June 20, 2006
Other countries have military service; Ireland has the Leaving Cert. The Leaving Cert experience is as close Ireland gets to a moment of national solidarity. It gels us together; it is a common bond because we all do it. The sweating, the stress, the panic, the hay-fever, the relief and euphoria are conditions that most of us instantly recognise. For many, the experience is traumatic. You only have to listen to the furore over this year’s Maths exam to appreciate how devastating it is to open the paper and fail to find that friendly/easy/well-flagged question. It should be there. Where is it? It didn’t come up.
Exams, like every performance, are about confidence. If you get off to a confident start, things fall into place. This is why for teenagers, it is so important to start on the question they recognise; if it’s not there, their entire rhythm is disrupted. However, there is much more going on than just the performance on the day. The Leaving Cert is one of the most revealing sociological indicators in the country and the most striking trend over the past decade is how girls are doing better than boys across the board. Last year, the gap between the sexes grew again.
Girls outperformed boys in all honours papers, including maths and sciences – areas where traditionally boys have dominated. And at pass level, more boys failed subjects than girls. A worrying example is that more than one in five boys taking pass biology and pass accountancy failed. This gender gap is also reflected in our universities, with more young women graduating with better degrees than young men. Why is this happening? Are girls brighter? Do they swot more? Are the educational stakes higher for girls or do they just mature quicker? Is the curriculum more girl-friendly?
Or does it matter? Many women – particularly older women – might quip that for years girls were told to lower their expectations about what a woman could achieve in life and it is only now that they have been fully liberated. In short, blokes had better get used to it. Or it may have something to do with the fact that girls don’t watch football. It was a blessing that my Leaving Cert fell in an odd rather than an even year because there was neither World Cup nor European Championship to consume me. Thankfully, I never had to make the choice between last minute trigonometry swotting or watching the Brazil versus Argentina quarter final. On a more serious note, maybe it is not just about the level playing field suiting girls better. It may be that girls and boys are hardwired differently and academic performances reflect this.
These “hardwiring” ideas are now being examined in the US in more detail, leading to rather controversial conclusions about boys, girls, single-sex schools and our attitude to education in general. Think about your own children, nephews, nieces or grandchildren. It is clear from the very outset that girls are different to boys. They react, socialise and see the world profoundly differently. Not only are their bodies different in terms of strength, agility and so on, but it is very clear that their brains work differently.
Most parents will concede that little boys are more difficult in some ways, wilder, less able to reason and more likely to get frustrated.
Likewise, little girls seem more engaged with school, lessons and can in many cases, react better to the first classroom environment of junior infants. On the other hand, many little boys get frustrated, angry and can seem to be more easily distracted. Little boys seem to instinctively like cars, crashing around and the colour blue or red. In contrast, little girls – without apparently being told – like dolls, soft fluffy toys and pinks and yellows. These are generalisations of course but surveys in later life also bear out these instinctive and concrete differences.
For example, according to a recent article in the ‘New York Times’, researchers in the UK who surveyed 500 “accomplished” men and women, found that their taste in books differ profoundly. The researchers found that the men preferred books written by men that focussed on alienation and isolation like Camus’s ‘The Stranger’ and Salinger’s ‘Catcher in the Rye’.
In contrast, the women preferred books written by women dealing with relationships such as ‘Jane Eyre’, ‘Wuthering Heights’ and ‘Pride and Prejudice’. (Come to think about it, I remember being forced to read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ for the Leaving Cert and thinking it was awful drivel. It was only in later years when trying to impress sensitive college girls that I let on to seeing the ‘humour’ in Jane Austen. Given my transparent intentions, five snakebites would have been easier – and more effective!) Despite all of us recognising that boys and girls think differently, our education system seems intent on ignoring this.
When trying to explain why boys are falling back relative to girls, biological differences are not entertained. But in recent years our understanding of how the brain works is becoming more definitive and scientists have discovered that the contrast between boys and girls’ brain development is greater than we imagine. We now know that the language area in girls’ brains develops before the areas for spatial relations and geometry. In boys, it’s the other way around. An education curriculum which ignores this will produce boys who can’t write properly and girls who feel that they can’t do sums.
Equally, some of the hardwiring of the brain we know to be different. So for example, emotions are processed in the same area of the brain that processes language. This might explain why it is easy for girls to talk about their emotions and respond to books like Jane Eyre. In contrast, boys clam up. Our education system has ignored these gender differences. In fact, the entire thrust of the curriculum has been aimed at eradicating gender difference. It was hoped that gender gaps in achievement would be smoothed out. The opposite has happened. Boys are now failing in greater numbers. Is the system failing them or are they failing the system?
As part of a social experiment, probably more driven by 1970s’ ideas of gender equality than modern theories on how the brain works, our system has adopted a one size fits all for mixed schools with a single curriculum for boys and girls.
Agitating for gender difference – which when you think about it is one of he most logical things in the world – was seen as traditionalist, atavistic and backward. Well maybe it is time that a bit of biology as well as sociology was back on the table in future discussions about our education system. A situation where the gender gap in achievement is growing cannot be tolerated for a variety of reasons.
THERE are obvious personal problems that will arise if too many boys are alienated from the curriculum, concluding, mistakenly, that they are dumb when actually, a more accurate explanation is that they just might see the world differently. Quite apart from the personal, there are also sound economic reasons to be concerned. The only thing we have in this country to distinguish ourselves in a globalized world is us, the people.
And for a high-income country that means our brains and that begins and ends with our schools. The new international IDA ad features a painting by Louis le Brocquy of W.B Yeats. Under it runs the slogan: “Ireland, knowledge is in our nature”.
The message for investors is that if you want smart, creative, educated people here is the place to come. But are we making the most of our minds in school? In the face of mounting scientific evidence of how boys’ and girls’ brains work quite differently, is a curriculum that treats boys and girls equally from the start, the best system?
In the future, might we consider rolling back on mixed schools for the good of the child’s development? This may not be as revolutionary as it seems and, rather than being depicted as a backward step, could actually be a great leap forward.