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Boys’ education
may be currently in
the headlines, but
all students face
gender-equity issues.
In the first of a two-part
series, Diny Slamet
looks at how both boys
and girls need a
balanced education.

The gender balan
         he newspapers are full of           realm of anecdotal experience,              maths and science since the mid-1970s

T        stories about the poor
         performance of boys. With
         the release of the Federal
Government’s Boys: Getting it Right report
—widely criticised by teacher unions
                                             “common-sense” and intuition, rather
                                             than from any empirical research.
                                               Indeed, according to Richard Teese,
                                             Professor of Post-Compulsory Education
                                             and Training at the University of
                                                                                         in Victoria. However, there are very
                                                                                         large gaps between them and upper
                                                                                         middle-class students, and also in the
                                                                                         nature of the maths options taken by
                                                                                         boys and girls.
and academics alike—the debate has           Melbourne, the research evidence              His research shows that the greater
become tinged with an anti-feminist          simply does not support the argument        the socio-economic advantage, the
flavour in which boys and girls have         that boys are suffering across-the-board    smaller the performance gap between
become competing victims. The                disadvantage in today’s schools. Clearly,   boys and girls in maths, science and
message is clear: we’ve done too much        certain groups of boys have problems,       English. The gender gap widens for
for the girls and ignored the boys; it’s     though not across the curriculum. He        students with more socio-economic
time we refocused on what boys need.         says his research shows many examples       problems. As Professor Teese and his
  It’s claimed that boys need such           of boys doing very well in various          colleagues wrote in their report,
things as a boy-friendly curriculum          subjects, including English. In the         Who Wins at School: “In general, the
that is more structured with lots of         Victorian Year 12 General Achievement       differences between girls and boys
hands-on activities; they also need the      Test, boys score better on average than     become sharper the more socially
opportunity to move around or leave          girls in the maths/science test.            disadvantaged their parents are and
classrooms for ‘testosterone surge             It is, Professor Teese says, the inter-   the more gender itself operates as a
sessions’; they need single-sex classes      action between class and gender that is     category of cultural manipulation.
in co-ed schools; and even classrooms        vital in getting a clearer understanding    Thus the real question is not whether
painted certain soothing colours.            of how students perform. Professor          girls as a group or boys as a group are
                                             Teese says that his book Undemocratic       more disadvantaged, but which girls
Society or gender?                           Schooling demonstrates that girls—and       and which boys.”
But many academics say these kinds           boys—from working-class backgrounds           The issue of boys “over-enrolling”
of solutions emanate more from the           have made significant progress in           in subjects such as maths and physics

28                                                                                                         Australian Educator No 38
                       may also be feeding the perception of        “…the real question is not whether girls as a
                       male underachievement. Research by
                       Deakin University’s Dr Cherry Collins,
                                                                    group or boys as a group are more disadvant-
                       Professor Jane Kenway and Dr Julie           aged, but which girls and which boys.”
                       McLeod shows that girls will choose
                       subjects they like and are good at, but      the social construction of gender was       determined to behave, think, act and
                       which tend not to have strong vocational     its greatest failure, according to Dr       learn in certain ways—in other words,
                       links. In contrast, boys tend to have        Martino. “We agree that there are           they assume all boys are the same.
                       their post-school employment in mind         problems for boys but the kinds of            “When we spoke to teachers, they
                       when they choose a narrow range of           simplistic, tips-for-teachers approaches    referred to gut feelings and reactions,
                       traditional subjects such as maths or        aren’t really getting at the complexities   often to popular psychology. Programs
                       hands-on technology subjects, even if        and the actual impact that social           like single-sex classes were implemented
                       they are not particularly good at them.      training has on boys,” he says.             but the research does not support
                         The researchers conclude that the            The Tasmanian Education Depart-           that they enhance the educational
                       average girl is performing slightly better   ment’s website on gender gives a good       outcomes of boys and girls. Sometimes
                       than the average boy because, in subjects    overview of gender-construction             what I think tends to happen is a self-

