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12.02.2010

Boys and Girls are Different, but You Don't Need to Point that Out, Part 1

I tend to go a little postal on my family sometimes (extended family, not my kids). They all think I'm crazy anyway, so I feel the need occasionally to fulfill their expectations. My top three- using chemicals on/around my children (no they do not need any Baby Magic lotion!), giving my children junky/non-open ended/battery operated/loud/character toys, and making gender specific statements around/about my children.

No secret, I'm a feminist. I was born that way. Before I knew anything about the movement I was asking things like "why can't I do that?" I was never a tomboy- I didn't like sports as a child, mostly due to a complete lack of hand eye coordination. But I was really into Science all through grade school and junior high, and was in a gifted program until I changed schools. And I didn't notice until junior high (when one begins to notice such things) that I was in a minority. Other girls didn't like science. In fact, most of the other girls in my class after I switched schools in the eighth grade (because before that my sample was too small to matter- my class had six people in it) didn't answer questions or participate in discussions in any of our classes. The new class that I had joined was large (to me- 30 students) and had roughly the same number of boys and girls. And we had (for our school) a disproportionately high number of genius or high achieving students. The top 5 in my class all (but one, who was arguably one of the smartest but didn't test well) scored above 30 on their ACT's*. Five out of thirty is pretty good. But I also have to mention that the top 6 in our class were all boys, followed closely by me and one other girl. The rest of the girls in our class were stunning in the apathy towards school. At the time I only noticed subconsciously, but as I got older, learned about child development and gender roles, and especially when I had my own daughter, I began to think more critically about it. Why was the gender gap so obvious in my class? I was never ridiculed or made fun of for being active in class, for being smart, or for being good in science (up until chemistry, which involved math, which very stereotypically I was bad at, but that's because I have always truly been terribly at math and possibly have dyscalculia, which is similar to dyslexia only concerning numbers, and NOT because anyone ever had the expectation that I wouldn't be good at math). However, since I didn't go to elementary school with this same class I can't comment on how they were treated during their formative years.

But it is statistically likely that at least part of the reason the girls lagged academically behind the boys is that the adults surrounding them, be it teachers or parents, expressed different expectations for boys and girls. This can work both ways- just as girls fall behind in math, boys tend to fall behind in language arts, because girls tend to (or are expected to) be able to express themselves at a younger age. This gap is often furthered because girls tend to be able to sit quietly and follow directions at an earlier age than boys, and are praised for it.

Yes, there are general differences chemically and physically between boys and girls. As we know it now, girls develop speech earlier and boys have a harder time focusing on a single task. We have little actual research (that I've been able to find, but I don't have the access I would like to have to actual research abstracts and articles) that explains WHY this is, besides the general knowledge that girls and boys have different brain anatomy and learn in different ways. So... why do we have to assume that the difference is purely biological. You would have to put a baby in a bubble in order to shelter them from gender specific messages from birth, and there is tons of research to support the fact that babies process information on varying levels even before they understand speech. Yes, a fraction of a boy's desire to run and knock things over is probably due to his slightly higher level of testosterone. However, I argue that the "boys will be boys" attitude and set of expectations does as much harm to boys by setting the expectation that they should (and are socially expected to) be rough and physical.

So far as education is concerned, all kids are different in the way that they learn best (in general boys learn by touching and doing, girls learn by talking and reading, but this also differs from child to child), and this is the largest area where public schools could improve. A majority of teaching is still done through lectures and seat work, which is 1) not an effective way to teach any content area in a way that makes it relevant to a child, meaning they will forget it after the test and 2) is more aligned with the way a majority of girls learn (verbally and emotionally). The public school system has to work on providing opportunities across the board for different learning styles. Of course, this would mean spending more money on educating our children (and fewer standardized tests) and heaven forbid...

That concludes my rant on the education side of the battle. But what REALLY gets me inflamed is the social/emotional side, specifically concerning preschoolers. That's next.

*I have a faulty memory and nothing to back up my facts regarding this one point (the specific test scores of my classmates), so if anyone reads this and thinks I'm making stuff up or knows factually that I am wrong, I apologize. But regardless of actual scores the fact remains- there were really smart boys in my class, but only two girls who could even come close.

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