Boys need a reason to read 

Expert on educating boys offers insights at education e-learning conference

Inquiring minds need to know.

And that drive to know can help students discover a love for literacy inside the school if they are just given the right tools.

That is just part of what Dr. Jeffrey Wilhelm will share as Whistler’s keynote speaker at the Ministry of Education-sponsored Interactive Innovations e-conference, which takes place today (May 25) and Friday at sites across B.C.

Wilhelm and co-researcher Michael Smith followed 48 U.S. boys from divergent backgrounds from 1999 to 2002. Their goal was to try and discover why boys consistently underachieve in literacy compared to girls in every country where data on the issue is available.

"Basically what we found is that the boys do not in any way reject literacy," said Wilhelm, from Idaho, where he is an associate professor at Boise State University and teaches courses in middle and secondary level literacy.

"In fact what explained why boys rejected school literacy but embraced it in their lives were the set of conditions of flow experience. In other words, the boys would embrace any activity, including literacy, if there was a clear purpose and you got very immediate feedback."

Wilhelm has taken his findings and developed lesson plans for schools around his research.

"It doesn’t require any change in curriculum or any change in text… it just requires that you re-frame how you instruct in terms of …inquiry," said Wilhelm.

Inquiry works, he said, because:

• it has a purpose or question;

• it gives feedback about how you are progressing toward answering a question and providing a solution;

• through inquiry you develop skills and strategies that make you more competent and that allow you to become more and more independent in more inquiries and reading.

"Inquiry requires that you make a personal connection and a connection to the world, which is rarely the case in school," said Wilhelm.

His findings do not support separating girls and boys in the classroom. In fact Wilhelm believes that girls benefit from this inquiry-based learning as well.

It appears the reason girls do better in literacy in school is because they are motivated by other factors, such as wanting to please their parents or teachers.

"We just think that boys are way less patient with the absence of these conditions than girls," said Wilhelm. "They want an immediate functional value for what they learned.

"Over and over again the boys would say, ‘I don’t want to be taught for who I am tomorrow. I want to be taught for who I am today. I want to be taught for the here and now, not college, not life, but now.’"

While Wilhelm is encouraged that these ideas are making their way into school via conferences like Interactive Innovations he admits to being distressed that it is taking so long to get methods into the classroom that have been recognized for decades by cognitive behavioural scientists.

"It is an absolute tragedy in my opinion because nobody wants kids to fail or not learn and yet we are ignoring 40 years of research on motivation and 40 years of motivation on situated cognition," said Wilhelm.

"If you talked to a cognitive scientist about what is going on in school they would say it is like the medical profession going back and bleeding patients. We are doing stuff that is disproven and shown to be ineffective 100 years ago."

Wilhelm also slams standardized testing.

"Standardized testing is a total waste of time and money," he said. "You have one kid guess ‘B’ and be right another kid say ‘C’ for several reasons and be wrong, and you think you’ve learned something about their understanding," he said. "It demonstrates nothing of value about true learning or true understanding."

Several other leaders in education will also be speaking at the conference. They include Dr Ruby Payne, founder of a Texas company dedicated to helping educators better understand how to teach children from poverty; Dr Jan Robertson of New Zealand’s University of Waikato, an expert in the human side of school leadership, sustainability and social justice; and Jane Betrand, one of Canada’s foremost childcare advocates.

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