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A Grade 1 pupil photographed last year at Bessborough Public School in Toronto. (Charla Jones/Charla Jones/Globe and Mail)
A Grade 1 pupil photographed last year at Bessborough Public School in Toronto. (Charla Jones/Charla Jones/Globe and Mail)

Failing Boys: Part 6 of 6

Part 6 Editorial: We can't tolerate failing boys Add to ...

They may require a gender-specific approach to stay engaged. A Globe editorial concludes our six-part series

In 1970, women made up just 38 per cent of Canada's university undergraduates. Today, men make up roughly the same proportion. For men, it is 1970 in reverse.

Are boys the new girls? Of course not. There is no glass ceiling. There is no rejection of aspirations to powerful positions. But boys are struggling academically, and they act as if their choices are circumscribed. If women were still just 38 per cent of undergraduates, we wouldn't tolerate it. If women were 64 per cent of high-school dropouts, we would be up in arms. Such poor achievement levels would damage society - all that lost productivity. And it would harm individuals - all that lost potential.

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A generations-long push to knock down stereotypes and expand aspirations helped girls and young women rocket forward in education. They have raised the bar for achievement, and that's a good thing. Now it's time for a push for boys and young men. It's an economic imperative for a future in which even manufacturing jobs will require high-school-plus; and it's in keeping with the moral purpose of education.

Girls' energy - unleashed - is wonderful to behold. Go to francophone medical schools in Quebec, where 70 per cent of the students are women. Go to McGill University, where women are substantially in the majority in professional schools for law, medicine, dentistry and architecture, and narrowly in the majority in the faculty of management. Go to the University of Toronto Medical School, where there are 1,843 female medical students, and just 996 male ones.

But what if a similar push helped boys reach higher? The number of women who achieved university degrees (graduate and undergraduate) in 2008 was 50 per cent higher than it was in 1992. The push worked. The number of men who achieved those degrees rose just 29 per cent over that same period. (Women had a larger base, too; they were already a large majority on campus by 1992.) It's as if news of the knowledge economy had barely reached men.

Five key principles stand out in trying to reach the boys:

1. Boys and girls learn differently

There are many individual exceptions, of course. But an understanding of gender differences should inform teaching practice. Boys need a choice of reading materials, some stressing action, war or humour rather than feelings. Non-fiction should be offered. The days of all children in a classroom reading the same novel should be numbered. New technologies should be employed in literacy and other areas of instruction to help boys become more engaged. Boys tend to need some opportunity for movement. Some girls, too, will be helped by each one of those changes, because not all girls learn in the same way. Good teaching practices for boys are therefore consonant with good teaching practices generally.



Several provinces and individual school boards have begun offering guidelines to teachers on male literacy but "what I'm seeing in the classroom on a daily basis is that we haven't quite shifted," says Beverley Freedman, an educator who works with boards and education ministries in several provinces.



2. Boys benefit from male educators

It is more than just a matter of role models. Imagine how a girl would feel in a school with all male teachers and administrators. Wouldn't something be missing from how those schools understand her needs and communicate with her? "Some boys are willing to learn how to be a man from a woman, but some boys aren't," says U.S. educator Barney Brawer.

3. Local needs should drive innovation

What works in Lethbridge may not work in Moncton or Montreal. There is no need for a massive growth in single-gender schools, but if some feel it works for them, they should go ahead, as the Toronto District School Board intends to do. Edmonton has the Nellie McClung Girls' Junior High to instill leadership, initiative, self-reliance and independence. Boys need those qualities, too. More than that, they need to feel supported, encouraged and listened to. Some boards have surveyed boys or set up focus groups to find out how to engage them better.



4. Boys' aspirations need a push

Junior A hockey players in Oshawa, Ont., and university hockey players in Fredericton have served as reading mentors to boys. It's a start. What an upside-down country, where boys are taught that hockey is in the blood, but not reading. There are 976 scholarships specifically reserved for women in Canada, and just 192 for men (mostly sports-related). Publishers saw to it that science textbooks for Grades 7 to 10 were rewritten to show girls and women as successes. Role-modelling programs and career days aimed at girls have been widespread. A strong tide lifts many boats.



5. Helping boys should not mean removing supports from girls

The girls' scholarships, schools such as Nellie McClung, special career programs - they should continue as long as they're meeting girls' needs. This is not a zero-sum game.



In retrospect, it was wrong to rewrite textbooks so that in portraying female successes they also cast males in the role of losers. "The unstated assumption was that boys did not need the same degree of encouragement," one observer said. That assumption was wrong. All young people, boys and girls, need encouragement and support. They need the conditions that nurture academic success.



The choices made by boys and young men do not reflect the natural order of things, any more than 1970 was where women should remain. They reflect the relative lack of nurturance our society provides for male academic success.

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