"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Boys, Boys, Boys

In the early school books from the 1950s Dick and Jane era (re-released recently, by the way), we can see clearly the gender stereotyping that taught children very early the differences between girls and boys: Boys were active, girls were passive. Boys did things, girls watched. Boys were strong and rambunctious, girls were helpful and quiet. Boys built things, girls helped their moms. These stereotypes were not unique to the 1950s—they were taken for granted even earlier than the 18th Century when Rousseau argued that Nature, itself, determined sex differences in that “it is the part of one to active and strong, and of the other to be passive and weak.”

It is very interesting, then, to note that some data emerging during our current orgy of tabulation in schools indicate that girls are scoring better during this, our new 21st Century testocracy. Now, to anyone willing to question the legitimacy of the current school model based on the creation of a fact-based, test-based, teacher-centered factory for the production of test scores, these data trends might say something about which gender may be counted on to be more malleable than the other, more trained by social convention to the passive role that has been the gift bestowed by the “protectors” of women. After all, a school model built on the transmission of knowledge to empty receptacles fit for its storage coincides quite nicely with the historical notions of what it means to be female, yes?

But this possibility remains lost on those who turn to pop psychology for answers, where there are plenty of fresh explanations in search of book buyers who want to know about the brain variations of boys’ and girls’ language and math centers, whatever those are. And then there are the folks of South Carolina, who see good reason to use this new data as an opportunity to declare the present day traditional “convergent” curriculum as suited to girls, whereas boys will require a more “divergent” curriculum—one that we may expect to allow and encourage thinking, perhaps? Imagine that--boys might need to think and do.

And thus we have the beginning of a phenomenon that we haven’t seen on large scale since the middle of the 19th Century—the segregation of education by gender. When neocons talk about turning back the social clock by a hundred years, apparently they weren’t just talking about race relations. From the Florence Morning News:
Taylor said it is important to educate divergent learners in a way they will want to learn. Whereas traditional learners value learning, sequencing, following the rules, rehearsing skills and memorizing information, and having predictable responses to questions, the divergent learner strives toward “meaningful interpersonal relationships as a prerequisite to learning. He resists rehearsal and predictability of thought and behavior.

“It is best to think of it as a messy closet,” Taylor said, a brain with “lots of storage boxes, neatly placed on one another, along with the junk drawer.”

Traditional learners and traditional teachers find importance in details; value facts; store data in order without context; find data quickly; separate information from a personality; like planning and preparation; learn in a quiet context; are competitive in the classroom; and conform to standards and appear (at least to divergent learners) to be uptight, stiff, overly serious, Taylor said.

Divergent learners and divergent teachers find importance in wholes or chunks of in-context information, value people’s affect, process holistically, store data in big piles with memories wrapped around chunks, search through data until they see what they want, reviewing events and finding the facts (a longer process), respond to personality first, cannot learn from people they dislike or from whom they feel alienated, are indulgent and expedient, like spontaneity and surprise, dislike rehearsal and repetition, like creative answers, like humor, believe play is work, need some accompaniment when studying, such as background music, and are repelled by competition in learning, he said.

“They appear to traditional learners as too happy to be accomplishing anything important, lacking urgency, messy, disorganized and somewhat out of control,” Taylor said.

If traditional learners are more often girls, and divergent learners are more often boys, can they learn in the same classroom? Can a traditional learner be happy in a nontraditional learning environment?

When a divergent learner is stifled, anxious, and does not proceed at an appropriate rate, he is dismissed by authorities, Taylor said.

“Divergent learners have a high need for mobility, a high need for informal settings for learning, a high need for cooperative learning activities with their peers, and an inclination towards gestalt-oriented, creative, divergent, holistic, right-brained thinking which involves needs for relating emotionally to issues and for concretely acting out events and ideas about which they are learning,” Taylor says. . . .

As an antidote to this half-baked nonsense, have a look at this thoughtful piece from the W. Post, The Myth of the 'The Boy Crisis', by Caryl Rivers.


  1. I agree with most of what the Washington Post article says, but on some level the worry about boys in underprivalaged schools needs to be address. If they are historically doing poorly - we have to find some way to help them.

  2. It seems to me that once folks start rationalizing ways to divide up kids for schooling, there's no end in sight. Maybe I *would* have been marginally better served by a school that only admitted left-handed first-born girls born in April, but that tiny marginal difference couldn't possibly have justified the expense. And in the process, wouldn't I have come away with a exaggerated sense of the importance of my handedness, birth-order, or astrological sign? If we're inevitably giving kids a message in all this, surely a message that says "you're all more alike than you are different" is truer, and more productive.