Boys in Crisis

This is a video I did two years ago as part of my studies with the Gurian Instute.

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Quo Vadimus?

When you begin to burn out on your research topic, where do you think you will move on to?

My focus is on gender and education. I am specifically focused on advocacy for boys in education because it seems to me that is where the biggest damage is being done now. However, of course, I work on gender-based issues and strategies for both sexes. I don’t think I’ll burn out on this until more attention gets focused on this subject or until it becomes clear that I’ve done all I can do. There are some very committed and capable leaders in this area and I do hope we can effect some change.

My second area of interest is expanding the acceptance of John Ratey’s research (see Spark) on exercise and learning. He has some fascinating things to say about the influence of exercise on brain functioning and some very specific suggestions and practical examples on how it can strongly influence educational outcomes. That might be my next focus.

Another subject that hovers in my peripheral vision is SES and education. This is such a very big topic. SES itself is a huge topic and one where open discussion is not very common or safe. However, it seems probable from the reading I have done that much of educational failure is actually and unavoidably caused by SES-related factors beyond the power of any educational system to fix. There is so much to this topic and it is so important because by not addressing it we are condemning millions of people to an unnecessarily difficult life. This would be a sad, dangerous, and challenging subject to pursue. However, honestly, until we stop think of poverty as something to be “prevented,” I think our society will continue to “create” poverty in the name of preventing it.

A safer subject but closer to the “darkside” is the pursuit of computer-driven learning strategies/tools. In a standards-based, standardized testing-based world, it is probably possible to largely replace teachers with very well programmed computers that drill the “essential” information in a fraction of the time. There are interesting questions about whether computers can even create the open-ended learning promoted by art and research and general inquiry. They probably can. Anyway, I am certain there are dark forces moving out there to automate our classrooms. I would be tempted to follow that fascinating train of inquiry, if only to bring “light” to the process.

To conclude, I am always drawn to areas that have big problems that have relatively simple solutions. These “80/20 Rule” situations are among the very few where, I believe, major improvement can be made in the human condition. Until very recently, I wasn’t too concerned about the human condition. Now, however, I’m very much looking forward to seeing what I can do if I put my full effort into making the world just a little bit better in areas where I have some wherewithal.

Gender-based Educational Strategies

I think there’s no question that gender-based strategies need to be taught to teachers and incorporated into classrooms just as VAK, multiple intelligences, and many other tools for understanding and reaching students more effectively are. I think teachers who say, “I teach to every child individually” are on the right path however they do need the education to fully comprehend what those distinct personalities require.

In particular, boys are frequently very much of a mystery for many teachers (though girls have their gender-based learning challenges too, obviously). So for me, the key is getting teachers to teach to coed classes using gender-based teaching strategies (amongst others). However, one of the leading writers on this subject, Leonard Sax, has apparently moved to advocating single sex classrooms and perhaps schools. I think a lot is lost, particularly in single sex schools. But there are certainly times and situations where differentiating by sex might help (for example in middle school when there is already so much change going on).

Here’s a table that shows gender-differentiated scores on the English Language Arts portion of the California CST. Note pretty uniformly 8% fewer boys than girls are scoring proficient or better.

Boys – Girls            
Adv & Prof 2nd 3rd 4th 5th 6th 7th
2009 -8% -5% -8% -8% -7% -9%
2008 -7% -5% -7% -6% -6% -10%
2007 -9% -8% -7% -7% -5% -9%
2006 -7% -6% -8% -7% -6% -10%
2005 -6% -6% -7% -7% -6% -10%
2004 -7% -6% -7% -8% -6% -10%
2003 -7% -7% -8% -8% -5% -8%
Average -7% -6% -7% -7% -6% -9%
Median -7% -6% -7% -7% -6% -10%
             
             
Adv & Prof 8th 9th 10th 11th Average Median
2009 -8% -8% -7% -9% -8% -8%
2008 -9% -8% -8% -8% -7% -7%
2007 -9% -10% -8% -8% -8% -8%
2006 -8% -8% -9% -6% -7% -7%
2005 -8% -10% -9% -6% -7% -7%
2004 -8% -9% -9% -6% -7% -7%
2003 -8% -8% -8% -8% -7% -8%
Average -8% -9% -8% -7% -7% -7%
Median -8% -8% -8% -8% -7% -7%

The Trouble with Boys

Can you think of an example of an instructional strategy that would not be developmentally appropriate for a given age group?

