the evidence was disputable and some experts pushed back. Since then, the evidence that boys are falling behind has mounted. The case is closed. The numbers for boys get worse and worse. By year 12, male reading test scores are far below female test scores. Psychologist Michael Thompson said recently that year 11 boys are now writing at the same level as year 8 girls. Boys used to have an advantage in maths and science, but that gap is nearly gone. Boys are much more likely to have discipline problems. As far back as 2004 an education journal noted that boys accounted for nearly three-quarters of the D’s and F’s. Some colleges are lowering the admissions requirements just so they can admit a decent number of men. Even so, men make up just over 40 per cent of university students. Two million fewer men graduated from university over the past decade than women. The gap in graduate school is even higher.

Some of the decline in male performance may be genetic. The information age rewards people who mature early, who are verbally and socially sophisticated, who can control their impulses. Girls may, on average, do better at these things. After all, boys are falling behind not just in the US, but in all 35 member-nations of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

But the big story here is cultural and moral. If schools want to re-engage Henry, they can’t pretend they can turn him into a reflective Hamlet just by feeding him his meds and hoping he’ll sit quietly at story time. If schools want to educate a fiercely rambunctious girl, they can’t pretend they will successfully tame her by assigning some of those exquisitely sensitive Newbery award-winning novellas. Social engineering is not that easy.

Schools have to engage people as they are. That requires leaders who insist on more cultural diversity in school: not just teachers who celebrate co-operation, but other teachers who celebrate competition; not just teachers who honour environmental virtues, but teachers who honour military virtues; not just curriculums that teach how to share, but curriculums that teach how to win and how to lose; not just programs that work like friendship circles, but programs that work like boot camp.

The basic problem is that schools praise diversity but have become culturally homogeneous. The education world has become a distinct subculture, with a distinct ethos and attracting a distinct sort of employee. Students who don’t fit the ethos get left out.

Little Prince Hal has a lot going on inside. He’s not the unfeeling, uncommunicative, testosterone-driven cretin of common boy stereotype. He’s just inspired by a different honour code. He doesn’t find much inspiration in school, but he should.

NEW YORK TIMES Follow the National Times on Twitter: @NationalTimesAU

Certainly this is an interesting article and while I agree with much of it, I believe it doesn’t address the needs of all boys- and probably it wasn’t meant to.

I certainly believe that since we teachers began to concentrate on raising the bar for girls in education especially in the maths and sciences areas – probably around the late 70s early 80s, maybe earlier (and rightly so because girls needed this focus then) we forgot to a large extent about keeping an eye on our boys. Hence the move in the last decade or so for researchers to take a look at how we should work with our more extrovert, ‘rambunctious’ boys – the ‘Henrys’.

To exacerbate the situation, as I see it implied in the article, our institutions have slowly, almost imperceptibly become places where safety seems to be all encompassing – and in my experience with young children (perhaps not from research) is often parent driven; interestingly from both mums and dads.

Perhaps this has come about because of the development of increasingly urban and litigious western societies? Perhaps not?

(In the 50s the boys AND girls at my country primary school – those who wanted to that is – would take part in activities such as climbing high up from tree to tree through the cypress row during each unsupervised lunchtime. No teacher in sight! Goodness me, some even rode their feisty horses to and from school each day! But some didn’t want to do either activity, and came to school with mum, by car car and stayed on the ground in the playground! If as a consequence of their choices any hurt themselves they were given good care, but also taught to take responsibility for their actions.)

However, despite what I might think the article implies, I don’t think we cater all that well for some other of our boys, nor girls for that matter. There are others who don’t fit the ‘ideal’ either!

Therefore to explore from another point of view for some other of our boys AND our girls, I am at the moment reading ‘Quiet’ by Susan Cain. (Check out her excellent TED talk if you haven’t already – see previous post.) Susan has researched and written on the topic of introverts.

I’m not yet quite half way through but as an introvert myself, I am finding it extremely interesting. Her book is well researched; as well it is very empowering for me personally. It is helping me to understand myself more, as well as the introverts and extroverts around me. (There is an eBook version of ‘Quiet’ – see previous post.)

Consequently I would suggest the while we must look at the need to change our culture in schools to address the active boys – and girls – I would also like to have us not forget that we have introverted boys and girls in our classrooms too!

Not all boys are, or want to be, the extrovert ‘Henrys’ so well described in David’s article, nor are they all the ‘nurturing, collaborative, disciplined, neat, studious, industrious and ambitious’  middle-temperament ‘Hamlets’ either. We must recognise that we have roughly three groups! Many of our students are introverts who would prefer ‘aloneness’ places, and quiet, solo activities!

As well as overlooking the most extroverted, as the article suggests, I would ask: Do we also overlook the most introverted who would prefer to be provided with solitary, quiet times to just get on with quiet solo activities?

All children, given the right environments – and I emphasise environmentS – can reach their potential whatever their personality or temperament type. Nature, nurture? Both? Cain has some interesting thinking worth considering.

How are we then to manage them all in our classrooms and playgrounds? Let them all have a voice! Let’s not try to fit them all into the same mould.

Just some of my thoughts.

Author: Sandra England

Learning & Teaching Coordinator F-12 at Gilson College, an Adventist Schools Victoria school. Twitter: @GCLandT or @sandy_e

One thought on “‘Enforced conformity in class condemns boys to mediocrity’ by David Brooks

  1. Pingback: Learning Journey – Entry 5 – January 27th – Why are we losing our young boys? | Anthony Gordon

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