Yes, Teacher, Boys are Different

Yes, Teacher, Boys are Different July 8, 2013

From Jessica Lahey:

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, or a comic strip, for example.
  • 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.

So what might a great lesson for boys look like? Reaching Boys, Teaching Boys is full of examples, but here’s one I want to try 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.

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  • this is great. I’ve already saved it into my file for teaching Old & New Testament to college freshman – not much changes for them.

  • Lise

    I found this article frustrating. I’ve seen similar laments, one of which I think was written by David Brooks. From my perspective this analysis seems to grossly over-simplify why boys might be doing poorly in school. It also paints a picture of girls as docile (i.e. boring) creatures whereas boys are high spirited and thus their voie de vivre shouldn’t be constrained.

    Obviously boys and girls have biological and sociological differences… Likewise, having once been a nanny for three boys, I will attest that boys have a considerable amount of energy that should be constructively discharged. But the learning practices the author suggests in the Atlantic article are ideal for BOTH genders. As the author says in the essay’s conclusion, “Teachers have grown accustomed to the traditional classroom model: orderly classrooms made up of ruler-straight rows of compliant students. It’s neat and predictable. But unless teachers stop to consider whether these traditional methods are working for both girls and boys, we will continue to give boys the short end of the educational stick.”

    What do we expect to find in students’ performances (either from boys or girls) when creativity has all but been drained out of the educational system and we spoon feed lessons as if the students were robots? No one is taught to think critically anymore or outside the box. Likewise, where does a child’s excess energy go if physical education is frowned upon and arts programs are cut? And that is just the tip of the iceberg. Children dealing with conflict and anxiety in their homes plus who receive a lack of attention, structure and discipline in the outside areas of their lives are going to find challenges with concentration and focus inside the classroom. Period. Until these larger systemic problems are addressed, boys and girls may not live up to their academic potential. When we have passionate, dynamic teachers of both sexes who understand the unique needs of their students (and when the society at large cares about the future generations) then we’ll see improved performances in males and females. And when kids don’t sit in front of the t.v. all day but actually go outside, play, do chores, take care of animals, and are taught to read books, play music and create art, we’ll see some changes.

  • PLTK

    I agree — these suggestions would be great for both boys and girls. It implicitly puts females in a stereotypical and negative light — docile, non-competitive, not desiring responsibility, not needing creativity or independence. To be sure, female students might more quickly mature and are thus able to learn better in substandard learning environments than males, but to frame these techniques as addressing “boy-girl” differences is dealing with only the surface of the educational problems involved. .

  • Amanda B.

    I can’t help but think that I would have *loved* lessons like this when I was little. I’m a naturally serious and focused introvert, so I’ve always done well in straightforward, lecture-based learning environments — and even so, this sort of lesson would be fun. It seems like the above suggestions are simply good advice for multi-faceted learning, not male-slanted advice.

    I do think it’s worth noticing, too, that part of the reason we need this is the pace and activities of our culture. A few centuries ago, entire classrooms of boys would sit, write, listen to lecture, and recite dry passages in dead languages. And at that time, boys were regarded as naturally smarter and better scholars than girls were.

    I am all for overhauling how we do education to better meet the needs of more children. But I think it’s unnecessary, and potentially harmful, to drag gender wars into it.

  • As a former professional youth minister (for 18 years) I concur. These suggestions would work well for most children of any sex. Also note the “motor activity” would be effective at certain developmental stages of all children, both boys and girls.

  • nate shoemaker

    this article didn’t say anything about girls. it doesn’t do any good to read the opposite into what is said, when it isn’t said. if i say, “i like green,” it doesn’t say anything about what you like or even about what i don’t like.

    so when this article says “boys learn better in an environment that ______.” there is no reason to add, “and girls don’t.”

    however, to your point, if we’re going to also address what a learning environment could look like to best teach girls, much of the current classroom has been designed to ‘equalize’ learning across the genders. studies showed that girls perform better in non-competitive environments, so guess what we have in schools now? non-competitive environments. the flip-side, you may now notice, is: boys learn better in a competitive environment. so existing class structures are geared toward whom? girls.

    here’s the rub, just like the title of the post says, “Yes, Teacher, Boys are Different.” or, let’s word it the other way, “Yes, Teacher, Girls are Different.” until we can accept that there are inherent differences in boys and girls, our classrooms will be ineffective for at least one entire category if not both.

  • Can’t believe the critical responses to this article from some. Nobody is saying that these methods won’t also be of benefit to girls, nor is it suggesting that the subject isn’t more complex. However, both the empirical & anecdotal evidence from most of the children’s ministries I know is that boys are the ones they are failing to reach and/or retain. The corollary of that is that the methods currently being used are at least adequate (if not optimal) for the effective reaching/teaching/retention of girls.

    A nugget of wisdom I received from an elder children’s minister when I first started out was that girls will more happily enter an environment that is predominantly masculine, whereas boys are unlikely to want to be in an environment that is predominantly feminine. Reading “Why Men Hate Going to Church” verified for me that this isn’t just true for the children’s ministry.

    I welcome every bit of advice I can get about how to reach/teach/retain the boys. Thanks for the advice in this brief article. And for those whose criticism is “it’s not just for boys”, then there’s nothing to moan about … it’s win-win advice!