Why Boys Must Be Boys

Is your son’s school giving him what he needs to succeed?

Why Boys Must Be Boys

On Liam Court’s* first day of Grade 1 in Toronto, he was raring to go-literally bouncing with excitement. He figured he’d have no trouble with school: He already knew how to print his name and the right answer to “eight plus eight.” At the end of the school day, his father asked him how the day had gone. “Great,” said Liam. “The only bad thing was that we had to sit at our desks for so long.”

Liam is now in Grade 8 and somewhat less enthusiastic about his education. He’s learned to sit still and to hand in his homework on time, but he finds that something is missing in the stuff he’s learning. “So much of it is boring, like doing reports on books I don’t enjoy reading,” he says.

And what does he like to read? “Fantasy,” he replies without hesitation. He’s also a whiz at Nintendo and Playstation games. The problem with school, he says, is “too many essays and not enough action.”

Girls’ education has been a major focus for education researchers since the early 1970s. More recently, well-publicized studies and books, such as 1995’s Reviving Ophelia by Mary Pipher, have argued that school systems put girls at a disadvantage. Educators have taken the accusation seriously enough to implement “girl friendly” teaching methods such as small-group learning and math lessons based on real-life situations.

Now the experts are telling us that girls are doing just fine-it’s boys like Liam who need our attention.

If Canadian statistics are any indication, this concern is not unfounded. Suzanne Witkin, an instructional leader of English literacy with the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), says that ten percent more girls than boys achieve Level 3 or 4 (4 being the highest) in standardized reading and writing tests in Grades 3 and 6. And girls are holding their own in math.

In Alberta, boys still have a slight edge in math and science but lag far behind girls in language arts, says Darlene Montgomery, a curriculum specialist at the Calgary Board of Education. Other provinces report similar lags. In a groundbreaking move, several school boards in Ontario now require that all of their schools develop written plans to help boys catch up to their more literate sisters.

What’s even more worrisome to educators is the gender gap in academic enthusiasm and ambition. About 60 percent of girls in Grades 3 and 6 in Ontario like reading and writing, while less than half of boys make these claims. “Our boys are clustering in disproportionate numbers in non-university-bound high-school streams,” notes Montgomery. “They’re also more likely to have behavioural problems and to be suspended.”

Boy Brains

  So what’s up with boys? The way North American schools teach boys puts them at risk of underachieving, says Michael Gurian, an educator, child advocate and author of Boys and Girls Learn Differently! “Reading and writing don’t come as naturally to boys as they do to girls, not initially,” he says. “Many of us have felt this instinctively, and schools are finally coming to recognize it: Boys and girls don’t learn the same way or at the same rate.”  

Many problems experienced by boys in the classroom stem from being normal boys in a setting that’s not designed to handle them, says Gurian. “Our educators often lack understanding of typical boy traits such as aggression, verbal and emotional reticence, and interest in objects moving through space,” he says.

Case in point: Liam Court, our Grade 8 student in Toronto. He has this to say about the clash between his lessons and his learning: “I get frustrated when I have to write my opinion about something. I don’t know what the right answers are or what the teacher expects. And she’s always asking me to put more emotional content into my stories, even if they’re about robot wars and that kind of stuff.”

Not all boys are like Liam, of course. Boys who would just as soon write in a personal journal as plan an intergalactic battle are by no means rare. Twenty to 30 percent of boys probably fall into the category of liking reflection as well as action, estimates Gurian. Still, child-development experts agree that the average boy is different from the average girl-and that’s partly due to nature, as well as nurture.

This is apparent from the get-go. Boys usually speak their first words later than girls and develop clear speech about a year and a half later than girls. Their fine motor development-the ability to string beads or print their names-lags behind girls’ by about a year.

As toddlers, boys show greater interest in exploring their environment than girls do, and in preschool they favour rougher play.

Throughout the early grades, boys read less fluently and listen less attentively than girls. “Even if he has mastered reading, an eight-year-old boy is more likely to be found flipping through a comic book than reading the books his female peers might select,” says Gurian.

Around puberty, boys’ spatial abilities surge. In Grade 8, for instance, Gurian says, boys will solve a math problem displayed on a blackboard more quickly than will girls, who may need to talk out the problem first.

One thing that virtually all educators agree on is that boys, as a group, develop and mature later than girls. But Howard Marcovitch, a consultant for support services with the TDSB, says that educational policies don’t always reflect this awareness.

“Many boys aren’t ready for formal instruction until age seven,” he says. “At the very least, schools could make special provisions for late-birthday boys.”

Bridging the Learning Gap

Have canadian schools caught up with this understanding? The answer seems to be both yes and no. “We tend to shy away from targeting an entire gender in our programs,” notes Montgomery, and other school boards report similar philosophies. A notable exception is the Durham District School Board in Whitby, Ont., which requires that all its 120 schools develop more “male centred” teaching methods to help boost boys’ literacy. These include inviting male authors to conduct readings and purchasing more reading material geared to boys.

