June 20, 2006

Boys will be boys, and girls will be bosses in new order

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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.


  1. Tom Hickery

    The bottom line is that women are taken over the world. Its
    a big conspiracy. us lads better watch out!!!

  2. A.N Other

    two words:

    Rote Learning.

    The reason why the maths paper was disputed was because the
    students had to think for themselves!!! Rote learing does
    not allow for independant thinking.

    When I studied economics for the leaving, the girls used to
    perform badly in microeconimics. Your truely got full marks
    in the microeconomics questions.

    Guys are being portrayed as bumbling bufoons in the media.
    Just look at the adertising directed at the mná; the
    advertsiments pander to the woman’s vanity and insecurites.
    the advertising themes go like “Only smart people buy our
    prouct, you can show that you’re smart if you buy this!” .
    If you believe the saying that a fool & money can be easily
    parted, you can probably draw a conclusion about women’s
    advertising.

    Girls have many pop heros. The Spice girls for example. I
    wouldn’t say that the spice girls were a marvel of female
    ingenuity. The spice girls were portrayed as super-females.
    Guys have had no real hero. The world cup is underway, a
    chance for extremely footballers to perform and show just
    how great guys can be. no wonder the world cup widows hate
    the world cup, the world cup does not portray guys as
    bumbling buffoons.

  3. Niall

    The studies you cite on “hardwired” gender differences are
    perhaps not the best basis with which to judge the fitness
    of a gender neutal education system. Most are based on the
    US population, and it’s cultural norms. Thos studies of
    course take place in the climate of the long running US
    culture wars. Aside from this, most involve small samples,
    usually non-randomly selected, and of course the conclusions
    are based on that most tyrannous of statistics, the mean.

    A non gender neutral education system assumes a dichotomy in
    the population of students, namely, there are boys and girls
    and each group performs subtantially differently in
    different areas. This dichotomy is mearly the most obvious
    that one could make, and is no way the most clear of
    divisions between academic results.

    For example, one could speak of the dichotomy between
    introverts and extroverts. Introverts make up only 25% of
    the population, yet completely dominate most academic
    circles, and are a rare find in political circles. One could
    also make a case for the dichotomy between left and right
    handed students. It’s clear that the education system is
    stacked against the shield arm! Of course, the sharpest
    divisions in the data can undoubtedly be made with reference
    to the students’ family incomes.

    Umpteen dichotomies can be made, and undoubtedly some kind
    of statistics can be found to back them up. Faced with this,
    the education system’s best course of action is to eschew
    diversity and embrace enlightened homogeneity. That is to
    say; it is futile to attempt to tailor lessons for
    individual groups and it is far better to create a broad
    syllabus whereby students can find their individual
    strengths and weaknesses.

  4. Paul

    If I could pick out a point about this very interesting
    artical it would be why would anyone want to send there
    kids to an all boys school or an all girls school. Having
    gone to a co-ed school myself I think people develop at
    different stages and thus you get different intellences in
    people. Why someone might be socially very intellegent
    this person might be bad at maths. Point being (theres a
    lot of points here) he might have gained his social skills
    from class room interactions between boys and girls but
    could never grasp maths. Maybe the teacher was average
    overcrowded class rooms etc. The real question being if he
    had gone to an all boys school would the conditions be any
    different. Would he have been worst at maths? All possible
    outcomes. To takle improving education; get the class room
    size down. Finally the leaving cert is only one exam in
    the life and does not show anything about a person
    willingness to work harder into the future. From my
    experience people who got considerable worst reults in
    there leaving Cert than myself preformed better in college
    and got there degree at just the same grade or better. I
    think this artical shows a little of old school ways of
    thinking without the sales pitch to boot!! Get topic

  5. John

    The feminists and their descendants have been firmly in
    control of local
    government, the education system, tax administration,
    benefit rationing
    and payments and the courts system for many years now. Of
    the above, their
    feminisation of the education system will have the most
    profound damaging
    effect on the country for generations to come.

  6. Janitorial

    McWilliams for Taoiseach!

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