Backlash against “the boy problem”

USA Today reports on a feminist backlash against the boy problem:

Evidence of the backlash turned up in Maine, where a new report that was supposed to focus on the boy problem was watered down to include problems affecting both genders. The two-year study notes that women make up 63% of Maine public college campuses, but it then goes into odd tangents about sexual harassment.

More broadly, a spate of commentary questioning the validity of the trend has begun to appear. Writing in The Washington Post earlier this month, for instance, authors Caryl Rivers, a journalism professor at Boston University, and Rosalind Chait Barnett, a senior scientist at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University, call the problem “largely a manufactured one.”

The debate might prove harmless because the criticism doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. But as with the global warming debate, denial gives people, such as Maine’s educators, an excuse to avoid fixing the problem.

Evidence is overwhelming that boys as a whole, and low-income and minority boys in particular, are falling behind academically at alarming rates. Boys are twice as likely to be referred for learning disabilities and four times more likely to end up on attention-deficit drugs. Far more girls have college aspirations and are getting college degrees.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 04/24 at 11:30 AM
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2006 Montana Heritage Project

Do boys do better with male teachers?

Apparently not.

“In support of the gender-invariant model, academic motivation and engagement does not significantly vary as a function of their teacher’s gender, and in terms of academic motivation and engagement, boys do not fare any better with male teachers than female teachers.”

“Another key finding is that the bulk of variance in motivation and engagement occurs at the student level. Where there was relatively more class-level variance, the construct related more explicitly to class and teacher factors, such as teacher-student relationships where up to a third of the variance was explained at the class level. Hence, on the more mentalistic or intrapsychic dimensions there exists more variance at the student level, and as the construct involves factors external to the individual, the context plays more of a role. This finding holds implications for educational intervention. It suggests that student-level intervention rather than whole-class or whole-school intervention on motivation and engagement will yield the best results.”

Andrew Martin; Herb Marsh. “Motivating boys and motivating girls: does teacher gender really make a difference?” Australian Journal of Education, Nov 2005 v49 i3 p320(15). 

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 04/17 at 04:22 PM
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2006 Montana Heritage Project

Feeling stupid?

When I was applying for a teaching job early in my career, the superintendent who was interviewing me asked whether I believed intelligence could be taught. At that point in my life, I had been reading a lot of Wendell Berry, who argued that the proper test for intelligence was the degree of order that surrounded one’s life. You could judge the intelligence of a farmer by driving his fields, he said.

So I answered, “Yes.” Berry’s main point was that farmers who farmed according to intelligent traditions all farmed intelligently. I was quite sure that kids could be taught to order their lives according to intelligent traditions, and that this came close enough to teaching intelligence to satisfy me.

Now I see that according to research [New York Times, registration required] at the National Institute of Mental Health, the brains of intelligent kids grow differently than the brains of less intelligent kids, and the difference can be seen using MRI brain scans. What’s most interesting is that the cortex of the intelligent kids gets thinner than those of average kids, probably because redundant neural pathways are “pruned.”

So more intelligent kids rewire their brains to be more orderly? That makes an intuitive kind of sense. Anyone who has tried to learn a new skill, such as drawing a sailboat with one’s non-dominant hand, has struggled with the difficulty of too many neural pathways. Finding pathways that work and then discarding the others seems a plausible explanation of intelligence.

For a long time I’ve used “not able to find what I’m looking for” as my working definition of stupidity, and too many possible pathways makes losing things easy.  When I can’t remember a word maybe I’ve lost some useful neural pathway amid a tangle of less useful pathways. I haven’t yet found the solution for that, but in much of the rest of my life I’ve found things that work: have systems and keep them organized. Not being able to find a document or a list I made a month ago is a form of stupidity, but there are learnable strategies to mitigate the trouble.

Good middle school teachers know that to teach kids to be good at school it’s necessary to teach them systems for getting and staying organized. I wish it were more a part of high school. Becoming more organized may not raise a kid’s IQ, but it will certainly help him act more intelligently in thousands of situations where acting more intelligently would a great boon.

Posted by David Hume on 04/10 at 09:24 PM
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2006 Montana Heritage Project
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