09/15/2011 11:30 am ET | Updated Nov 15, 2011

Boys (and Girls) Need Games and Structure

I don't know what I think about Ali Carr-Chellman's indictment of education's disrespect for boy's culture. Being a high school teacher, I see the results of our failure to meet the "literacy needs of our boys from three to thirteen." But I do not see more aggression by males, or a disciplinary system that discriminates by gender. Girl fights are notorious, and (in my experience) disciplinary consequences typically are so weak that it is unlikely they disproportionately hurt boys.

Some years, my "best" students were female, some years they were mostly male, and other years I could see no difference. What I saw with class leaders was the benefits of a culture of empowerment. Both males and females need opportunities to test themselves, and to occasionally challenge the system. The key, it seems to me, is a culture of respect. Girls and boys need orderly, structured environments where it is safe to engage in "creative insubordination."

Carr-Chellman is clearly correct that schools do not welcome the physical culture of boys. I also agree that our "compressed curriculum," and obsession with all children learning at the same rate is damaging. I agree that test-driven accountability has dumped abuse on boys, but standardized testing is an equal gender oppressor. I can't see how the narrowing of the curriculum and squeezing the joy out of learning sends the message that a boy should "be a girl."

Carr-Chellman's best single point is that too many teachers put down kids' "gaming culture," but I don't know what to think about her apparent call to bring the "World of Warcraft" into the classroom. Carr-Chellman correctly asserts that educators should teach kids how to draw lessons from "The Simpsons." She astutely complains that today's classroom technology often is no better than "glorified flashcards." But boys and girls both need educators to invest in dynamic, emerging technologies to re-engage both sexes in learning. And both sexes need teachers to use games and multimedia lessons to illustrate the "variables that go into creating society."

Finally, Carr-Chellman correctly blames a "lack of males in our culture." Too many children are being raised without male role models. In elementary schools, the percentage of male teachers has dropped to 7%. And I would add that schools need to recruit male and female twenty-somethings to invent gaming programs in schools.

My favorite parts of Carr-Chellman's analysis were her repeated references to culture. Our goal should be an invigorating learning culture, and that requires respect for all. Kids need to explore on their own, but that also requires adult umpires to preserve the integrity of the process.

I would like to see a return to some of the culture of confidence in which I was raised. In the 1950s, during the rise of "Pax Americana," white males were privileged, and thus empowered. In the 21st century, why do we still need to separate ourselves in order to build strong self-images? Why can we not bring all types of people, and all types of learning tools, into schools where all children are the privileged class?

Growing up in the Sputnik era, there was no shortage of fathers, uncles, and neighbors who were dedicated to raising boys into men. At school, church, Boy Scouts, and sporting events, we were coached on becoming responsible, strong, and adventurous "inner directed" men.

We constantly heard the aphorism, "Pay close attention, I'm only going to show you once." It was so ubiquitous that it became the punch line in the ultimate oil field roughneck joke (which was too dirty for publication).

At first, the "pay close attention, I'm only going to show you once" instruction might seem to be the opposite of the "constructivist learning" advocated by Carr-Chellman. But actually, our fathers were laying a foundation for discovery learning. They were nurturing crucial socio-emotional and cognitive skills that are necessary for real learning. We were being taught to listen, so we could listen to learn.

When my mother taught us to wash fruit with cold water, because the hot water corroded pipes, leaving unhealthy residue, she was drawing lessons from a physical activity that taught us how to "learn how to learn." Both were instructing us to do "x," because of "y," thus teaching cause and effect, as well as responsibility.

The direct message was that focus, concentration, and attentiveness are necessary. The implied message was that it was important to adults who loved us that we understand what is important. When my father tried to teach me the fundamentals of building a shed, I did not enjoy my failures to properly drive nails, but I loved sharing the experience with my dad. I was more intrigued with my mother's lesson of about the effects of hot water. Both lessons prompted unsuccessful and successful experiments into how the world works. And I have to believe that a similar cross-generational sharing of gaming culture would be equally empowering.

So, I agree with Carr-Chellman that we need to bring hands-on techniques into the classroom, but we should do it for both sexes. We should relearn the wisdom of Jacob Bronowski who proclaimed, "the Hand is the cutting edge of the Mind." Although I have never touched one of those contraptions, I suspect that the hand that masters the video game can also be the cutting edge of this generation's imagination.

While we must respect the focus that comes from being caught up in a game, kids still must be taught how to control and not be controlled by these powerful programs. Kids do not need to be taught to play hard, but they need adults to coach them on playing smart.

We must get men back into the child-raising game, as we bring a variety of rousing activities back into the classroom. We must encourage children's creativity, as we teach them self-control. To do that, adults must respect the new cultures under construction, as we share the lessons that worked for us. Boys and girls need fun and games, as they also need limits. Our kids' minds and bodies must be free to wander. But paying close attention is still something that must be taught to girls and boys.