What a Newborn's Brain Doesn't Know

What a Newborn's Brain Doesn't Know

17 hour old baby

Recently Chris Spence, the Toronto District School Board's new education director, has been calling for an all-boys school to address male underachievement at school. “The real objective is to cast a critical eye on how we reach and teach our boys,” said Dr. Spence, whose 2008 book, The Joys of Teaching Boys , makes the case that boys learn differently from girls and have suffered under a “unisex model for child rearing and teaching.

But it sounds like Spence isn't being nearly objective enough because in fact neuroscientists say that, “Just as a boy's foot and a girl's foot work the same way, so do their brains. As the OECD report Understanding the Brain points out: "No study to date has shown gender-specific processes involved in building up neuronal networks during learning." So the way boys and girls create synaptic pathways – and therefore learn – is the same. When we see differences in the behaviour of boys and girls, that's because those differences are taught. They are social, not biological.”

Functional MRI studies show, "that there are no differences in the young male brain that would explain why boys might have more trouble reading."

According to StatsCan figures for 2006/7, a third of boys don't graduate from high school and a quarter of girls don't make it. Spence's vision, on top of being rooted in beliefs unsupported by evidence, does nothing to address that 25% figure, nor does it deal with the startling amount of sexual harassment and violence aimed at girls uncovered in Julian Falconer's report on school violence.

Are there major problems with Ontario's education system? You bet, the same problems we encounter elsewhere in society but magnified many-fold as young people soak up our constraining—often toxic messages—about what it means to be male, female, rich, poor, middle class, white, black, Asian, straight, gay, bisexual, yada, yada.

Apparently many scientists now believe that 20% of a person's outcome in life is the result of innate brain capacity (nature) and the other 80% is based on what happens after birth (nurture). Biology doesn't count for much. A newborn's brain doesn't know it's a future male problem child. It hasn't yet learned the faulty cultural idea that a girl isn't as mentally equipped for math or been exposed to Eurocentric teaching that devalues other cultures.

So sure, we can start up that Male Leadership Academy and pretend a one size fits all solution might work (as though all boys learn in the exact same way and face identical challenges...right) for some of the boys that attend it, but that would still mean doing a disservice to an entire generation of kids.

Or we could be ambitious and hopeful and aim for that less-traveled road where all young brains are treated like equal entities and given the nourishment and confidence they need to be their best selves. That would undoubtedly require more money being funneled into the education system (higher taxes!), a much bigger push to end child poverty and a concerted effort—as a society—to set aside our own learned biases, but imagine a generation of kids raised with that kind of care. Just imagine how glorious that would be.
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