Sunday, May 3, 2009

Educating Boys...and girls?

Sometimes it seems easier to think about who succeeds at schools than who don't. All too often schooling does not suit boys. This is the thesis of a book, yet to be published, by Massey University Education Lecturer Michael Irwin. My blog is simply an edited extract published in the Sunday Times. It would seem to be a book well worth acquiring. Much of what the extract says reflects what those who have long believed important -an activity/inquiry arts based programme is the basis of productive learning. And such programmes would also suit girls by making them more adventurous? And it makes light of the Governments current push to focus even more on literacy and numeracy with their reactionary National Standards.!

'Boring! It is like a prison.Wish I could get out of here! says Matt a 13 year old boy in a secondary school.Matt, it seems was not finding much of relevance in what was being provided.

It is little wonder the school system fails to meet boy's needs, writes Michael Irwin, when it insists they learn the same way as girls.

Irwin has heard 5 year olds express similar sentiments. when Irwin researched boys perceptions the first word many boys said was "boring". This might refer to parts of the day or the whole process of learning.

Most boys, Irwin found, want to go to school but not to learn. They often just like playtime, or sports, or hanging out with friends. It seems that school and boys are out of sinc with each other.

The majority of boys look forward to starting school.They are enthusiastic about playing and learning things. The sad thing is that as they settle into school and move through their classes this enthusiasm wanes.

Many boys,Irwin says, are set for failure from day one. Boys begin school with literacy skills one or two years behind girls on average. In schools literacy is taught with lots of sitting and listening and teacher modelling of skills. Boys struggle to learn this way. Assisting with language development requires lots of opportunities for boys to talk as they create. Young boys learn best around activities where they can think, talk, explain and expand their vocabulary.They also need older boys or adults to assist with the role modeling of vocabulary and sentence structure, for example,building things at the woodwork bench and talking to an adult about what is happening.Boys need to be able to explain, discuss and have a sufficient oral vocabulary to communicate ideas and opinions fully before they are required to read and write.Pressure is being put on boys from parents and teachers to read and write before they are ready, and this pressure, Irwin believes, is one of the root causes for failure at school.

It sounds very much of the developmental periods and language experience learning of earlier days!

Schools can be hostile places for boys not achieving, those boys who don't fit, who are too noisy, active or argumentative. Schools have functioned the same way for many years - a group of teachers around one teacher.There may be more computers, more electronic gear, but children are still required to sit quietly for long periods of the day between four wails. Physical activity has been squeezed into narrow time slots, the arts often not taught at all, outdoor education restricted by processes and regulations. Boys who cannot function in this school environment are often allowed to drift or drop out, as long as they do not disturb the rest of the class.

This restrictive learning environment that Irwin writes about could be seen as the result of the push to have schools focus on achieving narrow achievement targets in literacy and numeracy since the changes of the 198Os! And greater restrictions will result when the Government introduces its National Standards this year!

Irwin continues that we have aways taught reading and writing in our schools but the greater emphasis of recant years has seen a larger block of the school day allocated to these areas to the detriment of science, the arts, social studies, physical education and the arts. Schools argue that if they spend more time on reading and writing the child will improve on these skills but Irwin strongly disagrees and I am with him.

Irwin argues that a good session of physical activity will improve a boy's concentration and attitude towards literacy than a longer spell with a book. Boys generally enjoy science, technology, and at east one aspect of the arts, whether it is music, drama or the visual arts.Educational studies have shown when boys experience success in one areas, such as science or art, there is a carry over effect into other areas of the curriculum. A boy excelling at science is also likely to want to read,even if it is only science literature. In Irwin's opinion this over emphasis on writing and reading is why some boys are underachieving and finding school boring.

Couldn't agree more.

Irwin also believes that boys are being exposed to reading and writing too early. Schools tend to think the earlier you start the sooner the student will acquire the skills. .This sets boys up for early failure when what they are requiring is early year success.Starting boys on literacy skills early does not mean they will learn faster, nor do it better.

Advances in brain research, he says, indicate that even though boys and girls develop along similar trajectories , a girls development in the language areas can be approximately two years ahead of a boys. Before you you can read you need the oral language and experience that are prerequisites to reading and writing. A lot of the make and do activities has gone from the infant and nursery classes and been replaced with sitting, listening and copying type activities.

He is so right about this.Before the word ( reading or writing) comes the experiences gained through the full use of children's senses!

Children form ideas about themselves early. Children know when they are in the bottom group, when they struggle or cannot compete a task. Struggling to read and write words before a boy is ready can result in early failure and a negative attitude towards literacy.

This is the collateral damage written about by Dewey over a 100 years ago.

Children need the opportunity to be actively involved in constructive play and have a very strong language base before being introduced in formal reading and writing. Starting these strategies will not harm boys.For example in Finland children do not start school until they are 7 but their education system produces students who are top in reading, mathematics and science in International tests.

In Finland reading and writing has been integrated strongly into other curriculum areas such as sciences, physical education, history and mathematics. This was also an approach common in creative classrooms in New Zealand before the changes of the 1980s and implicit in the 2007 New Zealand Curriculum ( a curriculum being put at risk by the current political imposition of National Standards.)

Boys, Irwin writes, are being turned off subjects because of the amount of copying, reading, or writing involved. Science was a subject area strongly based on investigation and experimentation.Now there are fewer scientific experiments and more reading and writing.

Boys, Irwin writes, have a natural curiosity ( and I would add so do girls) they love science, they want to experiment and learn. The science being taught today is not so much about experiments, as theories, and it is turning boys off a subject they once enjoyed.

An engaged boy Irwin writes, is a boy learning. We need to challenge a boys thinking by questioning.Questions such as " Why do you think that?" " How do you know?" get the boy to justify.'"What do you think will happen?" questions get him to predict."How did that happen get him to to be able to explain and discuss in full sentences their thinking, solutions and explanations.

These strategies are equally applicable to girls.

Boys, Irwin writes, also enjoy explaining their ideas through pictures and diagrams. Pictures and design are great thinking tools for boys. Once again I would add also the girls.

Irwin concludes by saying that our schools have become too prescribed in their learning and have become very language-laden from top to bottom. He continues, principals and teachers are overburdened with language: too many meetings, reports, memos, and other requirements are taking our teachers away from the core business of teaching.

Language is overburdening the classroom and boys are drowning in blah blah, blah. Our prescription driven, language-laden education is stressing out many of our teachers and resulting in many of our boys failing.

Irwin's book, 'Educating Boys; Helping Kiwi Boys To Succeed At School', would be well worth a full read. And not just about boys education!

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