Learning to break rules isn't all bad

Kelly Yang says treating boys more harshly because they are rowdier than girls may be natural behaviour, but let's not overdo it

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 January, 2013, 1:27am

"Oh why do they have to be such boys?" my mother complained when my sons jumped up and down on the bed instead of settling down to do their Chinese homework.

I don't have daughters to compare them with, at least not yet, and I'm not a big fan of stereotypes. So I said in my sons' defence: "It's not that they're boys, it's that they're kids." My mother shot me an unconvinced "give me a break" look.

It's not just my mother who thinks boys and girls have fundamentally different attitudes towards learning. A just-published study done by the University of Georgia and Columbia University shows that American elementary school teachers routinely give higher marks to girls than boys, even though the boys score higher on standardised tests, for the simple reason that girls behave better in school.

I'm not surprised by the findings, and I don't think the teachers in the study are sexist. Girls, for the most part, are better organised, have more self-control, can follow directions better, and are more flexible and patient, according to the study's authors.

"They're just easier," is the explanation I commonly hear from parents of girls. This past semester, I taught an all-boy SAT class while my colleague taught an all-girl creative writing class. My class had five boys while his had 10 girls, all of them six or seven years old compared to my 15-year-olds. Guess which class was louder?

All this peace and quiet, according to the study, translates into extra brownie points from teachers.

That may be true, but is it right?

As an educator, I worry about the ramifications of penalising students too much for "rambunctious" behaviour, especially at a young age, and conversely for overly rewarding "obedient" behaviour. I don't just feel this way because I have two boys - although I can't deny that having boys has made me an infinitely more patient teacher. I feel this way because part of learning is not just following, repeating and regurgitating. Part of learning is also creating, and to do that, you can't be afraid to break a few rules sometimes.

Interestingly enough, a study done in 2006 by the University of Hong Kong on 45,000 Hong Kong students showed that, in primary schools here, boys generally did better than girls. However, that study looked at exam results.

Even if teacher assessments matter less than exam results, they still have a huge influence on students. I cannot count the number of times my students have come into my office with their confidence shaken by a teacher's criticism. By secondary school, according to the same Hong Kong study, girls did better than boys on the standardised tests, and the same goes for the GCSEs in Britain.

In a few short weeks, I will be welcoming another baby. This time, it's going to be a girl. I can't tell you how much I am looking forward to her arrival. There are millions of reasons I'm excited to have a daughter - but having an easier time getting her to do Chinese is not one of them.

Kelly Yang is the founder of The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school programme for children in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard Law School. kelly@kellyyang.com