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Archive for October, 2010

Why are boys lagging behind girls in today’s schools?  Last week, The Toronto Globe and Mail published a whole series of in-depth articles entitled “Failing Boys” and focusing on the so-called “boy problem” in our schools and in the wider North American society.  As recently as 1998, the popular press was full of stories about schools short-changing girls and residual examples of gender bias in our supposedly sanitized, politically-correct textbooks.  There’s a new gender gap in education: in Canada and North America, boys now rank behind girls on nearly every measure of academic achievement and young men are gradually being superceded in universities and the professions.  http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/time-to-lead/failing-boys/

Boys are lagging and the problem is fast emerging as the educational issue of our time.  Searching for the root cause leads us in many different directions. In a fine Overview piece (October 16, 2010), Education Reporter Kate Hammer identified five key factors: the feminization of education, the appeal of video games, the boy code of behaviour, developmental differences, and the lack of positive role models. The most contentious of these is “feminization” because it raises fundamental questions about the unintended consequences of one of the most important social movements of the 1960s and 70s.

The “Boy Problem” has crept up on us in schools. But  the basic facts can no longer be ignored:

  • Only 31.9 per cent of boys have overall marks of at least 80 per cent, compared to 46.3 per cent who make the A grade.
  • Only 20. 4 per cent of boys score in the top 25 % on standardized reading tests, compared to 30.1 per cent of girls. Thirty per cent of boys score in the bottom 25 per cent, while only 19 per cent of girls do so.
  • Nearly one in 10 boys repeat a grade (9.9 per cent) compared to 6.5 per cent of girls.
  • Boys are diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and prescribed medication three times as often as girls.
  • In Ontario, just 27 per cent of teachers are male, down from 31 per cent a decade ago. In B.C., 28 per cent of practising teachers are male.
  • Young  men are now the minority in most university classes , and women account for about 60 per cent of all Canadian undergraduates.

Talking about the possible feminization of education has been taboo until recently, at least inside the educational system.  It’s already a raging debate in Western Europe where the “feminized pedagogy” is a divisive political issue and scholars openly debate whether “feminization” has led to a “softer” curriculum less suited to boys than girls. In Canada, English literature teachers are often accused of loading their course reading lists with “women’s books”  by the Bronte sisters, Margaret Atwood, Carol Shields, and Lucy Maud Montgomery.  In its 2009 report, the Ontario EQA Office noted that boys are not reading as much outside of class, with those reading 3+ hours per week dropping by 4 percentage points to only 32 percent.  While in class, the mostly female teacher force generally find today’s adolescent boys unruly, tuned-out, or inclined to skip heavy reading classes.

The Big Question arising from The Globe and Mail “Failing Boys” Series is What has Happened to the Boys in our Schools? How has the feminization of the teaching profession impacted upon the education of boys? Do new teaching methods such as pair-and-share, cooperative learning, and other “soft” pedagogies work to the disadvantage of boys?  In diagnosing record numbers of boys with ADHD, are we in danger of  treating “boyhood” as a disease?  And what can be done to reverse the trend line for today’s boys and tomorrow’s men?

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It is invisible, but it’s everywhere. You will be exposed to it in today’s workplace, in cafes, libraries, and throughout most buildings, and it may even be in your home. Wi-Fi, wireless radio high frequency signals, connect us to the World Wide Web through a system of routers. Now many of our schools are using  Wi-Fi and it’s sparked a recent parent outcry that prolonged exposure is unsafe for kids.

When school opened in September 2010, Ontario’s Simcoe County Public Board found itself thrust into the public eye.  (CBC-TV’s The National, September 8, 2010)  A vocal and articulate group of Simcoe County parents had succeeded in raising such a ruckus that the local  Wi-Fi in elementary schools issue hit the Canadian national media. Local parents, spearheaded by Rodney Palmer and a Safe School Committee, had been claiming, for over 7 months,  that wireless internet access was making their children sick.  Pupils at Palmer’s own neighbourhood school, Mountain View Elementary in Collingwood, ON, and at 11 others in the County reported health problems ranging from headaches to rashes to dizziness.   When the problems subsided over the summer holidays, the group swung into action, demanding the removal of W-Fi from schools until the issue of its impact was satisfactorily resolved.

