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When public schools were first constructed, Diane Ravitch (2000) explains that the schools "were expected to make social equality a reality by giving students an equal chance to develop mental powers to the fullest" (p.19). Recent statistics raise concerns about many boys' school experience. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2010), boys are 30 percent more likely than girls to flunk or drop out of school. The U.S. Department of Education (2010), reports that boys make up two-thirds of the students in special education and are four to nine times more likely to be diagnosed as hyperactive. Additionally, the average 11th grade boys' writing abilities are at the same level as an 8th grade girl. With that in mind, the purpose of this paper is to apply the theory of social construction by Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann in terms of the primary school experience for boys. It is my contention that public schools today are constructed in a manner that is unfriendly towards boys and fails to take individual learning styles and developmental differences into consideration. I will analyze the theory as it applies to my perspective of the construction of public schools. I will also show how the topic outside of the theory is relevant to social workers. In this paper, I do not intend to make assumptions about all boys nor do I intend to exclude some girls, and I acknowledge there are many ways in understanding contemporary gender. Nevertheless, since the statistics that warrant my analysis are in reference to boys, I will use that term to reference the distinguished population.
The Social Construction of Reality by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, hinges on the premise that human beings are both the creator and product of their environment. Under this premise, institutions are objectified human activity. Primary school is an institution that transfers knowledge to our children. According to the authors (1966), the process of "institutionalization occurs whenever there is a reciprocal typification of habitualized actions by types of actors" (p. 54). In other words, primary education within our society is the habituized human activity of teaching elementary students objectified; it is taken-for-granted routines; it is primary school every day life. Within primary school, typified narrow understandings of "normative masculinities have consequences for boys, and these consequences include construction of boys who are regularly alienated from literacy classrooms and literacy experiences" (Rowan, Knobel, Bigum, & Lankshear, 2002, p. 4). Social workers need to work with the teachers to develop what works for these children. Teachers need to recognize there may be a problem. Low self-esteem or acting out, will continue to escalate if some positive reinforcement does not exist in the school experience. Frustration may increase until the child no longer likes school and is no longer giving any effort. Counseling the child along this path can help. Without an investment in school, poor grades are likely to be obtained or there is an avoidance to escape frustration; leading to dropping out or being kicked out. Society is constructing our schools that ultimately are setting some boys up for failure.
Legitimation is a function that supports or explains the instituition to new generations. Children see school as a tradition, an authoritarian fact that appears to them as unalterable. As such, those who display human conduct are trouble makers for challenging existing social constructs. There are four levels of legitimation. The first level is a simplistic affirmation, the second level is more explanatory, the third level is even more comprehensive and is entrusted to specialists. The fourth level of legitimation is something Berger and Luckmann call the symbolic universe. The symbolic universe in an all inclusive unification of all the instituional processes. In other words, it combines all legitimations, it is the beliefs that everybody knows. When the symbolic universe fails to legitimize the institutional structure or there is a problem shared by groups of inhabitants, universe-maintenance is undertaken. This paper discusses an intrinsic problem within the institution of primary school that is shared by boys. School reform in this context is a concept of universe-maintenance.
A teacher is the functionary of the institution with the specific job of transferring knowledge. Berger and Luckman (1966) claim that there are appropriate rules of conduct that gets tramsmitted with this knowledge and that these predefined patterns of conduct control human conduct. What that says to me, is that within school, regardless of what is innate, children will behave a certain way. They will pay attention, focus, sit and be quiet most of the day. Most girls "are able to do what the teacher wants them to do. They can sit. They can be quiet â€¦ without interrupting or jumping up and down" (Sax, Boys Adrift, 2007, p. 22). Schools today, fit girls learning styles, motivations and motor skills. Boys that can't sit for hours on end or find tasks to be monumental disengage from school. Social workers need to be able to cultivate an understanding of boys' human conduct, so the patterns of predefined conduct do not reinforce negative constructs. Social workers need to support the development of teachers in relation to these different learning styles enlight of the fact that these issues are not research based knowledge. Social workers also need to understand the biological development of children to help adjust teaching styles as well as expectations.
It is my contention that something biological in children makes them who they are; that gender, is hardwired into the childs brain early in fetal development. As reported by pediatic endocrinologists Dr. Gaya Aranoff and Dr. Jennifer Bell, "there is increasing evidence to suggest that the brain is a sexual organ, that brain sex [i.e., the sex of the brain] is paramount in determining human gender identity" (as cited in Sax, 2005, p. 11). Socially constructed schools are clinging to the principle of social construction in terms of gender, with no regard to biology. If everything is socially constructed, as Berger and Luckman hypothesized, does gender in this regard put a glich into their theroy? Maybe not. Berger and Luckmann also claimed that "the genetic presuppositions for the self are, of course, given at birth" (p.50) Another reference to the idea of a natural science is that "mans animality is transformed in socialization, but it is not abolished" (p.180). Berger and Luckmann seem to accomodate for biology. The book also discusses the existence of a dialectic between the indiviuals biological substratum and his social identity which starts at the first phase of socialization and unfolds throughout their life (p. 180). When Berger and Luckmann made these claims I don't think they had brain sex in mind as a biological basis, but their assertions seem to fit.
