Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young sang that we should teach our children well and feed them of our dreams, but for millions of parents of sons, dreams are only that, and boys are falling behind educationally at an alarming rate in this country. Richard Whitmire, author of Why Boys Fail, Michael Gurian, author of The Minds of Boys: Saving Our Sons from Falling Behind in School and in Life, and many other authors and educational experts proclaim that we have a crisis in the education of boys in this country. The media attention to this topic has been extensive in recent years, yet I do not see the systemic changes that are needed.
Gurian's book presents statistics that boys get the majority of D's and F's in most schools, create 90 percent of the discipline problems, are four times more likely than girls to be diagnosed with ADHD and be medicated, account for three out of four children diagnosed learning disabilities, become 80 percent of the high school dropouts, and now make up less than 45 percent of the college population. If you look in your newspaper right now, in June, you will see the photos and bios of valedictorians from many of your local high schools, and will notice that the majority of them these days are girls.
What Do the Experts Say?
According to Whitmire, children are forced to use literacy skills much earlier than in the past, and boys develop these skills later than girls. In the world of "Kindergarten is the new first grade," boys are struggling mightily to keep up. When it comes to writing, the gender divide is even greater. NCLB and our hyper-focus on standardized test scores is worsening, not ameliorating, the academic struggles of boys, and subsequently increasing the numbers of boys who turn off to school and eventually drop out.
According to Gurian, boys learn by doing and by moving their bodies through space. The more emphasis is placed on the development of early reading skills, and the less emphasis is placed on a healthy amount of movement and experiential learning, the more disadvantageous our schools will be for males.
Our boys need our attention, and although some of what I'm about to write pertains to girls as well as boys, and although gender differences naturally fall across a continuum and no single description fits all boys or all girls, there are nonetheless a number of characteristics that differentiate the two genders generally speaking.
On Growing Up With Boys, Then Raising a Girl
As the mother of a female only child, my parenting experience, while not always idyllic, has been relatively peaceful. As a toddler, my daughter was sedentary and cautious, and seemed to have nowhere she needed to go. She would sit in one spot on the floor for hours with a pile of books, "reading" to herself. I could shoot from room to room, accomplishing tasks, and she would smile up at me from her place on the living room rug as if wondering, what's the hurry?
She was much like I was as a child, and nothing like the brothers I had grown up with who requisitioned large expanses of the floor plan of our house for their games, commandeering space like an army of two. The entire finished basement was needed for indoor hockey (and windows were expendable). Outdoors, acres of woods were barely enough for their imaginary villages and the conquering of foreign lands. Unwitting trees were the patient recipients of nails and ropes and bungee cords, bending uncomplainingly to the weight of whatever animate or inanimate objects were tied, strapped or hung from them.
One day my brother devised a pulley system to ferry a dangling ceramic soap dish full of birdseed back and forth between his bedroom window on the third floor and a distant pine tree in the back yard, only to have it immediately collapse under its own weight, sending the heavy chunk of porcelain careening downward in a 90-degree arc until it came into abrupt contact with a doomed sliding glass door. This was a terrific lesson in physics. It was also funny.
The Nature of Boys
As Gurian explains in his book, the primitive hunters men used to be were the product of hundreds of thousands of years of evolution. Spatially developed male brains resulted from physical interaction with the environment that allowed sensory input to stimulate the right hemisphere and build white matter and synapses in ways that would be useful for survival.
Even though the concept of the square school with the square classroom with one teacher to 20 or more kids has been around for a few hundred years, our boys are still young hunters whose brains need the same types of stimulation to grow and be healthy as did their male ancestors millennia ago. Our schools are vastly different from the setting of family, tribe and natural environment that used to be the educational milieu for growing boys.
Why Our Educational System Does Not Support Male Learning Styles
Our modern educational system works for many children, particularly girls, but for some boys (and girls) it places constraints on a very normal and necessary experiential type of learning, not to mention the need of many children to move around rather than sit still. While it may be a cynical statement, I have often felt that co-ed schools are girls' schools that boys go to.
I am not advocating for a return to life in caves and an educational system for boys involving the activities and rituals described in my college anthropology book. What I do advocate for is a greater understanding and appreciation for who boys are and how they learn best, and the subtle pedagogical modifications that would benefit millions of children.
How Schools Could Honor Who Boys Are
Simple changes to the pace and tempo of the school day, such as incorporating several brief recesses throughout the day, devoting more time to physical education, and including more hands-on activities go a long way towards alleviating some of the natural restlessness of boys and harnessing male energy in positive ways. How much Ritalin could remain on the shelves if we created schools that are ready for boys rather than boys who are ready for schools?
Just as we collectively addressed the needs of girls over the past couple of decades and made great strides in closing their achievement gaps in math and science, let us now turn our attention to our nation's boys and take equally deliberate steps to assure their success in school and in life. The revolution in brain science over the past fifteen years gives us the knowledge and the tools we need to do this, and we must, for as a society we are setting our boys up to fail in a system that is stacked against them, stacked against the very way they are neurologically wired.
This is not to say that social and cultural influences are not contributing factors to who boys are today, but we now have medical evidence, once elusive, that illuminates the very significant role biology plays in male/female brain development and learning. Parents and teachers need to become better educated about how boys and girls really are different, and how to best meet the needs of each. Particularly relevant to this discussion is the theory of "natural learning," which takes for granted that a learner is a whole person -- a living system -- and that every aspect of a person, boy or girl, contributes to his or her learning.
What Does the Future Hold?
At some colleges today, boys are being given a boost in the admissions process because they have become a minority. If we do not address boys' educational needs earlier in life than this, the skewing of college enrollment, and thus opportunity in life, will only get worse.
Meeting the learning needs of all of our children is a lofty yet imperative goal. We must join together to nurture and celebrate what it is to be female and what it is to be male and the very essence and value of the difference. After all, boys will be boys.
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