Monday, 30 September 2013

Boys and Girls - different gender, different brains, different learners?

The age-old hot topic of single sex education vs mixed gender schools is one which is often hotly debated amongst parents and professionals alike. Is there a winner? Depends on how much you understand about the two genders and how much you are prepared to modify your teaching methods if you are standing in front of a class, trying to keep everyone engaged and learning!

Keeping in mind that whilst there are obviously differences between the genders, there are also differences within the genders......not everyone is the same! However, some of the broad differences between the genders are identified quite early. The National Centre for Infants, Toddlers and Families (Washington, DC) summarised some of these early developmental indicators:
  • Girls are slightly more advanced in vision, hearing, memory, smell and touch
  • Girl babies tend to respond more to human voices or faces, and they generally lead boys in the emergence of fine motor and language skills
  • By age three, boys tend to outperform girls in visual spatial tasks - jigsaw puzzles, navigation/direction, and certain types of hand-eye co-ordination
  • By adolescence, the corpus callosum (the bundle of nerve fibres that divides the cerebrum into right and left hemispheres) is 25% larger in the female brain. This allows for more signals to be sent across both hemispheres....hence the ability of girls to be better at multi-tasking.
So, how do these general characteristics affect how boys and girls learn? Research suggests that teachers keep some of these key points in mind to increase student engagement....for both boys and girls:

  • Differentiate the learning activities - more fact and action, less description and sensory details
  • Learning needs to be relevant - give it a real context
  • Break the learning down into 'chunks'- segmented learning with a specific purpose or outcome makes better sense to boys
  • Sequence the activities and integrate short-term goals for success - keep them interested!
  • Explicit teaching - reduce the talk!
  • Use problem-based learning - start the work with a question; brainstorm decisions/choices; give 'direction' to the learning
  • Time limits on task completion - if they have a specific goal, they are more likely to remain 'switched on'
  • Provide challenge in learning - take safe risks
  • Increase group work opportunities
  • Introduce more concrete materials and opportunities to improve spatial awareness
  • Include tasks which enhance gross motor skills
  • Connect Science and Maths to 'real world' concepts
  • Praise their work, rather than just expecting them to achieve...because they are 'working quietly'!
For both boys and girls, WALT, WILF and TIB are great strategies to increase student engagement.

WALT - 'We Are Learning To...' gives direction to the learning
WILF - 'What I'm Looking For...' establishes teacher expectations for the learning
TIB - 'This Is Because...' gives context to the learning

This is such a fascinating topic and I have only just scratched the surface. A chapter is devoted to more of the differences between girls and boys in my book, The Transition Tightrope. If you want a real, in-depth coverage of this topic, Dr Leonard Sax is something of a guru in this area. His book, Why Gender Matters, is a great read.

photo credit: woodleywonderworks via photopin cc

Monday, 23 September 2013

Secondary School - the best fit?

I have just spent much of the past five weeks in Victoria, working with parents, students and teachers in the area of transition to secondary school.

A question commonly asked by parents was, "How do I know which is the best secondary school for my child?" The question may be common, but the answer certainly is not! Every school is different, every child is different - we need to match student and family needs with a 'best fit'.

Parents often trawl through the My School website in an effort to find which school has the best academic results - NAPLAN, HSC, VCE etc. Certainly, as parents we want the best educational opportunities for our kids - but are academic results alone enough to convince us that because School 'A' has superior results, then this is the best choice? What is it about School 'B' or 'C' that might sway us towards these schools?

When speaking with parents about the dilemma of choosing the 'best fit' for their son or daughter, I ask them to consider these points:

  • The child's strengths/talents - does the school offer opportunities in these areas?
  • Programs on offer - support, extension, extracurricular.
  • School 'climate' and values - do they match yours as parents?
  • Discipline structures - compatible with yours as parents?
  • Facilities - enrolment and physical size. Moving from a primary school of 100 students to a year group of 180 can be an issue for some kids.
  • Location - access to transport. Do you really want your child to be travelling 2-3 hours each day for the next six years? How will this impact homework, sport/leisure activities etc?
  • Friends - they will make new friends, but being happy at school and comfortable with friendship groups impacts not only their learning and achievement, but also their sense of belonging and developing resilience.
  • Communication - how well does the school 'connect' with the parent community? Do they encourage real engagement, or do parents feel isolated from what's happening at the school?
These are all issues to consider when choosing the right school for your child. Find out as much as you can about the schools on your list.....if you have missed the Open Day or Information Evening, make an appointment to take a tour of the school and speak to staff. The 'best fit' for your child often comes down to one or two critical issues - and every family's needs are different. Try to involve your son or daughter in the discussion and ultimate decision-making; after all, this will be THEIR school for the next six years!

Research suggests that a relaxed and happy student is the student who is more likely to learn well and achieve his or her potential long-term. Academic results and high-flying achievements are all well and good, but if we want to our kids to be as successful as they can be, they need to be happy with the choice of secondary school. Pretty simple, really......

photo credit: CollegeDegrees360 via photopin cc