Thursday, March 27, 2008

Right-brain biases against school boys

In an Op-Ed in today's Philadephia Inquirer, veteran education reporter Richard Whitmire calls on presidential candidates to take on the under-appreciated plight of today's school boys. 

Boys, Whitmire reminds us, have long been earning lower grades than girls, and graduating from high school and college at lower rates. He cites the 23-campus, 450,000-student California State University system as typical: 2/3 of its graduates are female.

Whitmire doesn't speculate on causes, but others haven't hesitated. Typical culprits: reduced recess and the resulting restlessness of high-energy children (purportedly disproportionately male); video game addiction (ditto); learning disabilities and attention deficit disorders (ditto). 

Less obvious culprits are the various contemporary practices that shortchange left-brainers (again, purportedly disproportionately male). In The War Against Boys, Christina Hoff Sommers cites one: the shift from competitive classrooms to cooperative ones. Boys in particular, she argues, perform better when competing with classmates than when required instead to cooperate with them.

Another problem that may afflict more boys than girls, I propose, is the intrusion of language arts into math. Many boys I know, especially in the early grades, dislike writing (often struggling with spelling and penmanship) and far prefer doing math problems to communicating about them.

Finally, as I'll discuss in later posts, more and more schools are reserving their top grades for those with the kind of attentive, diligent, eager-beaver attitude that many boys fail to display--particularly in the growing number of classrooms that discourage competition and "mere calculation."


Catherine Johnson said...

Slightly off-topic, but we have an analogous phenomenon with the language arts: the intrusion of the visual arts into E/LA.

The freshman Honors English class here routinely gives students a "creative" option on writing assignments, which means a visual arts option.

In the most recent case, the class was doing character studies of characters in Catcher in the Rye. Students who wished to do so could write a shorter paper & draw an astrology chart for the characters.

One of the teachers who writes for Kitchen Table Math occasionally told me that during one of the professional development workshops she attended teachers were told that prewriting isn't always verbal (I'm paraphrasing --- don't remember the exact words used. The jist is accurate.)

lefty said...

Yes, I've seen this, too. My favorite example dates back to the early 1990's, when a friend of mine was teaching writing at NYU: the lead teacher told the adjuncts that they should allow drawings in place of essays because she didn't want to "privilege the word".

Then there's science, and the science fair poster. Or the general call to "be creative!", which generally seems to mean visual creativity.

lefty said...

Meant to add: I LOVE the astrology chart example!

If Freudian psychoanalysis is a legitimate framework for literary analysis (Freud, however dead in psych departments, is alive and well in English), then why not?

I just reread Catcher a few weeks ago and it didn't occur to me that astrology could help explain things. But, since the book doesn't mention birthdays, I suppose you'd be inferring character's signs from their character traits, rather than vice versa?