                       highly rated by boys, there is likely to     theory. The theory asserts that ways        fulfilling prophecy. There’s a belief
                       be a longer ‘tail’ of boys bringing          of being masculine and feminine are         that all boys are like that and then
                       down the average performance. The            “dynamically constructed through            those beliefs get translated into what’s
                       broader spread of subjects that girls        experience and socially interactive         seen as a truth for all boys,” he says.
                       choose suggests they are less inclined       practice. Because of this, ways of            Tim Delaney, a project officer with
                       to gamble on higher-status subjects          being masculine and feminine can            the Victorian Education Department’s
                       such as maths and science if they are        change from place to place, generation      Gender Strategy Team agrees, saying
                       likely to do poorly in them.                 to generation and context to context.       that, while some programs do recognise
                                                                      “…Since this theory recognises that       the diversity of boys and girls, many
ATAGLANCE              Impact of social training                    gendered ways of behaving are               are based on “a lot of anecdotal stuff”.
s Research             Professor Teese is clearly growing           socially constructed, it opens the            “The approach to having a boys-
shows that boys’       impatient with the direction the debate      possibility to examine or deconstruct       only program, or class, or whatever, is
educational            has headed, saying that the almost           specific responses and behaviours…          that if it’s not managed carefully, then
disadvantage           open attempt to blame boys’ problems         It allows for choice and change in          you reinforce the dominant versions
is linked to           on feminists was “quite unconvincing         which individuals are active.”              of masculinity which can actually
socio-economic         and getting very boring”. As he told           Dr Martino says the inquiry’s report      contradict what you’re doing. Boys
hardship               Australian Educator: “Ultimately the         did not address the issue of gender         often understand that to be a male is
s Blaming girls’       inquiry should have worked back to           construction, despite increasing            anti-learning, or that learning is a
success for boys’      the social origins of disadvantage, but      evidence around the world that it           feminine thing and they don’t want to
problems is avoiding   it did not. The attempt to generalise        impacts significantly on curriculum,        be involved in that. So, unless you can
the complexity of      the problem actually puts off dealing        pedagogical practices and relations         somehow come up with something
the matter             with the serious problems facing both        with and between students in schools.       that can bring that learning message
                       boys and girls.”                                                                         with you, then the whole range of
s Anecdote and
                         He is not alone in his criticism.          Anecdotes rule                              boys programs can be antithetical to
pop psychology
often replace facts    Dr Wayne Martino, a senior lecturer          Unfortunately, says Dr Martino, gender      what you’re trying to do,” he says.
in the discussion      at Murdoch University’s School of            construction is ignored when programs
of gender issues       Education, is scathing of the inquiry,       are being developed to address the          Prisoners of gender
                       saying that it had overstated boys’          educational and social needs of boys        Michelle Rosicky, the Women’s
s Boys and girls
                       disadvantage and failed to acknowledge       in schools. They rely on a kind of folk     Coordinator with the New South Wales
both benefit from
                       the complex interplay of factors that        wisdom that boys are the way they           Teachers’ Federation says the whole
thoughtful ideas
                       affect boys and schooling.                   are because of brain-sex or hormonal        issue of gender equity is not to pit
about femininities
                         In particular, the inquiry’s refusal to    differences, he says. These “problematic    boys against girls in the competition
and masculinities

                       acknowledge the impact and effects of        assumptions” see boys as biologically       for resources but to broaden an

