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Boys Apart – Will Segregating Young Males Help Them Succeed at School?

Fewer and fewer Canadians males are suceeding at school. Is giving them their own space to move the secret to reversing the troubling trend?

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Boys Apart - Will Segregating Young Males Help Them Succeed at School?

(Photo: Mike Kemp/Rubberball/Corbis)

One morning this past June, teacher Wayne Forman and several slouching eighth graders were clustered around a terminal in their school’s computer lab. They were watching a video clip of two of the students clambering up a steep slope. The camera work was shaky, and some joker compromised the soundtrack by whistling through a blade of grass. But otherwise, the effort was a compelling recreation of the opening scene of Banner in the Sky, a gripping young-adult novel about a 16-year-old determined to scale one of Switzerland’s deadliest peaks (the Matterhorn, renamed “the Citadel” in the book).

The video was a school assignment. Instead of the traditional book report, Forman, an English teacher at C.B. Stirling School in Hamilton, chose to give his class activity-related group projects. One lanky student, Josh Wood, built an impressive model of the Swiss summit from plaster-cast mouldings. Sebastian Helmer, his shaggy classmate, starred in the video and helped edit it.

Forman explains his approach: “You’ve got to be creative, and it has to be meaningful.”

Educators seek to engage students, but Forman, a good-humoured 33-year-old, pushes himself to be especially innovative in his role as leader of an all-boys class. For the past six years, C.B. Stirling, a K-8 public school, has offered optional single-gender classes for boys, from Grade 4 onward. (Girls-only classes have begun in Grade 5). For the boys-only classes, Forman favours pedagogy that offers students the freedom to explore topics and behave in a way that comes naturally. His fast-paced lessons often involve plenty of movement, and assignments exploit his young charges’ obsession with technology. There’s a teamlike vibe, and the boys seem to enjoy it.

Fourteen-year-old Wood looks every bit the muttering teenager, but is eloquent when he says, “You don’t have to be afraid to stand up and answer questions.” Helmer, with earbuds seeming to sprout from his T-shirt, is more expansive: “There’s a lot more freedom, more physical activity. I don’t think everyone can sit down the whole day.”

Next: Why interest in single-gender education
suddenly picked up.

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(Photo: Mike Kemp/Rubberball/Corbis)

C.B. Stirling School, which serves an ethnically and economically mixed neighbourhood in Hamilton’s southern suburbs, is one academic institution where a burgeoning movement among some educators is finding its legs. The aim is to tackle vexing boy-related scholastic trends such as declining university-graduate numbers, comparatively worse language skills and elevated dropout rates.

In the United States, the boys-education movement has produced several high-profile spokespersons, such as Leonard Sax, who argues that the school system is failing both sexes and that parents should have the option to send their children to affordable same-sex classes. Citing recent Canadian statistics, Sax says, “The fact that more women are graduating from university is great news. The question is, why aren’t the males keeping up with them?” A Pennsylvania psychologist, physician and author of Boys Adrift, Sax also runs a U.S. national-advocacy group that promotes single-sex education, and has spoken to Canadian educators in Alberta, Nova Scotia, Ontario and B.C. According to Sax, the number of U.S. schools offering the option of boys-only and girls-only classes has ballooned from a handful in 2002 to more than 560 today.

Critics of the single-gender-education movement, however, worry that well-intentioned educators, in their efforts to narrow the achievement gap, may inadvertently be stereotyping boys.

“Which boys?” asks The University of Western Ontario’s Wayne Martino, an expert on boys education. Boys come in many flavours: tough, meek, sports obsessed, high achieving, straight, gay, confused. Factors such as social class, parents’ education, group dynamics and homophobia can influence academic success just as much as gender and brain wiring, he says. “I don’t think we can reduce boys’ behaviour to either society or biology.”

But interest in single-gender classes is taking hold in parts of southern Ontario, as word of the success at C.B. Stirling spreads among reform-minded educators. The school’s principal, Doug Trimble, counts himself among this group. A barrel-chested, plain-speaking man with a bone-crushing handshake and a cheery manner, Trimble has been teaching and coaching for more than 40 years. Looking back, he figures that he had a learning disability as a child and stuck with school only because of the sports. Plus, he always wanted to be a teacher. “I really believe teaching is a gift people have,” he says. “That’s why I’m 62 and still working.”

In 2003, after watching a 60 Minutes segment about the struggles boys face, Trimble dove into the research. “The literature made sense to me,” he says. From experience, he knew boys and girls were equally capable academically but tended to learn in different ways. He pitched the school board on a hybrid solution: Offer coed and single-gender classes at C.B. Stirling for the 2003-04 year. It wasn’t exactly welcomed with open arms. “Politically speaking, ‘single gender’ has not been a popular topic,” he says. “It takes courage to make changes in education.”

Trimble decided to sell the idea dramatically. He called an assembly for sixth graders in the school gym and divided the floor between boys and girls. Parents and board officials lined the walls, observing. Using new insights on gender-specific learning styles, Trimble asked his students the first of a dozen questions: “Do you prefer to study in a quiet classroom or a somewhat noisier library environment?” As he recalls, about 80 percent of the girls preferred the quiet room, while an equal percentage of the boys chose the noisy library.

Each of the principal’s subsequent questions elicited similarly striking divisions. Although he had consciously designed the session to tease out attitude differences between boys and girls, even he was surprised. “There was no prepping, just the questions. And I was saying to myself, I can’t believe what I’m seeing here. It was totally validating.”