There is growing doubt about teaching reading and writing skills to kindergarten boys. For whatever reason, boys lag girls in both verbal processing and fine motor skills by, on average, 1 1/2 years at 5 years old. We wouldn’t try to teach most 3 1/2 year old girls to read and write but have no trouble trying to make boys with the same abilities as those young girls to do the same. This has profound implications. Early difficulties in school can create learned helplessness and a lifelong negative perception of both reading and school in general. It is obviously far more complex than this and boys have significantly more nature-based hurdles in school than just this one. But the effect is clear. I put together a 4 minute, totally fact based and fully referenced video, for anybody that’s interested: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oybR4PcQ7u8.

There are several solutions to this phenomenon. One is easy: start boys who appear likely to have these issues in kindergarten at 6 instead of 5 years old. There are also a variety of teaching techniques that particularly suit the gender-specific learning needs of students. As just one example, boys do considerably better if their verbal faculties are recruited first through storyboarding or other non-verbal, imaginative exercises.

Landspeeder Math

In a prior post, I advocated using movies to connect students to their studies.

For me, history comes alive in fiction. When I’ve read a story or seen a movie about a past time, somehow the factual material becomes connected and relevant. I know that’s how it works for my daughter too. She has American Girl dolls and each one comes from a particular period in American history. There are also novels about those girls in that era, based on diaries of real historical girls. She can tell you about living in the Blitz in London or what ocean liner travel was like in 1912. Now she says to me, “Daddy, I want to read more history.” This from a 1st grader.

On a related subject, there is a lot of enthusiasm in a classroom that usually goes untapped. I know Star Wars is huge amongst the boys of my daughter’s class. It seems to me that hooking lessons and rewards into the Star Wars universe would be hugely enrolling and captivating for those boys. Yet I’ve never seen it done. “If Luke Skywalker is racing his landspeeder against five of his friends, how many Tatooine landspeeders are in the race altogether?”

This one is trickier but, with no encouragement at all, many of the boys in her class (like, I think, most boys everywhere) love to draw battle scenes when they have free time. Those battle scenes are usually complex and frequently nuanced. I know the implied violence bugs a lot of teachers, but it is fantasy violence, not rehearsal of real warmaking. And it is a vast supply of energy and opportunity discarded in most classrooms today.

Discipline, Part Four

If we think of a child as starting the day with a certain self-esteem level, our goal as teachers should be to find a way to send those same children home with more self-esteem. That is so hard for me. I am wired to expect good behavior and punish disruptive behavior and/or inattentiveness. I’m not a disciplinarian and I hold relationship with the class, even in corrections, but I still work from that instinct. Fortunately, the teacher I work with is a model of positive reinforcement. She is constantly scanning the room in order to find a student “doing something right.” It works. Our class is orderly and quick to settle down. Perhaps more importantly the time and stress of strict discipline is avoided. The children, even the boys, feel loved and appreciated. Even the boys with higher natural physicality, lower maturity levels and bigger cognitive deficits feel taken care of and safe. It’s rare and wonderful.

I took a class from a wonderful student of matters educational, Gary Benton. His argument is that at a minimum, children need to receive three positives for every negative. With troubled children, his ratio goes to seven to one. I remember him saying that, if the situation is challenging enough, it may be necessary to say something like, “that’s great, I really like the way you threw yourself against the wall.” Obviously, that’s an extreme, but his point is that almost any positive becomes a way to slowly walk the child back from the self-destructive cycle of punishment and failure. I believe he’s right.

Having said that, I guess it depends on what a teacher sees as his or her role. I see my role as bringing out the best in each and every child. And I believe each and every child wants success. Maybe I need to think of praise as praising their aspirations AND their behavior at the same time. Anyway, I’ve seen how well it works and I want more of it.

References

Benton, G. (2004). Fire spitters: a workbook for parents (and others) who want to successfully deal with a difficult and angry child. Victoria, B.C.: Trafford.

Benton, G. (2008). Succeeding with the difficult young child (preschool – second grade). Bellevue, WA: Bureau of Education & Research.

Gender Stereotypes, Part Three

The secret of evolving our culture’s relationship to gender is to appreciate the reality that the sexes do differ in important ways including behavioral, neurological and physiological. However, gender differences fall on a spectrum and all points on that spectrum have equal worth and validity. Anytime we pretend something different (whether that “all women want to work outside the home” or “all women want to raise babies”), we do everyone a disservice or worse.

It is tricky to talk of differences when our differences have been used as a tool of prejudice and repression. But when differences exist, how can we not acknowledge them? The challenge and the obligation is to acknowledge our differences but to respect them.

