Thursday, April 20, 2006

Editorial: Boys lost in changes to schools

Two years ago we applauded the Minister of Education for setting up a panel to examine why boys are not doing as well as girls in today's schools. The problem had become increasingly apparent to teachers and parents over the previous 10 years, but education theorists were reluctant to recognise it. An academic study once commissioned by the Ministry of Education concluded that if there was a problem it had something to do with "homophobia" and its solution was to "deconstruct" male sexuality. The minister's panel, which included principals of boys schools, sounded more promising.

But it seems we applauded too soon. One of the principals on the panel, Dr Paul Baker of Waitaki Boys High, told a conference yesterday that it had held just four "stage managed" meetings in two years. "We wonder if it was all a sham to defuse a politically hot topic," he said.

The response of Education Minister Steve Maharey suggests the reason for inaction is the same as ever: Policy makers don't want to recognise the problem in gender terms. Mr Maharey says the main problem is literacy and the Government has put $32 million a year into literacy improvement. The research Dr Baker presented yesterday suggests the reason for boys' poor results lies much deeper.

He has found that in subjects such as English, other languages and art, where boys have never performed as well as girls, the gender gap has hardly changed since 1970. The gap has narrowed most in subjects in which boys traditionally did better, such as physics, economics and accounting.

The reasons that boys are doing less well than girls overall, he suggests, can be found in recent changes to the curriculum, methods of teaching and assessment. Additions to the curriculum, such as agriculture, horticulture, human biology and Japanese, all favoured girls, he says. So did the reconstruction of traditionally "male" technical subjects. Tech drawing has become graphics; workshop technology is now design technology.

Methods of teaching have changed, he says, "from closed, structured, information-dense activities, which boys did better, to open-ended, experiential, reflective activities". In other words, boys do better when presented with clear, concrete things they need to learn and do. They do not do as well as girls when asked to use their initiative, imagination and powers of expression. The problem may be best illustrated by physical education. Boys did better, says Dr Baker, when that was purely a subject to do. Now they have to plan and write about it too.

The new examination system NCEA, he points out, "requires understanding and meticulously meeting complex written instructions. This clearly favours girls because of their superior language and organisational skills and ability to understand and deliver what others expect of them, which many teenage boys have never been too bothered about."

The changes in education that have favoured girls are also the changes needed to equip boys and girls better for the modern economy. Industries requiring rote applications of limited knowledge are declining in developed economies, which see their growth prospects in imaginative adaptations of sciences and technology and advanced design and creativity.

The success of girls in today's education is greatly welcomed, but boys cannot be consigned to relative failure without severe social consequences. If girls were lagging behind boys in most subjects today, the Government would be doing something about it. Dr Baker's research, his tentative conclusions and courage to speak out yesterday ought to be the spur some need to start taking boys' education seriously.

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