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Whither the ‘boy turn’?

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

When psychologist Philip Zimbardo delivered a TED Talk on ‘The Demise of Guys’ he joked sarcastically that apart from “flaming out academically” there was “not that much of a problem” faced by men. I find it to be a sentiment generally accepted, that the issue of underperformance is something bizarrely overlooked. The title of this article is taken from Marcus Weaver-Hightower’s 2003 study which proposes a “boy turn” in pedagogical research. This “boy turn” constitutes both a movement toward the boys’ experience of schooling as well a deliberate focus on the fact that the education of boys must be reconsidered in light of overarching socio-political movements, namely feminism.

The news that this year’s top SEA performer is a male student offers an exploration of our own particular boy turn, specifically as it relates to the issue of male academic underachievement. This is because the success of 11-year-old Saiesh Rampersad has been difficult to diverge from his being the first male student to top the exam since 2010. It’s almost a feat of phenomenal stature though in this case my penchant for hyperbole is part of a therapeutic process of drawing attention to a problem in need of urgent responsiveness.

It would be remiss of any discussion on male academic underachievement to not mention Errol Miller whose 1986 seminal work The Marginalisation of the Black Male: Insights from the Teaching Profession amongst other things described the education system as the main sphere for the marginalisation of men coterminous with the increasing success of women.

Having first-hand experience in teaching at an all-boy secondary school, I can say with some degree of authority that our education system continues to let down our young men. From administration to staffing to infrastructure there is a veritable at-risk situation engendered, no pun intended, that neglects the very specific needs of male students. It must be mentioned that as a teacher of English Language and English Literature, possibly two of the most difficult subjects to get my students motivated about, I had a different, and yet related challenge.

The curriculum privileges feminised learning. By this I mean what we may call ‘feminine’ traits of organisation and attentiveness are encouraged over ‘masculine’ traits of competitiveness and skills-based learning. Unfortunately, this is applied across the curriculum. STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education has not been unaffected by the feminised curriculum and this is part of the reason for the downward spiral of male underachievement. Less value is placed on constructivist learning and more on rote learning. The former is an active process of knowledge formation whereas the latter emphasises memorisation. If we accept the premise that “exams test memory, not the learning process” then why not the same be accepted of the curriculum? After all, aren’t exams set according to the curriculum?

From SEA to CAPE

Firstly, look at any STEM past paper, from SEA to CAPE. Even the testing of the technical subjects is rigid, a by-product of rote learning. Boys have less opportunities to channel their energy, what some may call hyper-activity and (mis)diagnose as ADHD. As a result, their inability to grasp the content in the way it is presented could cause them to act out in deviant ways–a lose-lose situation. So what should be considered is a modification of the curriculum to include differentiated instruction and assessment. I advocate that this type of instruction can be not only applied to different learners but also different sexes.

Secondly is a vetting process of those responsible for delivering the curriculum, ie teachers. A stringent examination of the pedagogical process; teaching philosophy, instructional approaches, varietal assessments, constructivist models and teaching to multiple learning styles could reveal some questionable practices that are either being ignored or going by unnoticed, or both. As a young teacher my motivation kept me alert and challenged my capacity for innovating the teaching-learning experience. The school administrators and curriculum officers ought to have a method of gauging how well, or not, the curriculum is being delivered with particular attention paid to the extent to how well teaching practices are becoming either stagnated or innovated.

The third issue involves the appropriateness of teaching personnel tasked with educating at-risk, underachieving male students. Allied to differentiated instruction is the necessity of varying, or at least integrating, teaching strategies to target underachievers—be they boys or girls. Remedial education is far from a viable strategy for underachieving students. This teaching method is retroactive which is brought on by the very stagnated practices. What needs to take place is in-class, ‘real-time’ integration of instruction that caters to multiple intelligences; linguistic, logical, inter/intra-personal, spatial, etc. The SEA exam is limited in testing a range of intelligences, prioritising the linguistic and to a much lesser extent, the logical. This limitation is exacerbated by an assessment method that, as I have said before, is premised on rote learning.

The three issues I have outlined are but hairline scratches on the vast body of research exploring male academic underachievement. Recent success at the very top tier of SEA rankings is paradoxically an opportune time to reopen the discussion of underachievement because the problem is a latent, yet very real issue that requires urgent attention.

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