Why public boys' schools are a stand-up idea

[Globe and Mail, Wednesday, Nov. 04, 2009]

Jim Power

Ernest Hemingway wrote standing at his typewriter. That's hardly surprising, because research suggests boys are more apt to learn when they can move around. Because we all want to encourage tomorrow's authors sitting or standing in today's classrooms, many private boys' schools are experimenting with stand-up desks and other such initiatives.

Chris Spence's recent proposal for Canada's first public all-boys school offers an opportunity to weigh in with 180 years of lessons learned and cautionary tips for our public-school brethren. Some see their proposal as an exotic provocation, not a public policy initiative with precedents in Alberta's charter schools and thriving public boys' schools the world over.

The Hemingway example illustrates a broad point: Without stereotyping gender difference, we do believe boys and girls learn differently. Reams of research speak to that. While biology isn't destiny, it is proclivity. The point is, boys' schools aren't about segregation. They're about defining gender-selected strengths and teaching to them.

There's also a subtle point that hasn't been discussed much. Dr. Spence's move is reported as a reaction to a public system that has failed the many disengaged, learning-disabled or violent boys who lag behind girls. The cited causes range from fatherless homes to immigrant alienation to poverty.

While I'm enthusiastic about this initiative, my fear is this forward-thinking innovation will reinforce the old myth that boys' schools are a punitive last gasp – boot camps for the ungovernable and the delinquent. Only a sustained, conscious effort will ensure this school does not succumb to a reactive, remedial model of boys' learning.

It's a challenge. The new school will be set up precisely because those within its catchment aren't thriving in their current schools. By contrast, my school (Toronto's Upper Canada College) and others like it have entrants who possess academic strength to thrive in competitive environments and parents who have the means, or receive tuition assistance, to support them in realizing their potential.

Despite contrasting entrance credentials, this school can succeed for the same reasons others have. Boys' schools must articulate key values from the outset. Our challenge is to build character, to teach boys to explore modern notions of masculinity. We want boys to know it's okay to ask for help, to care and nurture. Most importantly, as teachers we demonstrate these traits so graduates can serve, unabashedly, as parents and community leaders who make a difference.

Boys' schools are uniquely situated to do just that. Consider a report for the Good Man Project, a collaboration of New Zealand boys' schools: “By their very existence, boys' schools encourage building a sense of pride in being male. In a world where much media focus is on the more negative aspects of young men, the ability of boys' schools to provide an alternative view cannot be underestimated.”

Boys' schools aren't simply about serving up a healthy dose of customized learning. They're places where boys aren't afraid to take risks, where it's okay to join the meditation group or the debating club, to cheer for underdogs and stand up to bullies.

It's not all warm and cuddly. Look at a typical pack of Grade 4 boys, tumbling about like puppies. Boys are, by nature, rougher and tougher, more physically competitive. Those who work at boys' schools need a deep understanding and comfort with that reality, while not falling for the simplicity of the old “boys will be boys” mentality.

It is a double-edged sword, so a final caution: Our students are apt to call themselves a “band of brothers,” while forming lifelong friendships. But it's an artificial tree house with no girls allowed. So we need to intentionally build in co-ed opportunities, especially in arts and service programs. You can't have it all. Our graduates often confess they hustle to get up to speed about deciphering the intricacies of female social cues once they hit universities or the workplace.

As an all-boys pioneer, this new school is encouraged to draw on the experience of UCC and other fine boys' schools, and of the International Boys' Schools Coalition.

Ultimately, all such schools are in the character-building business. But we only get there by refusing the remedial “reform school” model – that's no place for a boy to grow. Even Hemingway wouldn't stand for that.

Jim Power is principal of Upper Canada College.