Gender is pervasive within our society and there are definetly dominant social values that lead us to believe it is a feature of society but innate factors cannot be ignored. Therefore, teachers cannot look at classrooms as collective units, they need to understand individual learning styles as well as brain development, be it brain sex or cognitive development. School social workers need to communicate an understanding of gender specific strategies and how it can help close the achievement gap between boys and girls. Both boys and girls have the ability to learn, it is just that their capabilities occur at different times in their lives. Recognizing this is essential. Social workers can formulate approaches that may be very simplistic in nature, such as letting a boy stand next to his desk or let him fiddle with a squishy ball during class or something as simple as telling the teacher to speak louder. They can suggest to teachers; competitive learning, hands-on learning and immediate feedback activities. They can also help teachers incorporate movement into structured routines. Some approaches may be more complex like coordinating single-sex classrooms.
Continuing with the biological aspects of learning, I find the concept of Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) as a social construct very interesting. If it is actually genetic then the same biological assumptions from Berger and Luckmann with regards to gender also apply. However, there are no tests for ADHD that can result in a definite diagnosis and currently there is no biological basis for it either.
The diagnosis is officially based on the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM-IV) criteria. Other assumptions include the beliefs that these behaviors are clearly distinguishable from normal; involve a neurodevelopmental disability; are not influenced by the environment; and can be adequately diagnosed by brief questionnaires. (Carey, 2005)
Most evidence points to ADHD as a social construct, which is frightening. What good does it do our children to pathologize behaviors which could represent individualism? Statistics state that 4.5 million children have been diagnosed with ADHD and 56% of those are on medication and boys are four to nine times more likely to be diagnosed . Typical boy behavior, is becoming less and less tolerated today. Are those diagnosed just casualties of the social constucts that are not boy friendly? Social workers can be involved in the assesment of ADHD and many times children diagnosed may have another condition that affects their development too. Social workers can develop strategies to help the child's academic achievement and self-esteem. They can work with the teacher to develop strengths, short intense tasks and help the child develop study skills. As in working with boys, social workers can help the child develop; listening skills, impulse control, delayed gratification, organizational techniques, as well as note taking and focusing attention. More importantly, if ADHD is a hypothetical construct it is the social worker that needs to advocate for the children.
Reification is also a concept of Berger and Luckmann. It occurs when the human created entity is so objectified that man forgets he created it. Berger and Luckmann assert that man needs to retain an awareness that, "however objectified, the social world was made by men-and, therefore, can be remade by them" (p. 89). This suggests to me deconstruction. Before feminism, boys did not have this trouble in school, girls did. Having a constructionist view enables the understanding that feminism as a competing institution broke old habits in terms of girls and possibly created new ones in terms of boys. Christina Hoff Sommers writes about misguided feminism in this way:
In our schools, therapeutic practices have effectively supplanted the moral education of yesterday. Ironically, those who pressed for discarding the old directive moral education did so in the name of freedom, for they sincerely believed that moral education "indoctrinated" children and "imposed" a teacher's values on them, something they thought the schools had no right to do. In fact, the "therapism" that took the place of the old morality is far more invasive of the child's privacy and far more insidious in its effects on the child's autonomy than the directive moral education that was once the norm in the every school. (p.212)
Sommers believes that feminist reeducation programs and progressive educational theory while both being noble are to blame for the educational disadvantages of boys.
Rory is my pragmatic son this paper justifies. He is a self-identified "tough cookie"; he is "all boy". He started 3rd grade within the Vestal School District after previously attending Catholic School. By November of that same year, Rory was crying almost every day before school and in school. During this time, he and I developed a ritual every night of talking about what he would look forward to during school the next day; recess, lunch, gym class and anything that would take him out of the classroom. Eventually things got so bad I spoke with the school psychologist who set up a meeting to meet with, Rory's teachers and myself.
In the meeting, they discussed many things about my son, but nothing about the teaching style and the classroom environment. My voice would only reiterate what Rory kept saying to me, "She thinks I'm a trouble maker", referring to the teacher. I hesitated on expressing my strong opinion in fear that things would only be more difficult for my son if I did. The meeting only accomplished an awareness. As I walked out, the school counselor who now would be visiting with Rory tried consoling me saying his teacher was just all business. My boys had been to catholic school for 3 years, they assimilated to a strict regime. This environment was different, and my sons' disposition was greatly impaired.
In conclusion, although Berger and Luckmann theorize that the reality of life is everyday taken-for-granted routines; everyday life cannot be taken-for-granted. Recent educational statistics need to be addressed. Berger and Luckmann and their theory of social construction is accommodating to my assertions concerning the school experience for boys. Those assertions in today's society add up to educational disadvantages. School social workers are invaluable in seeing all the red flags that can eventually lead to boys failing or dropping out and in supplying insight to teaching strategies and developing skills. More importantly, they are someone that can understand and interpret the frustrations a third grade boy is feeling especially when that third grader does not even know himself.
Although this paper is an analysis in terms of boys, I find that my thoughts have changed a bit, particularly when reading Diane Ravitch. Dr. Ravitch is an influential education scholar. Last year I read some of her writings. One thing she is quoted saying and stands out to me is "that good pedagogy and good teaching make for good schools." Since becoming interested in the public schools, I have always been interested in school reform. As I understand more, I see where pedagogical fads taken to extremes can become problematic. In this country, we join the cause too quick without really seeing the full picture, me included. Dr. Ravitch (2010) in a recent book writes that she has "tried to show in her work the persistence of our national infatuation with fads, movements, and reforms, which invariably distract us from the steadiness of purpose needed to improve our schools" (p. 3). Dr. Ravitch points to a quality curriculum with teachers that can be recruited and trained to understand what is expected. As well as programs, that overcome the deficits of all students.