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Whitmire's Book WHY BOYS FAIL Delineates the Problem, but Not the Solution

By       Message Thomas Farrell     Permalink
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Is it in the realm of the possible that more women scientists do not rise to the highest ranks of scientists because women scientists perhaps lag behind male scientists in their competitiveness and perhaps in their willingness to lose, figuratively speaking, as one experiment after another fails to produce the joys of a significant scientific breakthrough? Has anybody ever tried to count the number of scientific experiments that failed to produce significant breakthroughs?

I know, I know, American education today is supposedly competitive. But elementary and secondary formal education in the United States today do not foster classroom contests and the spirit of competitiveness that Western education for centuries fostered.

As a matter of fact, Walter J. Ong, S.J. (1912-2003) has likened Latin language instruction in the Renaissance to a male puberty rite that is how rigorous and strenuous such instruction was. However, when Ong made this comparison, he was not criticizing Latin language instruction. Instead, he was recognizing the socially constructive role of male puberty rites conducted under the supervision of adult men.

In the United States today, we do not have male puberty rites. So we may wonder about the plight of American boys who are trying to grow up today without the opportunity of adult-supervised male puberty rites.

In light of the history of formal education in Western culture, we may raise the question, "How rigorous and strenuous can elementary and secondary education be without corporal punishment?"

Please do not misunderstand me here. I am NOT advocating a return to using corporal punishment in the classroom.

So no corporal punishment. That's a given.

But how could we then encourage rigorous and strenuous learning in the elementary and secondary classroom?

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In my judgment, the most comprehensive discussion of this admittedly challenging question can be found in the book for teachers entitled CREATIVE CONTROVERSY: INTELLECTUAL CHALLENGE IN THE CLASSROOM by David W. Johnson and Roger T. Johnson of the University of Minnesota (1992).

Unfortunately, Richard Whitmire and others who are writing about education today do not appear to be familiar with this landmark textbook for teachers. So let me describe the basic idea in this textbook for teachers.

The basic idea is for classroom teachers to structure contests into their classes. Of course this is not the only thing the teachers are supposed to do. They should continue to do many of the things that they are already doing. However, they should structure certain units of instruction as contests. Yes, yes, something else will have to go. And yes, yes, not all units of instruction can lend themselves to contests. So the operative word here is "structure" the contest units of instruction into the classes design them to fit in, and design them carefully so that they might work out well. The latter point means setting up workable teams--not teams overloaded with too many smart students versus teams overloaded with too many slow and/or disinterested students.

Obviously, this is easier said than done. Clearly this point alone should tell us that it is probably not a good idea to try to get legislators on the state or federal level to write legislation mandating teams for classroom contests, because legislators are known to write penalties for those who fail to carry out their laws.

Next, the teachers must select instructional units that lend themselves to learning about controversies. For the Johnsons, controversies are the heart of the matter. By controversies, they mean disagreements of opinion that lend themselves to pro-and-con debate. They spell out a certain number of possible examples. But they have not exhausted all the possibilities.

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In any event, the teachers need to provide instructional resources that the students can read and consult. So once again we are talking about the teachers "structuring" the units of instruction carefully.

If it strikes you that it would be farfetched to require American teenagers to learn how to participate intelligently in pro-and-con debate, then I should remind you that teenagers for centuries in Western culture learned dialectic and rhetoric, each of which involves structured pro-and-con debate.

In theory, you could argue that the teenagers who were lucky enough to receive formal education in dialectic and rhetoric made up an elite and that the education they received in dialectic and rhetoric were elitist education.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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