Winter 2003                                                                                                                                             29

understanding among boys and girls                                                                             “What the Federal Government
that there are many different ways to        BACK IN BALANCE                                                 inquiry concluded was that all boys
be masculine and feminine.                                                                                   were in need and we need to do some-
  “During the 70s and 80s, we asked                                                                          thing about it. What we’re saying is,
girls to take on boys’ subjects and asked                                                                    ‘No, that’s not the way forward.’ We
girls to make the changes. I believe it                                                                      don’t want girls to fall behind and we
was a reasonable understanding at                                                                            don’t want boys that are in need of
that time, now it’s just as valid to ask                                                                     assistance being ignored,” says Rosicky.
boys to make the changes the other
way, to make them work outside their                                                                         Bullying and homophobia
comfort zone in the same way the girls                                                                       Many of the “solutions” promulgated
were challenged. We’re trying to develop                                                                     to deal with boys’ issues have also been
ways that lift the outcomes for both                                                                         harmful to young teens who are
boys and girls and to help them confront                                                                     beginning to identify themselves as
the stereotypes that may reduce their                                                                        being gay, says Alison Xamon, the
life and learning options,” she says.                                                                        Women’s Officer with the State
  Rosicky says the issue not only                                                                            School Teachers’ Union of Western
covers class, but culture and race as                                                                        Australia. “By focusing on the idea of
well. “We want to make sure that the                                                                         boys being a homogenous group and
funding that is available gets targeted                                                                      focusing on masculinist qualities, these
at the students that are most at risk.                                                                       solutions have been highly detrimental
What schools can achieve with regard         At the beginning of 1998, Ku-ring-gai Creative Arts High        to young teens who don’t fit into that
to this gender equity material is not        School in Sydney began implementing a Gender Equity             ‘boy-sy’ mould, not just if they’re gay,
just directed at the poor kids, the          Strategy that would raise teacher and student awareness of      but if they’re sensitive or creative. The
migrant kids, the Aboriginal kids, the       gender-equity issues, and examine and begin addressing          whole debate is having a detrimental
kids in the bush. It’s just as potent for    the problems faced by the school community.                     impact on these kids.”
kids in affluent or middle-class areas.        After extensive professional development in which teachers      In a research project conducted for
All students are prisoners of their          explored their own attitudes to gender issues, students         the Department of Education, Science
gender construction.                         were surveyed to find out their concerns. The survey posed      and Training by Professor Bob Lingard
  “You target educational programs at        such questions as “What are the best/worst things about         and Dr Wayne Martino, a survey of 18
the kids who have a need no matter           being a girl in this school,” “What are the best/worst things   case-study schools found that bullying
where. In a boys’ school where               about being a boy,” and “Do you think it is better to be a      and homophobia were huge problems.
bastardisation may be rampant, you           boy or a girl at this school”.                                  The authors wrote: “Homophobia was
would be developing programs that              Among the priorities that emerged from the responses          often used to control those boys who
support those boys, to stop them from        was the need for an anti-harassment policy and the some-        were identified as not conforming to
taking part in the practice and also         what more prosaic need to make the toilets more                 dominant and stereotyped ways of
understanding the ramifications and          appealing. A long-term objective was to ensure all teaching     being male, including, in some schools,
implications of it,” says Rosicky.           was gender-inclusive.                                           those boys with pro-academic attitudes.
  “Or schools may realise that girls are       The school’s anti-harassment policy, which clearly defines      “The usage of homophobic put-
shying away from technology and boys         every behaviour that constitutes harassment or bullying,        downs did not appear to be necessarily
are taking up the time on the computers,     recognises that students and teachers are entitled to a safe    linked to issues of sexuality, but rather
so the school would put in place a           and harassment-free workplace and are responsible for           about gender non-conformity. Homo-
program to reduce this imbalance,”           intervening, reporting and recording incidents.                 phobia is often about the ‘policing’ of
she says. “Or you might have boys at           The school’s reputation as a safe school has seen             what is perceived to be acceptable or
risk hiding in the library, so you develop   enrolment numbers grow. Where previously boys                   suitable male behaviour. In this way,
a program around that. It’s all about        outnumbered girls by almost three to one, classes               such policing affects all boys and not
schools developing programs relevant         are now gender balanced.                                        just those who might identify as non-
to the students in each location.”                                                                           heterosexual.”

