Boys are not failing school, the schools are failing them, according to Michael Reist. Reist is the author of several books on children in schools, and a believer that boys and girls learn in fundamentally different ways. His newest book, What Every Parent Should Know About School, looks at what parents can do to help their kids succeed in the system. He recently talked to reporter Oliver Sachgau.
FP: Can you explain what your work focuses on?
A: I'm trying to get teachers and parents to understand boys' need for movement and space. That's a major thing I talk about. I'm trying to get schools to be more tolerant of boys squirming, that boys squirming in the classroom is perfectly normal. The other big thing I'm trying to explain to parents and teachers is the year-and-a-half difference, that boys are on a different developmental timeline than girls, so boys mature at a different rate than girls do, and as a result girls end up achieving sooner than boys, and that is seen as the girls are smarter and the boys are dumber. This is a huge issue in our schools, where boys are always on the low end of the scale in terms of academic performance.
FP: What things do you recommend parents be aware of when sending their child to school?
A: I think it's very important that they're always on the side of the child. When the child begins to bump into problems at school, that they always be on the side of the child, and they try to help the child understand that this is an institution, that it's not like home. You are going to be measured, you are going to be judged. And that can be very hard for some little kids to understand. It can be hard for parents to accept for their children. It's an artificial environment that is not always friendly, particularly to boys, and the bottom line is just be on the side of the child... Go easy on the issue of marks. That's my fundamental principle, that school is an environment that is very artificial, and for some kids it works and there's a fit, and for other kids it doesn't work... The other point is that in your negotiations with the school, parents always have to adopt a positive attitude. They cannot adopt a confrontational attitude. As I say in my book, school is a very defensive place, and parents need to go in with a very open-minded and positive attitude. So get to know your teacher, get to know your principal.
FP: Some say your opinions supports dividing kids by gender. What do you say to that?
A: There's been a lot of research on dividing kids by gender and I think it's a good thing, but I don't think it's going to happen in the Canadian context. Canadians really don't like the idea of any kind of segregation. We really have the idea that everybody should be treated the same. But there's lots of evidence to show that when boys and girls are separated, they do much better because their learning styles are so different. And let's face it, the most elite private schools are usually single sex. In the United States, more and more schools are turning towards single-sex schools. It's more acceptable in the United States and Europe for some reason.
FP: What do you hope for our educational system?
A: I think we need more male teachers in elementary schools. We need to understand attention issues better, and we need to understand gender differences better. The other thing we haven't talked about is technology. I think we need to move away from the teacher-centred classroom to more of a cyberspace classroom... A lot of the problems come from getting 20 kids to pay attention to an adult, and that is very unnatural. They'll never even do that in their adult life... There needs to be more independent learning. My big thing in my new book is I talk about the decentred school. In the past we had the factory school. We just process all these units and turn out a product. The factory school is not working anymore. We need to move to a decentred school which will take all different forms. And a lot of it is going to happen online, and kids are ready for that. It's the natural next step. It's already happening at post-secondary. Many universities have online courses. But eventually cyberspace is going to change schools. It's already changed kids.