National Post

Wednesday, June 26, 2002

Schools conspire against boys: educator

Anne Marie Owens
National Post

NEW YORK CITY - Schools are essentially anti-boy by their design, an Australian education expert told an international conference of boys' educators yesterday.

The poor performance of boys is inevitable because schools themselves are organized in ways that seem to conspire against boys doing well, author Peter West said.

''For too many of these boys, school is a place where they have to sit down, shut up and write this down,'' said Dr. West, who wrote the book What Is The Matter With Boys? and teaches in the faculty of education at the University of Western Sydney.

He told the annual conference of the International Boys' Schools Coalition that schools discourage touching, lots of movement and unpredictable bursts of energy -- all qualities that go to the essence of what it means to be a boy.

''Schools are about all sorts of non-boy things,'' he said. ''Is it any wonder that the ideal student has become, by default, female?''

Dr. West says any environment that stresses order and quietness and control, as most schools do, is inherently anti-boy.

As an example, he points out how boys will frequently reach out to touch other people, using a soft punch to the shoulder or a pat on the head as a way of connecting. Schools always curb this essentially social behaviour by imposing all sorts of No Touch or No Contact policies, aimed at reducing violence.

''Boys can't sit still; school still requires that kids sit still. Boys want to be outside; school keeps kids inside.

''Boys have brief spurts of attention; school requires constant, steady attention.''

He said even the physical differences between boys and girls, especially in adolescence, contribute to how conspicuous boys can be in schools.

''The boys get in trouble and it's no wonder: They've got big bodies that they're still getting used to, they have loud, deep voices ... girls have quieter, high voices, [and] blend in more.''

Dr. West started to investigate the problem of boys in schools when he began noticing that whenever he visited schools, boys were everywhere but in the classroom.

''Everywhere I went, there were boys. Boys standing out in the hallway because they got in trouble, boys waiting outside the office for discipline, boys lugging heavy equipment around for the teacher, boys straggling in late to school.''

As a result of what he had seen, he was not surprised when international evidence began to make the case that boys were not doing well in class.

Studies throughout North America and internationally have consistently shown that boys are being outperformed by girls across all grade levels.

Boys make up about three-quarters of the enrolment for special education and learning disability programs, are five times more likely to be diagnosed with attention deficit difficulties and prescribed medication for the problems, and are much more likely to drop out of school.

Girls have now surpassed boys in university enrolments, with female undergraduates making up almost 60% of the post-secondary student body across North America.

There are two national inquiries underway in Australia, investigating different aspects of the problem: boys' underachievement and the exodus of male teachers from elementary schools.

''There is reasonably convincing evidence ... that boys as a group are not engaged by schools,'' said Dr. West. ''If half the school population finds school a drudge, if half of it finds school a complete waste of time, then Western society is in for a great deal of trouble on its streets, in public places, in schools and in workplaces.''

When he surveyed boys about when they actually liked school, it was always whenever school was not at all like school for them -- moments when they got to leave the classroom, or engage in debates and arguments, or participate in hands-on activities.

He said schools and parents also have to do a better job of mentoring good male role models and making sure that doing well in school fits into the definition of what it means to be a boy.

''We've said to girls, 'Your chances in life are all about school.' We're not giving that same message to boys,'' he said. ''We've given girls a lot of strong messages about what they can do, about how they can be anything they want to be. We haven't done a good job with boys.

''They no longer know what it means to be a man. They don't know what it means to be a boy.''

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