30                                                                                                                            Australian Educator No 38
  Schools need to be effective in             valued and are encouraged to take risks         education of girls. They thought
dealing with the complexities of gender       in their learning, along with a strong          carefully about what would be
issues—which plainly have their effect        recognition and celebration of difference”.     involved in shaping girls’ aspirations,
on so many life choices that boys and            With their already insurmountable            thought about role models, thought
girls make. According to Dr Martino, a        workloads, teachers must be wondering           about presenting opportunities in
“whole shift in culture” is needed in         how they can possibly manage to deal            ways girls hadn’t seen them before.
the area of professional development          with yet another complex issue such             We ought to be careful we don’t undo
to help teachers understand and               as gender equity. So it is perhaps              those gains as we try to achieve similar
extend their knowledge base about             appropriate to add this last word from          gains for boys. The success with girls
the social construction of gender.            Dr Barry McGaw, the OECD’s Director             ought to encourage us to think we
  He speaks of the need to create             of Education, who told Australian               can make a difference for boys.” s
“professional learning communities”           Educator: “Changing the attitudes of
of teachers within schools to enhance         boys about the many meanings of                 DINY SLAMET is a freelance writer.
pedagogical practices that will produce       masculinity sounds, on the face of it,          In the next issue of Australian Educator,
more equitable student outcomes. As           like an extraordinarily difficult thing         we look at gender equity from the teacher’s
outlined in the Lingard report, these         to do because these are deeply held             perspective.
practices include “a high degree of intel-    views. But if you look back only 15
lectual quality, high levels of connect-      years, we were having this kind of                     The AEU policy ‘Gender Equity—Education of Boys’ is at:
edness in terms of curriculum content         discussion about how to get girls to
                                                                                                       The AEU’s submission to the House of Representatives
and its application to the students’ lives    change their aspirations.
                                                                                                     standing committee on employment, education and work-
outside of school, supportive classroom          “And all across education systems,                  place relations inquiry into the education of boys is at:
environments where students feel              people put in place programs for the         

 Moonee Ponds West Primary School, in Melbourne’s western             and the potential for depression in later years. It’s telling
 suburbs, is trialling a preventive anger-management program          kids it’s really important we express our anger in a safe way,”
 for years prep to six that is also being tested in four schools      she says.
 in the region, and a further 10 schools in the LaTrobe Valley.         “We use gender-construction theory to challenge and
    After surveying children about how boys and girls express         consequently broaden kids’ options in the way they define
 anger, teachers Jenni Smith and Wendy White are developing           what it is to be male and female,” says Smith. “By doing
 classroom materials that allow children to expose, examine           so it encourages them to be aware of other choices available
 and challenge the stereotypes of what it is to be a boy or a         to them. If we can teach them from a young age to say, ‘I
 girl and to understand that anger is a natural emotion that          don’t actually have to be like that’, ‘I can be really intelligent
 can be expressed safely and in an acceptable way.                    and be good at sports and like the arts’, or,

  “Anger management is critical in the gender debate, as gender can
 impact both on how a child experiences and expresses their anger.”
    “Anger management is critical in the gender debate, as            ‘I don’t have to be really good at sport to be successful
 gender can impact both on how a child experiences and                and still be a boy’. This extends to anger expression.
 expresses their anger,” says White. “Anger impacts on                Boys and girls need to know that assertive expression
 friendships and can impact on the willingness of children            is not only acceptable, but important for their emotional and
 to engage in relationships and to communicate their                  social development.”
 needs effectively.”                                                    “It is also important for teachers to broaden their
    “In this program we’re not just looking at anger                  knowledge of gender and how they manage their anger,” says
 management in relation to boys’ aggression, but we’re                White. “By doing so, teachers reflect on their practices and
 also very keen on looking at girls and repressed anger               beliefs, ultimately permeating the curriculum.”