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What About the Boys?

Last week I raised the question of whether educational equity, based on gender, should be a concern in our present system. I invited feedback and contributing comments. When all is said and done, I must conclude “Yes, “ the scales are tipped, and boys are receiving the short straw.

Do I have reasoned evidence for this conclusion, or is it rooted in purely observational data? In the spirit of full disclosure, both is true. My thirty-five year experience in public education, twenty-one of them as a building administrator, confirm my assessment that 1) the learning styles, and the learning needs, between boys and girls differ, and 2) we are mis-serving males in our quest to offer equity.

Let’s take a closer look at this dilemma.

Consider an article published by the Brookings Institute on their Brown Center Chalk Board post of July 2020. Their review of the permanent research suggests that girls enjoy a learned measure of advantage due to what they call “behavioral engagement: participation in the work and social life of school in ways educators value and expect. That means following classroom expectations like raising your hand, respecting others’ personal boundaries, turning assignments in on time, and responding appropriately to negativity—among many more positive behaviors expected in class. Underlying behavioral engagement is a wide-ranging set of social and behavioral skills that families instill well before children enter school and skills that children learn along the way while in school.”

Where do the boys learn behavioral engagement? There’s evidence that suggests they don’t, or at least it is delayed. In fact, boys may be raised with an entirely different perspective of what their appropriate engagement may look like. Again, citing the Brookings Institute Brown Center Chalk Board, “Educators and peers informally reward and reinforce hegemonic masculinity and, with it, boys’ superiority and flouting of school rules.”

Cutting to the chase, a double standard exists’ and it’s hurting everyone, especially boys.

What needs to be done? Let’s start with re-thinking the teaching strategies we employ.

In last week’s post, I cited Christina Hoff Sommers and her 2013 article in Atlantic titled “How To Make School Better For Boys.” In it she references the research of Sumitra Rajagopalan, an adjunct professor of biomechanics at Canada’s McGill University. She founded an intervention for males in a community where one of three boys drops out of high school. As Sommers writes “the male students she met were bored by their classroom instruction and starved for hands-on activities.” Of her experience, Rajagopalan said “boys are born tinkerers. They have a deep-seated need to rip things apart, decode their inner workings, create stuff.” Her perspective is supported by a large body of research that, taken as a group suggests that, men prefer working with things and women prefer working with people. That doesn’t mean that women aren’t drawn to STEM careers or that males do not pursue work in what are termed “empathy-centered” fields. But, to totally overlook this obvious difference in the course of our instructional planning is parallel to designing experiences that we know ahead of time will miss the mark.

In an attempt to get at what actually works for boys in education, Dr. Michael Reichert and Dr. Richard Hawley, in partnership with the International Boys' School Coalition, launched a study called Teaching Boys: A Global Study of Effective Practices, published in 2009. The study looked at boys in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, in schools of varying size, both private and public, that enroll a wide range of boys of disparate races and income levels.

The authors asked teachers and students to "narrate clearly and objectively an instructional activity that is especially, perhaps unusually, effective in heightening boys' learning." The responses—2,500 in all—revealed eight categories of instruction that succeeded in teaching boys. The most effective lessons included more than one of these elements:

  • Lessons that result in an end product: a booklet, a catapult, a poem, a comic strip, etc.

  • Lessons that are structured as competitive games.

  • Lessons requiring motor activity.

  • Lessons requiring boys to assume responsibility for the learning of others.

  • Lessons that require boys to address open questions or unsolved problems.

  • Lessons that require a combination of competition and teamwork.

  • Lessons that focus on independent, personal discovery and realization.

  • Lessons that introduce drama in the form of novelty or surprise.

Not only do these strategies work well for boys, they are just plain old-fashioned “good instruction.” What child, male or female, wouldn’t benefit from opportunities to address open questions, collaborate, be physically active and assume responsibility for the learning of others, as well as their own?

Jessica Lahey, the secondary teacher and author of the article “Stop Punishing Boys for Not Being Able to Sit Still” that I referenced in last week’s post, expresses enthusiasm to try an activity that resembles those described by Reichert and Hawley. “I want to try [this] next time I need to help my students review information, particularly a mass of related ideas. Split the class into groups of four and spread them around the room. Each team will need paper and pencils. At the front of the room, place copies of a document including all of the material that has been taught in some sort of graphical form—a spider diagram, for example. Then tell the students that one person from each group may come up to the front of the classroom and look at the document for thirty seconds. When those thirty seconds are up, they return to their group and write down what they remember in an attempt to re-create the original document in its entirety. The students rotate through the process until the group has pieced the original document back together as a team, from memory. These end products may be "graded" by other teams, and as a final exercise, each student can be required to return to his desk and re-create the document on his own.”

That actually sounds fun! And, I’m convinced, that learning will occur.

We almost had it right when schools offered a menu of hands-on experiences for kids. Remember wood shop, auto mechanics or home economics? These were popular options for thousands of kids; for many, offering them the reason to persist and to tolerate the “boring stuff.” But, we gradually succumbed to an arrogant notion that the only legitimate path for students to pursue was one that led them to the university. The trades, and those classes that might introduce them to applicable skills, gradually became seen as most appropriate for non-academic students. What a mistake. Especially for the boys.

Fast forward a few decades and we land in the early years of the 21st century, a time where we embrace the concept of Career and Technical Education (CTE). Suddenly, what was old is now new again. And, the recapitulation of this idea is exactly the right thing to do.

I’m hopeful.

If we truly believe that CTE experiences and course work are “what the doctor ordered” for a huge swath of kids, while maintaining a recognition that some students, to realize their goals, will need to be prepared for a collegiate experience, I’m hopeful.

If we can successfully hold on to both, legislate both, finance both, regardless of zip code, family background or gender, I’m hopeful.

If we can embrace both sides of this dilemma, we may very well inch forward toward the education kids deserve.

Including boys.


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