Oh Boy!

Newsweek's cover story this week on

Newsweek's cover story this week on "The Boy Crisis" is yet another take on why the educational system may be failing boys. In fact, BusinessWeek's own Working Life editor, Michelle Conlin, covered this subject most eloquently in her May 23, 2003 cover story, "The New Gender Gap."

I witnessed a graphic demonstration of the gender differences alluded to in both pieces just a few days ago, on a field trip with 20 third and fourth graders to a Jewish cultural museum in Manhattan.

All the kids, my 9-year-old son included, were thoroughly engaged in the hands-on, interactive exhibits about ancient Near Eastern civilization, whether it was shooting a bow and arrow or digging through sand to find archaeological treasures.

But when it came time for the discussion circle, a remarkable thing happened: The girls were doing all the talking. Meanwhile, the boys mostly were doing anything but. They were squirming, their eyes were wandering all over the room, they were biting their fingers and rolling around on the floor. Yet when I nudged my son, he insisted he was listening.

I do believe all the children learned something on this trip. But by observing how they learned, it helped me--mother of two boys--better understand what teachers have to do to keep our children involved and engaged.

Conlin hit the nail on the head in her story. I'd like to quote from it:

"It may still be a man's world. But it is no longer, in any way, a boy's. From his first days in school, an average boy is already developmentally two years behind the girls in reading and writing. Yet he's often expected to learn the same things in the same way in the same amount of time. While every nerve in his body tells him to run, he has to sit still and listen for almost eight hours a day. Biologically, he needs about four recesses a day, but he's lucky if he gets one...

"...The reigning sit-still-and-listen paradigm isn't ideal for either sex. But it's one girls often tolerate better than boys. Girls have more intricate sensory capacities and biosocial aptitudes to decipher exactly what the teacher wants, whereas boys tend to be more anti-authoritarian, competitive, and risk-taking. They often don't bother with such details as writing their names in the exact place instructed by the teacher...

"...Experts are designing new developmentally appropriate, child-initiated learning that concentrates on problem-solving, not just test-taking. This approach benefits both sexes but especially boys, given that they tend to learn best through action, not just talk. Activities are geared toward the child's interest level and temperament. Boys, for example, can learn math through counting pinecones, biology through mucking around in a pond. They can read Harry Potter instead of Little House on the Prairie, and write about aliens attacking a hospital rather than about how to care for people in the hospital. If they get antsy, they can leave a teacher's lecture and go to an activity center replete with computers and manipulable objects that support the lesson plan."

What have you observed with your own children? Do you think the boys are getting short shrift? Or is your school taking a creative approach to teaching both sexes?

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