Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Leon Benade: Parents key to boys' success

Boys' success or lack of it at secondary school has a great deal to do with parental expectations and involvement, with material life circumstances and something to do with the quality of teaching that takes place.

Steve Maharey, the Minister of Education, was reported as saying that discussions about boys' attainment had to take in factors such as wealth and ethnicity.

Pita Sharples, in his address to the Challenging Boys conference at Massey University last week, made it clear how important he believed whanau involvement was in the education life chances of children.

If I was to mimic Stephen Covey, and produce a list of seven habits of highly effective learners, something like this might find wide acceptance: 1) Organisational ability; 2) Understanding the layout of the exam or requirements of the assessment activity; 3) Ability to pre-plan or scope the task; 4) Effective reading skills; 5) A capacity to reflect and give thought to the task or activity; 6) An ability to process all that has been analysed and put it all back together; and finally 7) An ability to write coherently.

The trouble with this list is that it focuses on academic achievement, which is only one kind of success. So we may want to add to this list such points as perseverance, reliability and a strong work ethic.

The key habit that supports the others is reading. So none of these habits will ever be cultivated in boys (or girls) if mum and dad cannot, do not or will not read to their children from birth until at least age 12, if there are no books in the home, if the TV and PlayStation are the baby-sitters of choice, if the people do not believe that getting a good education is important, and if there is not a strong work ethic in the home.

That some boys (and girls) are able to rise above these impediments of misguided parenting tells us a great deal about the intelligence and character of these fine young people.

But what is true, to some extent at least, is that even with some or all of the seven habits mentioned, many boys still have serious difficulties understanding what they need to do to be successful.

Dr Paul Baker, rector of Waitaki Boys High School in Oamaru, correctly diagnoses the NCEA as a major problem. Essentially, boys do not want to talk about the rules of the game - they want to rip into the game.

NCEA assessments are so word-heavy that even articulate heads are left spinning. For example, a creative writing task in English provides no less than 10 written instructions to the student before the tasks can even be considered.

Dr Baker points out that the curriculum is feminised. This from the same creative writing task, entitled Memories are Made of This: "All sorts of things can trigger a memory: a song, a photo, a letter, a date, even a smell!" Well, what sorts of memories do boys write about? They write about fast cars, girls, parties or rugby matches. To produce the required 400 words boys will sweat, strain and struggle. As Dr Baker suggests, boys do not want to navel gaze.

On March 20, the Herald carried an item from Britain where research has shown that boys would prefer science lessons to focus on weapons of mass destruction and the effect of chemical weapons on the human body, while girls prefer to learn about how to deal with anorexia or the significance of their dreams.

As well as not wanting to navel gaze, boys want to organise their time so they get the most benefit from their studies in the shortest time, hence their penchant for cramming for exams.

Unfortunately, NCEA has scuttled this approach too, as much emphasis has now shifted to carefully accumulating evidence through the year of a student's ability to meet the standard. This requires perseverance, planning and organisation, qualities that favour girls over boys.

Is the problem that there are not enough men in teaching?

That is certainly a major issue. But more important is that waves of school leavers are emerging from schools having been taught in the soppy, politically correct and flabby style of facilitation Dr Baker rails against.

Those who choose to enter teaching (be they male or female) are subjected to more of the same in their pre-service education. They are required constantly to reflect on their own practice rather than focus on some tough academic disciplines and how best to teach these, or on other crucial basics, such as learning how children learn to read.

Many of us know what the problem is. Who will have the political will to fix it?

* Leon Benade is deputy principal of St Paul's, a Catholic boys college in Ponsonby, Auckland.


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