News of the Wi-Fi concerns in schools spread like wildfire.  Ontario Education Minister Leona Dombrowsky reported that the Ministry had received complaints from Peterborough as well as Simcoe County.  A Niagara Region teacher, Tay Shiner, proposed a resolution at the Ontario  Elementary Teachers’ Federation Annual Meeting in August to remove wireless systems from schools, pending further research.  A former Harvard School of Public Health research consultant, Susan Clarke, told parents in Thornbury, ON, that Wi-Fi alters “fundamental physiological functioning” and can cause ” neurological and cardiac symptoms.” Simcoe County parents were also advised that Lakehead University had opted out of Wi-Fi and cellular antennae at both its Thunder Bay and Orillia campuses back in 2006, citing similar concerns.

Alarmed by the rising parent concerns, Health Canada issued a statement in mid-August stating that there was no proven health risk.  Such assurances did little to calm the waters.  Palmer and the SSCSC countered by hosting a late August public talk featuring British scientist and naval weapons expert , Barrie Trower, who testified to absence of studies the potential risks to children of longer term-exposure.  Fears were further stoked by scientists and experts, like Magda Havas of Trent University’s Centre for Health Studies. (The Montreal Gazette and The Barrie Examiner, August 25, 2010)

The Simcoe County Board held its ground and received powerful support from Ontario’s health authorities. On September 16, Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Arlene King, was forced to weigh in on the safety of Wi- Fi in schools. “The use of wireless communications systems, ” she stated, “does not pose a public health risk.”  Her declaration was based, not only upon Health Canada standards, but the findings of a recent  Ontario Health Protection and Promotion (OAHPP) research review. http://scdsb.on.ca/programs-services/information-and-communication-technology/

Not everyone swallowed the case being mounted by Palmer and his allies.  Independent science policy analysts and experts have questioned the validity of the concerns raised by Rodney Palmer and the SSCSC.  News reports identified Palmer as being involved with a ” health related business in Collingwood.”  It is worth noting that he is also a former CTV News Foreign Correspondent and Bureau Chief  with sufficient connections to garner media attention.

Palmer and Professor Havas are well-known for previous campaigns against the hidden dangers of EMFs of every kind –from microwaves to laptops to cellphones.  Back in 2007, for example, Palmer addressed the Whole Life Expo on “Our Toxic Marketplace: What Every Family Needs to Know.” Registered nurse Sandy Szwarc of Junkfood Science produces regular alerts about medical claims based upon “pseudoscience” and marketing ventures that respond to health scares. ” Fear sells and unfounded scares, exaggerations and ‘what-ifs?'”, she says, ” are being used to terrify people about their foods, bodies and health.”

The Simcoe County Safe School Group contends that more than 30 pupils have suffered unexplained illness, including a sizable  “illness cluster” at Mountain View School. While the group blames Wi-Fi for  the illnesses, other possible causes cannot be ruled out., including mould and “sick-building syndrome.” 

One possibility is that school life does not always agree with children. The New York Times recently reported that back to school time is also “the return of headache season.”  Indeed, often the real issue, according to doctors, is that changes in a child’s sleep schedule, skipping breakfast, staying up late to study, or not drinking enough water can all trigger migraines when the school year starts.

Now back to that Big Question: What’s causing the  back-to-school “headaches” in Ontario’s Simcoe County and other schools across Canada?  Does the scientific research support the claims made by Rodney Palmer and the SSCSC group and their supporters?  If as Health Canada and Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer are right, what might be the real causes of the rash of illnesses? If and when the claims are validated, will school systems be prepared with “precautionary policies” and contingency plans?

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