(Written in response to a suggestion that boys be allowed to begin formal schooling later than girls.)
It is an undeniable fact that girls perform better in the early years than do boys.
There are many who argue that this truth is linked to 99.9% of early-years teachers being female and therefore relating better to their own gender. More credence can be given to this argument now that fMRI studies clearly indicate gender diffferences in learning. For example, one recent study shows that ALL females (in their sample) read with cerebral "emotion centres" activated, while very few males did - and those males who did, did so at a significantly weaker level of activated emotion.
Relevant to this discussion is an interesting situation that came up at the end of my first year at Muffy's in Beijing - a situation that provides a fresh perspective on what might be impacting performance in primary level classrooms.
As in many unregulated little English schools that have sprung up, Muffy's teachers were (are?) given carte-blanche to do whatever they like as long as the kids come out with some English skills. And, as much as I argue that this results in "teacher-centered" education, the outcome in this case was serendipitous...
A highly capable young Canadian teacher had recognized the need to include some formal phonetic study and reading skills during the Kindergarten day-school year. She had followed her kindergarten grads into her afterschool program to maintain their strong English skills while they attended Chinese day school for Grade 1. Wisely recognizing that her students now needed some content instead of isolated language patterns, she formulated her after-school program around an American Grade 1 science textbook. (I once substituted for her and was very impressed with the general level of functioning, even though this tended to be a lecture-method approach where only those who raised their hands received attention and were afforded the opportunity to speak. There was no denying that some children had acquired considerable English fluency!)
Now her two groups of 6- and 7-year-old children would feed into my Total English after-school program. She brought me two lists indicating how these children were to be divided for my classes. (This was a new curve to me; student groupings are usually formulated jointly, not dictated. But this was China... ) The head-strong young miss had no intention of listening to my reasoning re why I considered this division pedagogically a bad idea. Our quiet discussion ended suddenly with her slamming the door in my face as she stormed out.
I studied the lists more closely. The rationale was that those who "spoke well and often" were in one group; those who did not, were in the other. Glancing down the Westernized list of names, I quickly recognized that by switching just 2 (of twelve) students, I would have a totally gender-based division.
But, lo and behold... The TALKERS were all BOYS! The QUIET ones were all GIRLS!
What does this prove? Perhaps the gender of the teacher is not significant. Perhaps CONTENT is. How much had the scientific CONTENT impacted the boys' interests and progress? I personally suspect, given my experience with that group, that the topics played a very significant role - not only in terms of the boys' success (except for a few), but in terms of the girls' lack of interest/progress (except for a few).
Boys, even in the earliest grades, prefer facts to fancy (generally speaking). If males don't respond to emotive material, surely they should be provided with fascinating factual material right at the outset of their education.
Not so for girls. They LOVE the emotional stuff (generally speaking, again, of course).
After much insistence in Beijing, I was allowed to adjust the groups to suit my own educational perspectives. I took the students directly into a program that allowed each child a CHOICE of content. The boys quickly grabbed material about space/animals/machines, while girls gravitated to fictional "cute" animal stories and fairy tales. In seven months of classes, the average INDEPENDENT reading gain was 9.9 months! Oral and writing skills emerged in ALL.
And we were having fun! Classroom dynamics, stressing paired co-operative activities, demanded the oral participation of EVERY student. Much time was spent on thematic discussions, songs, games, debates(!) and drama-productions that provided CONTEXT to the language skills covered. Both children and parents understood that, since everyone paid the same amount, everyone had the right to equal time for speaking and teacher attention.
Boys and Girls do not have to be segregated or have different starting ages; they simply need CHOICE! They need classroom dynamics that build in the need for each one to participate. Children need to be provided a strong, organized, sequential program of SKILLS that allows each to progress at his/her own level in small increments. ALL children need to feel accepted. This is a universal, not just Chinese, truth.