What can possibly surprise a marine biologist?
Given the bewilderingly insane stuff that passes for normal life under the ocean, I was interested to learn earlier last year that a small band of these underwater scientists had been astonished by the findings of a study they were undertaking on mushroom coral. Shock No.1, of course, is that coral are actually animals. This was no news to the marine biologists who had all been far more diligent than me in watching David Attenborough, but what was, was that mushroom coral change sex. One year they were female, and the next they were male. But why?
The answer was not that a lab assistant got drunk and started messing with the team’s laptops; rather, it was stress. Apparently, when female mushroom coral are stressed they convert wholesale into male mushroom coral.
Wake me up when I need to learn something
This situation immediately reminded me of the average ESL classroom. Dr Madsen Pirie, sometime President of the Adam Smith Institute, infamously remarked not so long ago that the reasons girls had overtaken boys in terms of academic performance at school was that the exams had changed. Where once passing exams in English schools had relied on a do-or-die, revise-at-the-last-minute, up-and-at-‘em approach, the new modular exams are wholly or in part based on coursework, which favours a more reasoned and considered approach with effort spread across a year.
It was Dr Pirie’s contention that this methodical approach suits girls better than boys. Girls like the calm and attention to detail of coursework, whereas boys like the stress and short burst of exams.
This seems to bear a correspondence with the ESL classroom. It is not that, for example, the Cambridge Suite is better suited to boys than girls; rather, it is that learning a language is better suited to girls. Becoming fluent in a language takes patience, an attention to detail and an awful lot of coursework. Hence, on average, a minimum of 80% of my advanced students are female in any one year. Across the range, many more students are female to begin with, and, of course, they are always more likely to do the homework. Learning a language, it seems, is a female pursuit.
No more needlework
So what do we do with the boys and the men? Are our long-term approaches failing them? Should we not introduce more stress into the classroom to help them?
I have had many ideas on this subject, including shouting, using cattle prods, and showing pictures of distressed puppies. Perhaps more usefully, it might be possible to begin by separating boys and girls. If you have one boy in a class of 20 girls, you inevitably still spend 90% of your time on him, essentially, now I understand, trying to stress him enough to learn. This, of course, is no good for the girls who just want to chill and patiently assemble the next part of their linguistic capability. Boys could then have test-based lessons in a shorter, more intensive course leading to an exam, while girls take the less-stressful option of conversing in the classroom, and building coursework for a different kind of exam.