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Posted on Sep 1, 2009

Initial Ponderings on the Topic of Gender

(and how it affects education)

by Diane Stronks, OCSTA Executive Director  ◊  

When my children were young and we spent time on a lake in the summer, they loved to fish. Buying a dozen worms from a vendor in town was always met with excitement. One year, my parents came to visit and my mother expressed interest in going fishing with the children. I will never forget my boys incredulity and their profound awe for their grandmother as she explained that cutting the worms into halves or thirds was a way to “stretch” (quite literally) their supply of bait. They discovered that day that their grandmother loved nature, especially exploring ponds and streams as much as they did.

I tell this story because I often wonder about the categories in which we place people. We say that boys do this and girls do that. And yet… . My experience and now the research tells us that there are some distinct gender differences between females and males. These findings may not surprise some us who may have tried experiments with their daughters by only buying red or royal blue or yellow clothing for them to wear or buying gender “neutral” toys and finding that when confronted with a choice, pink was the hero and dolls were the prize.

I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Leonard Sax at a conference called Boys Adrift, sponsored by the Peel County School Board. Dr. Sax, in his two recent books, Why Gender Matters and Boys Adrift, has studied gender and its implications in education, family and society. He encourages us to adjust our thinking about boys and recognize that one cannot make “girls’ ways of doing things” the standard, just as in the 1960’s and 1970’s it was unhelpful to measure women’s ways of doing things to men’s.

I have now been teaching long enough to remember being told that girls don’t do math and science. You may remember the Barbie that actually said “Girls hate math”. We were also told that gender was a social construct and that children were born gender neutral. Parents and society, we were told, shape them into girls or boys. Now the research points to something innate in our children which defines what is means to be a girl or a boy. That does not mean that there is not a wide variety among females and males as to what they like or dislike, but it is clear that there are true differences. Sax suggests that single gender classrooms or schools would be one way to address the difference, but he points out that the teacher who teaches a single gender class needs training in how the differences matter.

Sax lists five areas of concern about the experience of boys in our society. In his book he addresses education, video games, medications, endocrine disruptors and societal attitudes toward what it means to be male. He claims that one factor is not more important than another but the combination of the five factors has produced a generation of boys who are apathetic and lack motivation.

I found Dr. Sax to be full of good, practical advice and I highly recommend his books. The issues presented are of concern to parents, educators and I would say to society at large.

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