Gender Stereotypes, Part Two

As the father of a daughter and a regular participant in kindergarten and first grade, I am pretty clear that the biological influence is very strong. While there are certainly additional socialized aspects of gender, there is a very strong and immutable biological component.  To be sure, these biological gender aspects fall on a spectrum. But, as an example, the female recipients of turned cards in last year’s kindergarten yellow-orange-red disciplinary system outnumbered males by an crazy margin. Maybe one girl got to orange once all year and not one got to red. For the boys, orange was “the new yellow” and red was a familiar stopping place. They we lucky there was nothing worse than red…

We have tried to encourage our daughter to play sport. She is adamant about not playing soccer, t-ball or basketball. The only thing she does that resembles a sport is karate, where she has stayed diligent and long enough to have earned a second-orange belt. But truth be told she mostly does that for two reasons. One, her father clearly loves that she does it. And two, she likes socializing with the other girls there. In her regular weekly resistance to going to practice, her biggest objections come when she knows her friends will be absent. So here is a case where parental pressure is the main reason for, not against, contra-gender behavior.

The reality is every one of us is a bit of a random walk down personality lane. Any combination of interests and preferences is possible. However, all results cluster around a mean and the means by trait for males and females are often quite different. We should acknowledge that and allow each their own, free from pressure to conform to anyone’s political agenda.

Gender Differences

Gender stereotyping is a very interesting, important, and complex subject.  Stereotype is defined as “a standardized mental picture that is held in common by members of a group and that represents an oversimplified opinion, prejudiced attitude, or uncritical judgment” (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, 2010).  Thus, stereotyping is oversimplified, uncritical, and perhaps even prejudiced.  It also lumps all members of the group into the same simplistic judgment.  On its face, stereotyping is wrong.

Our society has entertained many gender stereotypes over its history.  Most were directly prejudicial to women.  The most recent swing of the pendulum brought the culture to a belief in androgyny, a belief that all Homo sapiens have “the characteristics or nature of both male and female” (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, 2010).  However, recent neurobiological research demonstrates that this cultural assumption, however laudably equitable, is simply not correct.

A recent NIH/NIMH study found that “robust sex differences in developmental trajectories were noted for nearly all (brain) structures” (Lenroot et al., 2007).  The study also noted “peak gray matter volumes generally occurring earlier for females” and that “mean total cerebral volume was approximately 10% larger in males.  Total cerebral volume peaked at 10.5 years in females and 14.5 years in males” (Lenroot et al., 2007).  Thus, on average, male brains are larger than female brains and both total brain volume and gray matter volumes peaked 1 ½ to 2 years earlier in females than males.

A different study found that “girls rely on a supramodal language network, whereas boys process visual and auditory words differently” (Burman, Biten, & Booth, 2008).  In other words, females use different parts of their brain to process language and do so in a different fashion than males. 

With the recent developments in modern neural imaging technology, brains can be observed as never before.  A flood of research is revealing many new facts about how our brains work.  Many of those facts are revelations about how distinct average male and female brains really are.  One other study I would like to note is from a different field.  This study examined prenatal stress in rats and its effect on “latent inhibition (LI),” a Pavlovian conditioned response.  Fascinatingly, “prenatal stress increased the amount of LI only in the males” (Bethus, Lemaire, Lhomme, & Goodall, 2005).  In this pre-natal (i.e. almost entirely social influence free) study, female rats were unaffected. 

The body of evidence is large and growing larger that, on average, males and females have significant neurobiological, developmental differences.  Some are only in the timing of development, some are in structure and processing.  To be sure, there are no claims or assumptions of superiority for either gender.  However, unfortunately the easier and morally simpler assumption of androgyny is simple incorrect.  Unfortunately, there will be no simple answers in the area of gender differentiation.

Lenroot et al. (2007) sum it up nicely: “Differences in brain size between males and females should not be interpreted as implying any sort of functional advantage or disadvantage.  Size/function relationships are complicated by the inverted U shape of developmental trajectories and by the myriad factors contributing to structure size, including the number and size of neurons and glial cells, packing density, vascularity, and matrix composition.  However, an understanding of the sexual dimorphism of brain development, and the factors that influence these trajectories, may have important implications for the field of developmental neuropsychiatry where nearly all of the disorders have different ages of onset, prevalence, and symptomatology between boys and girls” (Lenroot et al., 2007, p. 1072).
 

References

Bethus, I., Lemaire, V., Lhomme, M., & Goodall, G. (2005, March 30). Does prenatal stress affect latent inhibition? It depends on the gender. Behavioural Brain Research, 158(2), 331-338. doi:10.1016/j.bbr.2004.09.013
Burman, D., Biten, T., & Booth, J. (2008, January 4). Sex differences in neural processing of language among children. Neuropsychologia, 46(5), 1349-1362 . doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2007.12.021 Retrieved from
Lenroot, R., Gogtay, N., Greenstein, D., Wells, E., Wallace, G., Clasen, L., Blumenthal, J., … Giedd, J. (2007, March 17). Sexual dimorphism of brain developmental trajectories during childhood and adolescence. NeuroImage, 36, 1065-1073. Retrieved from http://www.boysadrift.com/2007Giedd.pdf
Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. (2010). Androgyny. Retrieved February 25, 2010, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/androgyny
Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. (2010). Stereotype. Retrieved February 25, 2010, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/stereotype

Gender Stereotypes

What are some examples of gender stereotypes?  Describe the development of gender stereotyping from early childhood into adolescence.

