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Boys are lagging in schools: has feminization gone too far?

Guest author Paul Bennett discusses the divisive issue of gender and pedagogy

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Why are boys lagging behind girls in today's schools? A couple of weeks ago, The Toronto Globe and Mail published a whole series of in-depth articles entitled "Failing Boys" and focusing on the so-called "boy problem" in our schools and in the wider North American society.

How time has changed in education. As recently as 1998, the popular press was full of stories about schools short-changing girls and residual examples of gender bias in our supposedly sanitized, politically-correct textbooks. There is definitely a new gender gap in education: in Canada and North America, boys now rank behind girls on nearly every measure of academic achievement and young men are gradually being superceded in universities and the professions.

Can the "feminization" of educators and teaching practices be affecting boys' achievement in school?
Can the "feminization" of educators and teaching practices be affecting boys' achievement in school? St. Michael's College School. PHOTO BY: Toby Asmoucha.

The "Boy Problem" has crept up on us in schools. But the basic facts can no longer be ignored:

Searching for the root cause leads us in many different directions, including the instruction of phonics as the Our Kids Blog previously discussed. In a fine overview piece (October 16, 2010), Education Reporter Kate Hammer identified five key factors: the feminization of education, the appeal of video games, the boy code of behaviour, developmental differences, and the lack of positive role models. The most contentious of these is "feminization" because it raises fundamental questions about the unintended consequences of one of the most important social movements of the 1960s and 70s.

Talking about the possible feminization of education has been frowned upon until recently, at least inside the public education system. It's already a raging debate in Western Europe where the "feminized pedagogy" is a divisive political issue and scholars openly debate whether "feminization" has led to a "softer" curriculum less suited to boys than girls.

Recently, I attended the Biennial Canadian History of Education Conference (Toronto, October 21-24, 2010) where Greetje Timmerman of the University of Groningen gave a fascinating academic paper on the subject. The paper, entitled "Tough or Soft?: The Invention of Feminine Pedagogy as a Cause for Educational Crisis," raised a few eyebrows.

Progressive educational philosophies, rooted in the writings of Rousseau, Herbart, Froebel and Dewey, continue to exert a powerful influence in modern education. It has resulted in "child-centred education" where teachers strive to make schoolwork not only relevant, but sensitive to the interests of children. Instead of challenging pupils to master content, they simply entertain (i.e., try to make learning interesting or stimulating).

Educational reformers seeking higher standards have termed this approach "soft pedagogy" and contend that it has been furthered by the feminization of the teaching ranks, especially in the Western World. Pupils, they say, are no longer trained to have the strength of will to do the hard and uninteresting work of life. They are left by the school weak and flabby, demanding continual entertainment and capable of doing only that which appeals to their inclinations.

In Canada, the best examples can be found in High School English classrooms. English literature teachers, in particular, are often accused of loading their course reading lists with "women's books" by the Bronte sisters, Margaret Atwood, Carol Shields, and Lucy Maud Montgomery.

In its 2009 report, the Ontario Education Quality and Accountability Office noted that boys are not reading as much outside of class, with those reading 3+ hours per week dropping by 4 percentage points to only 32 percent. While in class, the mostly female teacher force generally finds today's adolescent boys unruly, tuned-out, or inclined to skip heavy reading classes.

It's time to ask a few uncomfortable questions: How has the feminization of the teaching profession impacted upon the education of boys? Do new fashion teaching methods such as pair-and-share, cooperative learning, and other "soft" pedagogies work to the disadvantage of boys?

Even though "feminine" or "soft" pedagogy is a serious public issue in Europe, here in Canada and the U.S. raising the matter remains an educational taboo. When we can discuss it freely and openly, then we will be discussing another "elephant in the classroom."

—Paul W. Bennett
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In the spotlight:

List of private all-boys' schools


Toronto, Ontario — Our vision: Encourage life-long Georgians ready to use their scholarship, compassion, conscience and courage to make a difference. Our mission: To challenge and inspire each boy to become the best version of himself. View School Profile.

  • 100% university placement
  • Boy-centric education
  • Computer Engineering & Entrepreneurship programs
  • AP Capstone school
  • Extensive athletic program
3 to 12 (Boys)
Avg. Class:
Royal St. George's College 34500 MiddleSchools HighSchools Day Boys

Toronto, Ontario — Located in the heart of Toronto, Upper Canada College is the oldest independent boys' school in Ontario. Our IB graduates are highly regarded by top universities and post-secondary institutions worldwide. View School Profile.

  • High-achieving, all-round boys
  • Challenging but rewarding IB program
  • First rate academics, athletics and arts
  • 19 different sports and 65+ clubs
  • Boutique urban boarding program
SK to 12 (Boys)
Liberal Arts, International Baccalaureate
$35,000 to $68,450
Avg. Class:
20 to 25
Upper Canada College 35000 Kindergarten Elementary MiddleSchools HighSchools Day Boarding Boys

Toronto, Ontario — Crescent School is a Toronto independent day school for boys in Grades 3 to 12. Our relational learning environment develops students' characters through academics, arts, athletics, business, outreach and robotics. View School Profile.

