Distance Learning and Our Sons
August 23, 2020
by Sean Kullman
Is Ideology Getting in the Way of Boys Learning?
For decades boys have been falling behind in the American educational system. Many of the challenges stem from a contemporary inability to create boy friendly environments. Suspension data, special education data, and the lack of training in boy and girl differences are merely a few factors contributing to the struggles of our sons. While Mother Jones columnist Keira Butler attempted to debunk sex related brain and learning differences between boys and girls in a fairly recent article, Butler's article was too ideologically driven and didn't address difference as much as it attacked single-sex education and the work of Michael Gurian and Leonard Sax. Those who do not support single-sex education often do so on the grounds of social and ideological ones and not necessarily biological ones and social ones that show the merits of single-sex education.
In 2011, Diane Halpern, former President of the American Psychological Association, argued against single sex education and suggested it's not effective while later acknowledging inherent differences in how male and female brains are wired and work.
"In her preface to the first edition of Sex Differences in Cognitive Abilities, Halpern wrote: 'At the time, it seemed clear to me that any between-sex differences in thinking abilities were due to socialization practices, artifacts and mistakes in the research, and bias and prejudice. ... After reviewing a pile of journal articles that stood several feet high and numerous books and book chapters that dwarfed the stack of journal articles … I changed my mind.
Why? There was too much data pointing to the biological basis of sex-based cognitive differences to ignore,' Halpern says...."
"Halpern offers a succinct assessment: 'The role of culture is not zero. The role of biology is not zero.'"
"Trying to assign exact percentages to the relative contributions of “culture” versus “biology” to the behavior of free-living human individuals in a complex social environment is tough at best," says science writer Bruce Goldman in a 2017 Stanford Medicine article in which Halpern's excerpts appear.
Some seem reticent to embrace the notion that different pedagogical approaches may contribute to how boys and girls learn even though brain differences are being recognized. Accepting cognitive differences but leaving no room for its impact on learning is too doctrinaire. Two years later, Goldman wrote, "Two Minds casts neither sex as intellectually or emotionally inferior; it outlines evidence indicating that brain differences between males and females contribute to differences in behavior and cognition."
Arguments regarding the pros and cons of single-sex and co-education may continue, but boys and girls are finding success in both. Meanwhile, a lack of understanding and acceptance continues to compromise the education of boys.
Lack of Understanding
The lack of understanding for boys begins early according to the U.S. Department of Education, as boys represent 79% of preschool suspensions. The numbers do not get much better for boys as they progress into the K-12 system. Boys represent 71% of all suspensions according to the National Education Association. Although I would argue that number is likely higher. Sever years ago, I requested data from my local school district and learned boys comprised 79-93% of all high school suspensions each year from 2006 to 2013. The majority of suspensions for boys was between 79% to 83%, so approximately 8 of every 10 suspensions were boys. Other data revealed that a 1st to 4th grade boy was as likely or more likely to be suspended than a 9th to 12th grade female.
Some positive attention is being directed at black boys who experience exceptionally high levels of suspension and expulsion, although not enough. We must, however, make sure the gender data of all races and gender-demographic data remains a central component of data collection. More often than not, racial data has conflated gender instead of examining sex-demographic data.
School has not been kind to boys and COVID-19 presents an entirely new set of challenges or, perhaps, opportunities if parents and teachers focus on maximizing the core learning subjects for boys and remove the daily negative attention boys receive. With the majority of schools distance learning, some advocates recommend a greater focus on core subjects (reading, writing, and math).
According to the 2020 “Condition of Education” report by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, female students have scored higher than male students every year in 4th grade and 8th grade reading proficiency since 1992. In fact, the gender reading-proficiency gap has actually widened for boys from 4th grade to 8th grade.
Not only has the reading gender-gap widened, boys have regressed while girls have progressed. Although some might argue boys and girls need better outcomes, boys continue to fall behind girls in reading by a significant margin. In Math, there is essentially no gender-gap. Since 2011, the difference in math proficiency between girls and boys is just over 1% for 8th graders (NAEP).
For many parents, COVID-19 has created a number of challenges but may provide an opportunity to see how your son does outside the classroom setting with fewer distractions and greater freedoms.
How to Help Your Son Succeed
Create a ritual learning space for your son where there are as few distractions as possible. Expect your son to stand up and move around. Try to avoid seeing your son’s fidgeting as something that distracts his learning. Instead, help him direct it. Learning from home allows your son to move around without distracting others. Some boys feel comfortable standing while learning. (Is this so different from the stand-up desks we’re seeing in offices across the country?) And encourage your son to exercise between classes and during down time. Pushups, jumping jacks, and jumping rope are great ways to get rid of excess energy and stimulate blood flow to the brain. Prior to online tests and classes, make sure your son does something physcial. Ten minutes of light activity will actually help him focus. Even a walk around the block or shooting a few baskets can help.
Focus on What Counts
The core subjects will serve as the foundation of your son’s future learning. A focus on math, reading, and writing are more essential than ever. Reward your son with more playtime outside for completing his assignments early in core subjects. Encourage your son to prioritize these subjects over others.
School and Teachers
Encourage your school to provide a healthy portion of independent learning away from the computer and ensure students receive feedback. Allow students time to work on assignments. Students should know what the week ahead looks like so they and parents can manage their schedules. If teachers are providing assignments day by day, students are not empowered to move at their own pace and plan the week ahead. Try to check in with students regularly. Teacher will have far fewer interactions. More than ever, it's important for teachers to check in on student progress.