Thursday, February 2, 2012

the why chromosome [2]

Probably the most significant reason we began seeing a decline in literacy among boys during the 1980s and 1990s was that we expected that decline in performance to fit our understanding of the way boys' brains worked (or didn't work).

Lowering expectations on a group as an entity is one of the worst (and easiest) things you can possibly do as a teacher, but for some reason, the educational system has embraced this preconception regarding boys and literacy -- and the results have transferred erroneously onto popular culture, art, bookselling, and publishing.

In recent years, due largely to the popularization of theories that began circulating in the 1990s regarding the innate helplessness of boys when it comes to such things as mastering written and spoken language, as well as developing an enjoyment for reading, boys have been erroneously labeled as populationally -- as a culture -- less than literate.

The theory has caught hold and taken off running in education, publishing, and bookselling.

In a study published last July (2011) on neuroscientific analysis of literacy and gender, David Whitehead (English Teaching: Practice and Critique) points to the recent popular generalizations about brains, gender, and literacy which characterize all girls as being multi-taskers who can sit still and listen, and all boys as spatially-oriented whirlwinds who can't focus on more than one thing at a time.

Whitehead says of these assumptions (and he gives plenty of physiological evidence to criticize these generalizations): "At best, they seem misleading, at worst, they seem driven by a commercial imperative."

Among the consequences of the popularization of certain claims are what Whitehead calls "Unwarranted extrapolations":

Understanding that boys' brains have more testosterone than girls should not transfer into language policies that advocate boys should read action novels.

Very recent studies, published in 2009 in Brain and Language, seem to refute the popularly-held idea that girls and boys have significant innate and physiological differences when it comes to language abilities. Author M. Wallentin writes, " ...A careful reading of the results suggests that differences in language proficiency do not exist. Early differences in language acquisition show a slight advantage for girls, but this gradually disappears."

If modern neuroscience can show that gender-specific differences in language processing abilities disappear (by grade 6), and we continue to buy in to the notion that boys don't read, projecting such expectations onto a population of students is likely harmful.

This is probably why I have seen (in my own lifetime) the gradual de-evolution of literacy expectations and performance of boys as a population in public schools.

The harm, according to Whitehead, is that, since the 1990s, teachers and parents (and the broader community) have bought entirely in to the idea that anything appearing in popular media that was remotely "brain-based associated with boys' education had an unassailable empirical legitimacy."

There will be more on this...