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Co-ed classrooms can promote gender stereotypes and leave most boys longing for the escape of video games, according to Leonard Sax, a Philadelphia-based physician, psychologist and expert on single-sex education, who will be speaking at public events to be held at two Toronto high schools this week. Dr. Sax will make the case for all-boys school within the Toronto District School Board, a pot-stirring idea championed by the board's new director of education, Chris Spence, that aims to shrink the achievement gap between boys and girls.

In an interview last week with The Globe and Mail, Dr. Sax said that boys will continue to falter academically unless educators find ways to engage them. He believes single-sex classrooms are a good place to start.

Why should we care that girls are outperforming boys?

We live in a global economy now and we cannot afford to lose a big chunk of our work force to video games. If you look at what countries aren't affected by that achievement gap you see China, India and Brazil. And where's the highest economic growth? China, India and Brazil. I would assert that one of the reasons we are losing our competitive edge ... is that their men are driven to succeed and ours are not.

Do school-age girls in North America outperform boys regardless of age, socioeconomic status or race?

I shouldn't say race has nothing to do with this because among east Asian and south Asian boys we don't find a gender gap. We find that boys that have recently arrived from Pakistan or India, these boys are just as likely as their sisters are to work hard ... but when you look at white, black and Spanish speaking kids born on the North American continent you find that most of those boys think caring about school or being passionate about winning the spelling bee is for girls and geeks.

What do we know about why the achievement gap exists, has it always been the case that girls are better students than boys?

Boys were doing far better 40 and 50 years ago than they are today. There's some evidence the gap emerged in the early 1980s, so it can't be genetic, it has to be that something has changed since then.

So what else has changed?

What five-year-olds do in school. Forty years ago it used to be more about field trips, duck-duck-goose, finger painting, singing in rounds and a little bit of didactic instruction. Today, most of what five-year-olds do in public schools across Canada and the United States is ... all about literacy and numeracy. And that change affects girls and boys differently. Many boys decide school's a stupid waste of time, girls will do it but you're killing their intrinsic motivation. ... And once those attitudes toward school form they're very hard to change.

So if teaching needs to be tailored to the sexes, should every classroom be single-sex?

I wouldn't say for a second that every boy learns one way, every girl another, or that every child should be in a single-sex classroom. But I do believe that every parent should have a choice. ... Toronto's Catholic board offers three all-boys schools, but at this time, if you're not Catholic, you don't have any all-boys schools available within the public sector. So if your son is one of those boys who might benefit from being in an all-boys school but you don't have $15,000, you don't have that choice right now.

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UNMOTIVATED BOYS

In his book, Boys Adrift, physician and psychologist Leonard Sax outlines five factors that have contributed to a culture of underachieving boys. Among them are:

Changes in Education Standardized tests have led to an acceleration in the elementary school curriculum. The brains of girls and boys develop differently and the accelerated curriculum puts boys at a greater disadvantage than girls.

Video Games Boys are more and more being discouraged from engaging in typical boy behaviours, such as play fighting. They're forced to find other outlets, such as video games, for their energy.

Prescription drugs An increasing number of boys who are found to be disengaged are being prescribed medications such as Adderall which is used to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Dr. Sax points to evidence that Adderall and other similar medications may damage the motivational centre of the developing brain.

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