Are our schools failing boys?

Women's-eye View By Vanda Radzik
Stabroek News
January 7, 2000

Something is wrong with the boys. ... It wasn't just their poor scores on reading and writing tests. It went deeper. Many boys believed that school held nothing for them. "There's a growing percentage of boys who don't see bright prospects for themselves in the future," says Professor Willms, an international literacy researcher based at the University of New Brunswick.

This was the headline and opening paragraph of an article by Sean Fine that was featured in the Globe & Mail newspaper of Canada in September 2000.

It struck a chord because there has been a fair amount of concern in Guyana and in the Caribbean as a whole about similar issues. I do not for a moment subscribe to the backlash against women's advancement and the fallacy that Miller of Jamaica and his other acolytes peddle about male marginalisation in society. The fact remains that men still hold the balance of power the world over. They are still richer and still wield more power in public life politically, socially and economically. The gender gap is still a critical issue. But the cold fact is that boys are generally less motivated than girls to excel in school these days. And there is increasing anxiety about male underachievement in education.

Let's look at the scenario as it stands. Boys are still expected to equip themselves to be the breadwinners, to get employment, to be the main family providers and income earners when they become men. These are big pressures and there are male gender pressures that are imposed by traditional gender roles and relations. The question we need to ask is whether schooling and school exam certification actually provides opportunities for livelihood and employment. Whether investing extra years and effort in passing CXC actually guarantees a young man a better job and an edge in income earning. I'm not sure that it does, really. Not any longer. The parallel market, the underground business sector in Guyana are far more prevalent and lucrative-and therefore offer more attractive and accessible opportunities to many young men.

Measures of success: A little self-worth goes a long way
The old adage that people of my generation grew up with: "education is better than silver and gold" no longer holds the currency it once had. Certainly, in terms of economic status, everyone knows that the people who have made their fortunes in recent times have hardly done so by the book-in all senses of the word. Which is the case in point: that success as measured by contemporary standards does not require "bookishness", or even proficiency in literacy, although I would imagine that numeracy is higher on the checklist in this regard.

A past pupil of mine-one who attended the Remedial English and Maths classes that I volunteered with along with Olga Bone, Agnes Jones, Bonita Harris and others in an initiative called Education Renewal-met me the other day. He had dropped out of the classes after a while. However, he had gone on to do quite well. Along the way he had done a spot of 'back track', some trading in St Maarten, took out a loan from IPED and now had his own small business and was very pleased and proud of his success.

He had fond memories of the classes he said and asked after some of the other pupils and teachers. But his success was in no way really attributable to the academic proficiency he may have acquired-scant as that may have been. But there may have been something else at stake here. Perhaps it was the sense of self that he developed on account of the one-on-one tutoring- knowing that his effort mattered and that those teachers took the time to mark his homework and correct his mistakes and check up on the corrections too. He remembered the vacation classes that Education Renewal conducted at St Pius where he enjoyed the art & craft and the "poetry part" and the field trips and remembered especially the class on outer space and the planets and stars in the solar system which he had never known about before in his life.

He may not be a brain box, nor a Mr Morality, but he had survived and succeeded against the odds. I think that it was less the lessons and more the attention that lent a helping hand along way to this young man. This is what education is also about: building self-worth, servicing the imagination, opening up exciting windows of knowledge and information, encouraging curiosity about the world around us and, most of all unearthing the particular potential of children/students, making them feel valid, so that even if they fail at schoolwork, they need not fail at life.

Let the boys speak!
For the boy child, there are particular stresses and strains that have gone unattended for too long and we are suffering the consequences as a society.

The Globe & Mail article reported that while previous studies have shown that girls begin to struggle with their identity and self-esteem from the age of 11 to 15, today's studies are raising questions about how boys' inner feelings are suppressed between the ages of four and six. At the age of five, boys begin to cover up what they feel, shield themselves and take on a protective role, according to a research conducted by Dr Gilligan on four to six year old boys. She writes: "Fathers enjoy the openness of their sons until about age five, when they begin to help them 'narrow their voices and become men in the world'." They do this, she argues because as men, fathers fear that if their sons remain open and vulnerable, they will be teased or bullied, or shamed. But, in fact what really happens is that in the stifling of their voices, they are stunted in their growth, not only emotionally but also academically.

Dr Pollack, a Harvard psychotherapist, wrote in his recent book Real Boys, that if we were listen to these stifled voices, what we would hear is something disturbing. Because boys are pushed at a younger age than girls to be independent from their mothers, they must wear a mask of toughness that is at odds with their real selves, he argues.

"Even boys who seem OK on the surface are suffering silently inside -from confusion, alienation and despair," he wrote. The growing consensus is that the family and the broader culture of men must be engaged in order to help boys' school performance. One researcher on these issues, Professor Brawer believes that men have a culture of silence on important matters that leaves their sons to flounder.

A group of mothers organised what might well be the first Boy's Conference in Vancouver, Canada last spring. This activity brought together 70 boys to review and discuss how they feel about the big move into high school and to begin the process of feeling free to talk to each other and to their parents and teachers about their fears and hopes and feelings.

Boys and reading
Another very interesting set of studies have been done on boys and reading. It was found that boys generally like to read less than girls, and they are less inclined to read for the sake for reading or the joy of it. But they do like to read to learn how to do things, and what makes things work. Well, I think girls like to know about such things too. I recently watched an 11-year-old girl play with a truck and with action figures after the boys had gone off somewhere. These were actually the toys she preferred to the Barbie dolls she had been given for Christmas. And then, I watched my four-year-old nephew's fascination with Barbie's knees and elbows that could move and bend. He spent hours happily contorting these joints.

So, I do not entirely buy the argument posited by another study on this subject that girls like to read about castles in fairy tales while boys like to read about how the castles are built instead. The notion of airy-fairy, dreamy girls and practical, constructive boys is too stereotypical to sit well with me, but there may some useful indicators here to consider in terms of encouraging boys to read more by finding out what it is that they prefer to read, and then developing and introducing books and other texts that they would really be motivated to pick up and study and enjoy.

Study the crisis in order to change the situation
As a lover of literature and of books myself, I am always struck at how generally unappetizing the school readers and texts generally are. It would be very interesting to do a similar study in Guyana to determine what the children do and do not enjoy reading and why. The results of the study should be analysed both in terms of gender, age, geography and race/culture. I think the findings would be both revealing and immensely useful in revising the reading curricula. I always wonder why we do not encourage more child-centred and gender-based evaluations of the school material.

Nearly every Guyanese will tell you that education is in crisis in this country and has been for a long, long time. Teachers blame children and parents, parents blame the ministry and the teachers and the children. The children founder and bear the brunt of the burden that masquerades as an education. The system needs care and it needs change. We need desperately to invest in serious studies of our own in order know where and how best to fix the problem. Because we are, in fact, all a part of the problem.

Out with the cobwebs! reach for the stars!
Let's hope that the new millennium starting in 2001 will blow away some of the cobwebs clinging to the system and open up windows of innovation that will give our boys a better chance at becoming good and valid men of tomorrow, better fathers and leaders with more emotional freedom and integrity. And that our girls will seize the day: Use the opportunity to continue reaching for the stars so that they will sail right through the glass ceilings unscathed and undaunted.

Woman's Eye View Honour Roll
Woman's Eye View Honour Roll salutes Agnes Jones, Olga Bone and Eusi Kwayana pioneers in education and nation-building, life-long teachers of distinction. Thank you for your example, your clear sense of gender balance, and dedication in spite of the odds.

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