After explaining the concept and its merits to all gathered, Trimble surveyed parents of kids going into Grade 7. And he got more surprises: Sixty-eight percent wanted their children to enrol in the new single-gender program. In the next three years, that figure rose to 81 percent, 90 percent and 99 percent, respectively. “Our problem right now is we’ve got kids on the waiting list for single-gender classes.”

Next: What makes learning in single-gender
classrooms different.

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(Photo: Mike Kemp/Rubberball/Corbis)

Trimble and the teachers in his single-gender program are putting research on boys’ learning styles into practice: There’s a lot of learning by doing, public speaking and opportunities for the kids to talk or act out their ideas before sitting down to their books. There are also candid discussions about socially appropriate behaviour, and an emphasis on boy-friendly texts – including those from trading cards, select magazine articles and adventure stories.

Forman, who often starts his classes by handing out The Hamilton Spectator and getting the kids to talk about what’s in the paper that day, knows his tech-savvy male students prefer to write using computers rather than paper and pencil. “I guess that’s where we’re at in our society right now,” he says. “These guys teach me about iPhones and apps. That’s what makes it such a unique atmosphere: We learn from one another.”


David Thorne, who has taught single-gender classes at C.B. Stirling, set up a ball-hockey league for his male students, complete with a draft and a schedule. The kids played their games, then composed articles on the action for a class newspaper project. Those who didn’t hand in their articles didn’t get to participate in the next match. Each assignment, Thorne says with a smile, was their “ticket to play.”

Boys-education specialists agree the physical-activity element is enormously important. Many schools still punish boys for excessive fidgeting, play-fighting or throwing snowballs – often by taking away recess privileges or pressuring parents to have their sons tested for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. More enlightened teachers try to find ways to tap into that spontaneous energy. “We know boys need to move when they learn,” says Tina Jagdeo, who teaches at Upper Canada College, a private Toronto boys school.

Jagdeo tells of how last year, a colleague asked her for suggestions on dealing with a handful of restless Grade 5 students. Jagdeo put the question to an occupational therapist, who suggested the students sit on rubber balance balls instead of chairs. By bouncing slightly and fidgeting, they focus more effectively. Jagdeo told the students only that the rubber balls help people develop posture, balance and coordination. “We need to help them use movement to help them learn,” she says. And not surprisingly, “the majority wanted to try it out.”

But do these strategies work? Trimble eagerly shares C.B. Stirling’s results with visitors: Surveys from 2004 to 2007 show that those in single-gender classes enjoy school more, get better grades and miss fewer classes than do those in the coed program. And during those school years, more than 80 percent of students and parents requested single-gender classes.

Other studies supporting single-gender education are not hard to find. For example, in a four-year pilot study at Stetson University in DeLand, Fla., researchers found that 85 percent of students in their all-male classes achieved a score grade of “proficient” (three or more out of five) on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, compared with only 55 percent of males in the coed classes.

Next: Why having girls around can be
a problem for boys. 

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(Photo: Mike Kemp/Rubberball/Corbis)

It would be a mistake, however, to assume positive outcomes in one school could resolve the debate about single-gender programs or dispel stereotypical assumptions about gender. In an extensive literature review and study of 19 primary and secondary schools across four Australian states, The University of Western Ontario’s Wayne Martino found “no conclusive evidence” that boys-only education leads to better academic results. Instead, he observed, some middle-school single-gender classes appeared to have “dumbed down” their curricula, leaving some students feeling ill-prepared for high school. “This strategy in and of itself can’t be seen as the sole factor contributing to a better quality of schooling,” says Martino. “What made a difference was good teaching.”

Sebastian Helmer of C.B. Stirling echoes the point. Describing another single-gender class he attended, he says his teacher couldn’t handle the group. “We were a bad mix of boys,” he admits with a slight grin. “It wasn’t a successful year.” But teacher Wayne Forman, he adds, has a better sense of how to handle an all-boys class.

Still, Forman, who treats the class as if it were a sports team, found it challenging for the first several months. “With boys, it’s about being consistent,” he says. “You hold them accountable, and they respect that.”

As one of Forman’s classes winds down, some students recount memorable assignments, including using publishing software to design a newspaper, and developing a soundtrack for the film The Outsiders – based on the S.E. Hinton novel, which Forman read aloud in class. For his part, Forman reminisces about his popular “brag and drag” sessions, as he calls them: Over snacks and coffee, the students sit around and take turns talking about what has worked out well and what’s causing stress for them, either in school or in other areas of their lives. Such discussions, he says, “force them to share.” And to reflect – but in this setting, there’s virtually no social risk associated with expressing their feelings.

Another student, a slender boy named Andrew, shares his take on the single-gender class. He likes the additional emphasis on sports, as well as the pace, but acknowledges there’s still some bullying, which he says he attempts to ignore. Yet he’d take a single-gender class again if he had the chance, and his reasons have more to do with friendship than education. “There are more chances to socialize with guys,” he says. “And it’s easier in this class.”

That social dividend, says Principal Trimble, is worth the investment. Remove the “distraction” of the opposite sex – which Trimble calls “the elephant in the room” – and some of the adolescent cruelty quickly falls away. Boys are less likely to torment someone they consider weak if there are no girls around to impress. And the energy that would otherwise go into these pubescent power displays is funnelled into academics.

In other words, the single-gender classroom can become an extraordinarily conducive place for learning. Plus, Trimble says, “here, everyone has a friend.”