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It's time to shed the blinkers and look at boys' and girls' educational needs

By Stephen Crabbe - posted Friday, 3 October 2003

The clash between two powerful foes, the Grand Final scenario, probably creates maximum involvement for both participants and others. However, in a national debate about a major social problem that sort of bipolar stoush may simply lead to blinkered thought by passionate combatants, who ignore crucial information and refuse to recognise the need for subtlety and variability in approaches to teaching. Sadly, this is happening in the way we deal with boys' education.

Many of the voices we hear are speaking from battle-positions; boys versus girls, to put it in its crudest form. You hear this at its fiercest when the debaters focus on allegations of "the feminisation of the curriculum". One side defends educational reforms to improve girls' learning and self-esteem which were introduced in the 80s and 90s, asserting that this course should be maintained due to the ruthless oppression of females by males in our culture. The counter- attack says that the "femi-nazis" have ground men and boys into the dirt by insisting that they be like females, so no wonder they are depressed, bitter, violent and suicidal.

The trench warfare is usually disguised by highly sophisticated language but it has certainly been waged by many of the participants in the debate, including some who took part in the enquiry of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Training.

There are some real concerns about what is now to be the result in education. The federal government has launched the Boys' Education Lighthouse Schools Programme involving 110 projects in 230 schools around Australia. The website of the programme lists five broad categories for projects, stipulating that they will cover "a rich variety of approaches and styles" not based on any "single principle or framework".

But a couple of conspicuously specific components are named. One focus is to be "integration of structured phonics into literacy teaching". Such special mention suggests influential minds are already persuaded that this is the key to improving boys' literacy. Indeed it flows directly from the Committee's recommendation that Commonwealth funding go only to those projects that feature a heavy emphasis on "explicit, intensive, systematic phonics instruction".

Now, phonics can be successful in reading and spelling instruction, especially in the early years. My years in mainstream classrooms and as a special educationist taught me that. But it does not work for all students; a significant number just cannot make the link between sounds and letters. And, since research shows boys process auditory information more poorly than girls, we might expect them to benefit less from phonics than girls. Furthermore, if the programme-leaders are thinking of phonics as a panacea, reflect on the situation that prevailed even in the days when phonics was the basic path of reading instruction. In the late 60s and early 70s I was struck by the preponderance of boys among students referred for special education in reading and writing - a ratio of at least 4:1 on average.

I agree with Dr. Hempenstall of RMIT in Melbourne that "it's not as easy to teach phonic awareness as one might think" (Phonic Youth, by Alice Russell, The Age 28/7/03), and teachers should use other approaches as well. And, yes, structure is important for most boys but other approaches can be just as structured as phonics.

One of the five prongs of the Lighthouse thrust is to do with adapting educational approaches to the different learning styles of students. Now experienced teachers will tell you that the range of learning styles is extensive - aural, visual, haptic, kinaesthetic, reflective, impulsive, introverted, extroverted, and so on. But here is another instance where the wording of the Lighthouse project classifications is conspicuous. "Interactive and experiential styles and information and communication technology" are picked out for specific mention among the otherwise broad general headings. Why explicitly point out those few and not others?


No learning style is exclusive to either girls or boys. Yes, it is true that most boys look for a highly structured program composed of small steps with explicit objectives and quick feedback on their results. However, some wither in such an environment, yet thrive on open-ended, long-term projects framed and executed in their own way but within the guidelines established by the teacher. At the same time, classroom approaches built upon group-work, plenty of discussion and writing have been found to work with many or most girls but not all. Some of them will bloom in a program marked by tasks with constant teacher-direction and silent work.

So let's apply research into learning styles across the board - to all possible styles of both boys and girls. Some participants in the debate have also argued along these lines but the signs are suggesting that they are not being heard through the hubbub of the gender war.

Another concern about Lighthouse is that, as we see in the project-summaries, the attention tends to be narrowly focussed on literacy. The reason seems to be that most professional opinion sees poor literacy development as a common factor in all of the ills besetting boys - unemployment, depression, suicide, violent behaviour, and the rest. I am convinced that some neglected areas hold huge potential for boys' development scholastically, emotionally and socially.

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About the Author

Stephen Crabbe is a teacher, writer, musician and practising member of the Anglican Church. He has had many years of active involvement in community and political issues.

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Boys Education Lighthouse Schools Programme
Department of Education, Science and Training
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