Jon Bradley: Are we leaving our boys behind?

by Allison Flynn – McGill Reporter in Montreal, Quebec, Canada

The Faculty of Education’s Jon Bradley has been highly sought-after in the media lately. A specialist in boy learning, he’s been outspoken on the feminization of the school environment and curriculum, the over-use of drugs like Ritalin among boys and the endangered male elementary school teacher. He’s argued that these are just a few of the seemingly separate issues that may be contributing to our province’s abysmal high school dropout and failure rates. Recently, he spoke candidly to the McGill Reporter about these issues and one thing was exceedingly clear: while Bradley’s been at McGill for some 40 years, he’s also an elementary school teacher through and through.

Since starting at McGill, has your research always been on boy learning?

I’ve always been here as a male elementary teacher. So, I’m a minority. I consider myself to be an elementary specialist, which has led me to what I call boy learning. [That is,] the place of boys in school, the way in which the curriculum has become feminized and is now disadvantaged toward boys. You add to that – and I admit, I’m not an MD – the data that I see that indicates an overmedication of boys with drugs such as Ritalin, and that’s only one of many used.

What are the stats on Ritalin?

Quebec has, ballpark, 25 per cent of the population of Canada and it gives out 50 per cent of the prescriptions for Ritalin. Eighty per cent of those are to boys and we still have one of the highest dropout rates in North America.

I am not suggesting for a moment that there are not children for whom Ritalin is a godsend. They need it. However, do we need the hundreds of thousands of prescriptions that we see? If that were an antibiotic every immunologist in the province would be up in arms. We live in a culture where we expect a pill to solve our problems.

What’s happening in our elementary schools?

I’m going to argue that we partially have a parental problem. Parents have a role to play. You just can’t turn your child over to the school, wash your hands and forget about them. But there’s also a pedagogical problem.

If you’re in an elementary school in which the principal, the VP and all the teachers are female, you’re in a feminine culture and environment. So the teachers are obviously going to choose books, choose materials and act in a feminine way. There’s nothing wrong with that. However, if you are a boy – and we now know something we didn’t know 40 years ago – your brain is different than a female brain. Boys learn differently than girls. Therefore, it makes sense to set up the classrooms for different modes of instruction.

Teachers aren’t trained to do this?

I would argue that our teachers are trained to worry about reading and math differences and individual instruction and all of the taking care of special needs children…but we’re forgetting to teach them that boys learn differently than girls do and you approach those two sexes differently.

An example?

A lot of the things teachers set up – sit in rows, don’t yell, don’t push each other, no competition, there’s no such things as winners and losers – totally goes against how boys are hardwired. Ask any mother who has boys and they’ll tell you.

There was a story in the news recently about a boy who was walking to school and picked up a lighter that he found on the sidewalk. Now, anyone who knows anything about boys knows that if they see anything on the sidewalk that looks interesting, they’re going to pick it up. So he put it in his pocket and took it school. At recess he showed some friends. They never lit it. A teacher noticed and the child was suspended because he brought fire to school. I’m sitting back and thinking to myself: that administrator should be fired. You want to teach them to not pick up dirty things off the sidewalk. You want to teach them that if they find a lighter, they can turn it in when they get to school. But instead they are suspending the child? We have schools that have stopped allowing kids to play tag in the playground, others that don’t allow [making] snowballs or running, because if kids run they may fall and hurt themselves. And now, in some places, we’re cutting out recess.

Every time I hear one of these stories the hair on the back of my neck stands up. We are deliberately telling boys: you cannot be a boy. You cannot do those things you really need to do.

But there’s always gym class.

We’re even taking out Phys Ed., in some cases. We call it Health Ed. now. So, the one place where boys can run and throw balls and bump into each other, we’ve taken that away.

Why this “safe” direction?

It’s a trend. Kids are going to fall and hurt themselves. It’s part of growing up. We have, in Quebec, the highest rate of single parent families – most of which are feminine. We also have one of the lowest birthrates. As a mother 25 years ago, you had six or seven kids to look after. Now, with one or two kids, you’re a little more focused. There’s more time per child than in the past.

And I think schools have become far more agreeable to parents. They’re afraid of litigation, afraid of upsetting commissioners, etc. etc.

Is it political correctness taken too far?

I think it’s political correctness, it’s an overall culture of wanting to respect everyone’s beliefs, so we go for a level of mediocrity. We go for a level where we will get the least amount of resistance and we just keep dumbing down the curriculum. Dumbing it down to the point now that we have, in Quebec, a 50 per cent high school failure rate.

How has the curriculum changed?

We’ve taken out the vocational education – the shop, the commerce, and the woodwork. The shorthand is gone. The typing is gone. We’ve taken out all the “non-academic” subjects. And I don’t know who decided that these weren’t academic. We’ve said that these aren’t real subjects. But [for instance], we’ve pumped up the languages. Girls have better hearing and better speech than boys. They’re hardwired that way. So of course, they’re going to do better. We’ve skewed the curriculum to favour girls.

What’s being done to fix the problem?

I really want to make this point: We concentrate on high school dropouts. They’re 16 or 17 when they drop out, but I postulate that they dropped out in Grade 6. They physically couldn’t drop out because they were little and that’s against the law. We make them stay. But if they are already failing in these academic subjects, if they already don’t think positively of school, if they already feel stifled in their environments, they’ve dropped out mentally. Their attitude towards learning, their attitude towards school and the whole notion of intellectual pursuits has been damaged, in some cases beyond repair. That happens in elementary school.

So we’re putting all these resources into high schools to fight the problem. By then it’s too late. If we want to make an impact on the dropout problem, we should start in Grade 4.

What should be done in Grade 4 then?

Three things: First, make classes smaller. All the research shows that classes of 28, 32 and 36 don’t work. That’s mob control, that’s not a learning environment.

Number two, balance the curriculum by making it more boy-friendly. Look at ways of engaging them.

Third, let’s look at gender-specific classes for some subjects.

Would having more male elementary teachers help?

I’m not convinced that the gender of the teachers is the main issue. But a child on the English side in Quebec can go through to high school without ever having had a male teacher.

How many men in one of our cohorts?

The percentage of males in elementary education at McGill has dropped during my tenure from about 20 per cent [then] to five per cent now. I can see the day soon where we graduate a class of B.Ed Elementary with not one male.

We have to ask ourselves some very fundamental questions. First of all: Is this OK? Is this just the way things happen? Maybe this is just evolution. But now we’re looking at other things: the use of Ritalin, a high dropout rate, bullying, gangs. You say: “Wait a minute…Do these seemingly separate things have a root in female school environments in Grades 4 to 6?” It’s an interesting question. I wish I had another 25 years to look at this one.

November 18, 2010