National Post

May 29, 2002

Teachers search for new ways to educate boys

Academic conference: Girls consistently do better in reading and writing

Anne Marie Owens
National Post

Teachers urgently need to find a new way of teaching boys to stop them from falling behind in schools, say educators who are developing tailored techniques for teaching males.

At an academic conference yesterday, teachers from an all-boys school in Toronto highlighted some of the methods they have found to be critical in the instruction of boys: hanging art work on classroom walls, arranging desks in different formations, delivering lessons at a brisk pace, using humour and irony and giving clear directions.

These teachers, from Royal St. George's School, polled faculty at the private school to determine what kinds of methods they thought were effective in helping boys learn.

"Most of the recommendations are just good teaching, but the stakes are higher with boys because they are willing to be more outlandish about opposing us," the report stated. The findings were presented during a session at Congress 2002, a week-long gathering of several thousand social scientists from across Canada and around the world.

Laura McPhedran, one of the teachers who presented the report, said she found she had to overhaul her teaching style to adjust to an all-boys environment after teaching in mixed-gender classes.

She said while most of the changes in teaching style were too complex or nuanced to properly describe, they were significant enough that it took her about a full year before she felt she got it right.

Royal St. George's School is a private school for boys from Grade 3 through to the end of high school.

There has been considerable concern about how boys are performing in school, particularly in the wake of test results in Ontario, and across North America, which have consistently shown that girls are outperforming boys, particularly in reading and writing.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development released a report last December that revealed girls significantly outscored boys in readings skills in all 32 countries and every Canadian province surveyed.

Although Canadian boys scored well above the 500-point OECD average, they were more than 30 points behind girls in the exam, which was administered to 30,000 15-year-olds across the country. In Canada, 40% of girls reported reading at least 30 minutes a day for enjoyment, compared to only 25% of boys.

Ontario's provincewide tests for children in Grades 3 and 6 also found that boys fared more poorly than girls across all subjects tested. Among Grade 6 children, for example, only 44% of boys met expectations in reading, compared with 63% of girls.

Educators yesterday said they are under pressure from parents and the larger community to tailor the system to better serve boys.

"This is a very hot topic for parents' groups across the country. Parents are generally really worried about their boys," said Cecilia Reynolds, a professor at the Ontario Institute for the Study of Education in Toronto who has worked on the research from Royal St. George's School.

She said this issue crosses all demographics, with private school parents just as concerned about how their boys are performing as parents of boys who attend public schools.

"In the private schools, they are very worried," she said. "They are concerned if it looks as if their boy is going to get left behind in the global economy and isn't going to live up to the expectations they have of him."

She is also involved in a massive research project underway at Upper Canada College, where two donors contributed an unprecedented $7.5-million to fund a learning centre for boys.

The Wernham West Centre for Learning has been set up at the prominent Toronto private school to study various ways of enhancing the learning environment for boys, and providing support for teachers and the broader school community.

"This is really rather groundbreaking stuff," said Prof. Reynolds, who said the $2-million earmarked specifically for educational research will benefit educators across the country.

Meanwhile, the smaller-scale research project undertaken at Royal St. George's School provides interesting insights into how boys learn.

The researchers found that physical surroundings were very important for boys, who seem to perform much better when they are in a classroom with more space and natural lighting.

"Boys need to be spaced out physically," said the report. "Larger rooms make for calmer environments."

They found that hanging art on the walls and ceilings had a significant impact on boys, although there had to be "a balance between interesting displays but not distracting displays."

The report also contained advice on how teachers should be teaching boys: "Be very disciplined and strict, especially at the beginning, but be flexible one-on-one. Boys need to know why they are learning something."

The teachers reported that boys "tend to be really tough on new teachers, especially less macho, young teachers," and that teachers need to acknowledge "the power that comes with destroying a teacher."

What boys valued most in a classroom relationship, the report said, was authenticity and directness:

"They need to know where the lesson is going and are less likely to follow along just to please the teacher. Boys will not tolerate being talked at."

aowens@nationalpost.com

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