Gender stereotyping can occur in many forms and at many stages of development.  Studies show that gender stereotyped behavior can be increased by parental behavior in very early childhood.  As one example, children’s scores on sex role discrimination at age 4 were elevated in children whose parents had shown sex-typed toy preference at 18 months (Fagot & Leinbach, 1989).  Similarly, another study identified the emergence of gender labeling at about 18 months (Zosuls et al., 2009).  Another study showed that the use of gender in functional categories (e.g. “Good morning, boys and girls”) by teachers in elementary school led to subsequent increase in gender stereotyping among the students (Bigler, 1995).  Interestingly, from a developmental point of view, this increase in gender stereotyping was largest among students who had not yet developed multiple classification skill.  Susan Witt studied the relative influence of parents and peers and found that parents had the more profound influence on gender stereotypes. In addition, she argues, “Sex role stereotypes are well established in early childhood” (Witt, 1997, para. 11).  Other research shows gender stereotypes to be quite persistent, “The experimental intervention with elementary school children led to a reduction of occupational stereotyping.  Children’s own occupational aspirations were not, however, significantly affected” (Bigler & Liben, 1990).

Gender stereotypes can be created and reinforced in many ways.  They can be accidentally reinforced by the unspoken assumptions of caregivers and peers. Gender discriminated color choices (e.g. pink & blue), toy choices (Barbies & GI Joes) and even behavioral expectations (playing catch & playing house) are all examples of unconscious gender role differentiation.  More deliberately, boys are frequently expected to play sports, be tough and exhibit characteristics our culture associates with masculinity. Likewise, girls are directed towards dolls and more feminine behaviors and pursuits. Statements like “You hit like a girl” and “Boys don’t cry” make crystal clear the societal expectations for both genders.  As socialization and maturation progresses, peer pressure to conform can easily come to include gender stereotyped behaviors.  The enforced conformity of adolescence certainly adds to the stereotyping, but as we’ve seen above, gender stereotypes are well in place from very early on.

References

Bee, H., & Boyd, B. (2007). The developing child (11th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Education, Inc.

Bethus, I., Lemaire, V., Lhomme, M., & Goodall, G. (2005). Does prenatal stress affect latent inhibition? It depends on the gender. Behavioural Brain Research, 158(2), 331-338. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6SYP-4DK6CJD-2&_user=10&_coverDate=03%2F30%2F2005&_rdoc=1&_fmt=high&_orig=search&_sort=d&_docanchor=&view=c&_searchStrId=1222824518&_rerunOrigin=google&_acct=C000050221&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=10&md5=e7d13098aea78daa2a945fe5a7a14c84

Bigler, R. S. (1995, August). The role of classification skill in moderating environmental influences on children’s gender stereotyping: A study of the functional use of gender in the classroom. Child Development, 66(3), 1072-1087. doi: 10.1111/1467-8624.ep9509180275

Burman, D., Biten, T., & Booth, J. (2008). Sex differences in neural processing of language among children. Neuropsychologia, 46(5), 1349-1362 . doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2007.12.021

Fagot, B. I., & Leinbach, M. D. (1989, June). The young child’s gender schema: Environmental input, internal organization. Child Development, 60(3), 663-672. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.apollolibrary.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mnh&AN=2737015&site=ehost-live

Lenroot, R., Gogtay, N., Greenstein, D., Wells, E., Wallace, G., Clasen, L., Blumenthal, J., … Giedd, J. (2007, March 17). Sexual dimorphism of brain developmental trajectories during childhood and adolescence. NeuroImage, 36, 1065-1073. Retrieved from http://www.boysadrift.com/2007Giedd.pdf

ScienceDaily. (2008). Boys’ And girls’ brains Are different: Gender differences in language appear biological. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/03/080303120346.htm

Witt, S. D. (1997, Summer). Parental influence on children’s socialization to gender roles. Adolescence. Retrieved from http://gozips.uakron.edu/~susan8/parinf.htm

Zosuls, K. M., Ruble, D. N., Tamis-LeMonda, C. S., Shrout, P. E., Bornstein, M. H., & Greulich, F. K. (2009, May). The acquisition of gender labels in infancy: Implications for gender-typed play. Developmental Psychology, 45(3), 688-701. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.apollolibrary.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=39568482&site=ehost-live