  • Emphasis on leadership and character education
  • Strong alumni community
  • Generous financial aid
  • Enhanced service & mentoring opportunities
  • World champion robotics team and technology courses
3 to 12 (Boys)
Avg. Class:
15 to 20
Crescent School 36090 MiddleSchools HighSchools Day Boys
  • Toronto, Ontario
    York Mills Road/Don Mills Road
  • JK to 8 Boys
  • $19,000 to $36,000

We value partnership with parents, creating a genuinely warm and friendly community. We raise the academic bar on academic excellence, and expectations of character, helping the boys become the best that they can be.

  • Day
  • Liberal Arts
Northmount School 19000 Kindergarten Elementary MiddleSchools Day Boys
  • Toronto, Ontario
    Dufferin Avenue/401 Highway
  • JK to 8 Boys
  • $31,200

The Sterling Hall School is a leading independent school for boys, JK to Grade 8. We understand how boys learn best and we support each boy in his learning journey.

  • Day
  • Progressive
The Sterling Hall School 31200 Kindergarten Elementary MiddleSchools Day Boys
  • Wellandport, Ontario
  • 5 to 12 Boys
  • $58,300 to $62,300

Robert Land Academy, established in 1978, is a private military-inspired boarding school (Gr 5-12) helping boys to experience validation, realize their potential and gain admission to post-secondary programs.

  • Boarding
  • Traditional
Robert Land Academy 58300 MiddleSchools HighSchools Boarding Boys
  • Toronto, Ontario
    Shuter Street/Bond Street
  • 3 to 12 Boys
  • $7,500

St. Michael’s Choir School was founded in 1937 and provides sacred music for services at St. Michael's Cathedral Basilica. Located in downtown Toronto, SMCS is an all boys school from grades 3 through 12.

  • Day
  • Traditional
St. Michael's Choir School 7500 MiddleSchools HighSchools Day Boys
  • Montreal, Quebec
  • 7 to 11 Boys
  • $9,950

In the Ignatian spirit of care and concern for the individual, Loyola strives to develop a diverse and unique student experience while forming global-minded Men for Others.

  • Day
  • Liberal Arts
Loyola High School 9950 MiddleSchools HighSchools Day Boys
  • Toronto, Ontario
    Bathurst St./St. Clair West
  • 7 to 12 Boys
  • $21,500

Canada’s only independent, Catholic school for boys in Grades 7-12, taught in the Basilian tradition of forming the mind, body, and soul. Since 1852, we have educated students in goodness, discipline, and knowledge.

  • Day
  • Liberal Arts
St. Michael's College School 21500 MiddleSchools HighSchools Day Boys
  • Oakville, Ontario
  • JK to 8 Boys
  • $23,550 to $27,800

We know boys have different learning styles. Research shows that boys learn differently and socialize in their own distinct ways. We also know through research that boys thrive in an all-boys’ learning environment.

  • Day
  • Traditional
Linbrook School 23550 Kindergarten Elementary MiddleSchools Day Boys
  • Toronto, Ontario
    Duplex Ave/St Clements Ave
  • PS to 2 Coed/Boys
  • $10,000 to $21,075

St. Clement's Early Learning School 70 St. Clements Avenue, Toronto, Ontario M4R 1H2 At SCELS we believe giving children an early education will build a solid foundation to prepare them for their next school setting.

  • Day
  • Progressive
St. Clement's Early Learning School 10000 Preschool Kindergarten Elementary Day Day Coed Boys
  • Halifax, Nova Scotia
  • JK to 12 Coed/Girls/Boys
  • $13,290 to $18,620

With a global network of schools around the world, a rich and proud history, and a strong and unique set of core values, Sacred Heart offers not just an education but an experience that is unparalleled in Nova Scotia.

  • Day
  • Traditional
Sacred Heart School of Halifax 13290 Kindergarten Elementary MiddleSchools HighSchools Day Day Day Coed Girls Boys
  • Calgary, Alberta
    17th Ave SW/Richmond Road SW
  • K to 11 Boys
  • $13,000 to $15,000

North Point School for Boys is a Kindergarten to Grade 11 independent school in which curious and energetic boys are challenged and motivated, developing into young men of integrity with a genuine love of learning.

  • Day
  • Progressive
North Point School For Boys 13000 Kindergarten Elementary MiddleSchools HighSchools Day Boys
  • Aurora, Ontario
    St. John's Sideroad/Yonge Street
  • 5 to 12 Boys
  • $38,405 to $71,495

St. Andrew's College offers programs from grades 5 to 12 in Aurora. Its average class size is 17 students.

  • Boarding/Day
  • Traditional
St. Andrew's College 38405 MiddleSchools HighSchools Boarding Day Boys
  • Harrow, Ontario
    Concessions Rd 6 S/Hwy 18
  • 1 to 8 Boys
  • $8,500 to $29,000

St. Peter's ACHS College School in Amherstburg, Ont. is a day/residency school for boys grades 1-8 who love Sports and the Outdoors. Tuition starts at $8,900. and is a member of OFIS. We put "FUN" back into learning.

  • Day/Boarding
  • Traditional
  • Montessori
St. Peter's ACHS College School 8500 Elementary MiddleSchools Day Boarding Boys
  • Westmount, Quebec
  • K to 11 Boys
  • $20,850 to $26,990

Selwyn House School provides a well-rounded education of exceptional depth and scope for boys from Kindergarten to Grade 11. It is located in Westmount, Quebec.

  • Day
  • Liberal Arts
Selwyn House School 20850 Kindergarten Elementary MiddleSchools HighSchools Day Boys

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