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America, boys now rank behind girls on nearly every measure of academic achievement and young men are gradually being superceded in universities and the professions.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? 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:
- Only 31.9 percent of boys have overall marks of at least 80 percent, compared to 46.3 percent who make the A grade.
- Only 20. 4 percent of boys score in the top 25 % on standardized reading tests, compared to 30.1 percent of girls. Thirty percent of boys score in the bottom 25 percent, while only 19 percent of girls do so.
- Nearly one in 10 boys repeat a grade (9.9 percent) compared to 6.5 percent of girls.
- Boys are diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and prescribed medication three times as often as girls.
- In Ontario, just 27 percent of teachers are male, down from 31 percent a decade ago. In B.C., 28 percent of practicing teachers are male.
- Young men are now the minority in most university classes, and women account for about 60 percent of all Canadian undergraduates.
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."