Sunday, August 17, 2014

Are we failing our boys?

Dear Diary

Yesterday Alison, a fellow student and I were just discussing about the strange phenomenon of the seeming domination of girls in the realm of education. Where of course the top positions in politics and the corporate world are still primarily dominated by males I could not help but wonder  how long this gender shift has being going on,  what is causing it and perhaps more importantly, what it means to an egalitarian welfare state that is Finland, where no child should be left behind, be it a boy or a girl.

            And so it was really timely that today we had a lecture by Harry Lunabba from the department of Social sciences. He shared with us his doctoral thesis on ‘When adult encounters boys in school: insight, influence and social relationships’. Consistent with Finnish modesty, despite being regarded as having one of the world’s best education system, the Finns continue to try to identify areas in the system that need improvement, and one of them is the wide gender gap in academic performance. According to OECD Better Life Index report in 2013, girls outperform boys by 27 points , much more than the OECD average of 8 points. So, are boys the victims of an education that is historically designed and dominated by men?
            Harry approached the issue by conducting an ethnographic study where he spent a year in schools directly observing classes and mingling with the students. He found out that our expectations of how a boy should behave play an important part in the gender gap. Firstly, the idea of masculinity dictates that boys should be active, loud, and are expected to be leaders, even in the introverted Finnish society. So it is practically impossible for a boy to be the ‘silent boy’ and not get noticed. Whereas girls are expected to be demure and studious, they are ‘allowed’ to be shy and quiet and not stand out. And this, I think, has affected the performance of introverted boys. Secondly, Harry deduced that boys are not taken seriously enough. Whereas ‘silent boys’ receive unsolicited attention, loud and defiant boys are dismissed as ‘just being boys’, which does not solve the problems they may have at all.

            From my personal experience and observations, which may not necessarily apply to Finland and is highly likely to be biased as I studied in an all-girls school, the gender gap may be caused by several factors, which are disproportionate female:male teacher ratio and a feminized education system. 74% of Finland’s primary school teacher were female in 2005. Children, especially boys, need father figures in their early lives, and a male teacher fulfills that role. Boys also generally mature later, are good at practical tasks but less tolerant towards sitting in the classroom for long periods, which makes them more suited for vocational schools whereas traditional education model suits girls more, especially the exam oriented ones.

            Fortunately for Finnish boys, the education system is so holistic and comprehensive that 45% of the students choose to go to vocational school. While vocational school is regarded with negative connotation in some countries, the Finnish vocational school has very high quality and are not seen as anything less than the academic oriented schools.

            So, to answer my question of what a wide gender gap means to an egalitarian welfare state that is Finland, despite the apparent lower scores, I believe that the Finnish education and society has not failed the boys because scores and rankings are just part of the outcome, not the outcome itself and ultimately, it is the wellbeing and happiness of the boys that is the most important, which leads to another question of why Finnish men have one of the highest rates of suicide in the world. Well, let’s just blame it on the long dark winters.

These are my fellow students at the summer school. 
Notice the female:male ratio here. This is what is happening everywhere I go. 

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