With the goal of making boys entering school more comfortable readers by Grade 3, the Durham board is also adopting an American program, Animated-Literacy, for children in kindergarten and Grade 1. “It’s based on a new brain theory and multiple learning styles,” says Beverley Freedman, a superintendent of programs with the Durham board, “and it’s very interactive, which tends to appeal to young boys.”

While the Durham initiative is one of the first to emphasize gender, the good news is that school boards across the country have wholeheartedly embraced the concept of multiple learning styles-verbal, spatial, musical and so on-and are urging teachers to respond to their students’ individual styles.

“Many boys are kinesthetic learners : They learn best by moving their bodies and doing things rather than sitting and listening,” says Montgomery. By building flexibility into the curriculum, specialists like Montgomery help teachers reach such learners. “Instead of simply writing an essay about a book, for instance, kinesthetic learners can act out the book’s character, then draw sketches of the action, then write about the sketches,” says Montgomery. “The idea is that the teacher uses the physical and visual realms as stepping-stones to the verbal and written ones.”

School boards have also come to recognize that, generally, boys gravitate towards nonfiction, science fiction or adventure stories, and girls towards general fiction, says the TDSB’s Witkin. Nonfiction books may be “just the ticket” for some reluctant male readers, she says, and they can also serve as a bridge to fiction. For example, a boy interested in wolves might read an age-appropriate book about them and then turn the key points into a poem or story. In recognition of boys’ preference for the factual, Witkin says, many school libraries are beefing up their nonfiction.

By the time boys reach middle or high school, another problem appears: peer pressure to shun things academic. William Pollack, a professor at Harvard Medical School and author of Real Boys’ Voices, says the boys he interviewed consistently reported that it wasn’t “cool” to be too smart in class or to work hard at academics. “Fortunately, some high schools are realizing that streaming into university- or trade-bound groups in Grades 9 and 10 is simply too early,” says Montgomery. “Many boys mature between 15 and 17. If we give them more time to get on track, we hope to keep more of them in the university-bound fold.”

The Seven Styles of Learning

Animated-literacy is a teaching program developed by San Diego educator Jim Stone and first introduced in the United States in 1983. In its revised 2002 format, it accommodates the following seven styles of learning (also called the seven intelligences):

  1. Linguistic. The ability to use words effectively, either orally or written.
  2. Logical-mathematical. The ability to use numbers and reason well.
  3. Spatial. The ability to perceive the visual-spatial world accurately, as do hunters and guides.
  4. Bodily kinesthetic. The ability to use one’s whole body to express ideas and feelings; also, the ability to use one’s hands to produce things.
  5. Musical. The ability to perceive, discriminate, transform and express musical forms such as rhythm and tone.
  6. Interpersonal. The ability to see the moods, intentions, motivations and feelings of others.
  7. Intrapersonal. Self-knowledge and the ability to act based on that knowledge.

The Right Fit

While “boy awareness” is certainly gaining currency among educators, parents can’t assume that all schools in their district have seen the light. Take Sean Kennedy, who’s in Grade 2. His mother, Tamara, says Sean’s teacher scolded him for fidgeting during group sing-along, in which all the children had to sit in a circle for a half hour. “Sean can’t sit still for that long,” says Tamara.

Marcovitch, of the TDSB, says that a better fit for a boy like Sean would be a school that allows in-class stretching or walking breaks, plus phys-ed classes several times a week. “Such boys also need a school that doesn’t insist on a rigid pace-everybody able to add single-digit numbers by November, for example-especially in the age-five-to-eight range, when readiness levels are all over the map,” he adds.

Other things that Marcovitch says parents should look for include: a school library that offers a wide range of fiction, nonfiction and reference books, comfortable and visually appealing reading areas, and use of computers as a bridge to literacy. Parents can also find out whether the teachers at their son’s school are trained in male brain development, says Gurian.

“If they’re not, a group of parents can band together and request that the staff read books about boys,” he says. “Parents from across the continent have told me they’ve done this.”

And if all this is not available at school, parents should make some of these resources available at home. In fact, as a boy gets older, Gurian says, his parents need to stay involved in his schooling, even against the din of his protests.

It’s especially important for fathers to be involved in this process, because they do things differently from mothers. Says Neil R. Campbell, assistant professor of family medicine and psychiatry at the University of Western Ontario and founder of Dads Can, a fatherhood resource network: “Fathers tend towards a future orientation in their teaching style. A father might spur his son to practise piano by pointing out how studying music bodes well for his academic success; a mother might remind her son that by learning a hard section, he’ll master the whole piece,” says Campbell.

The result? The boy gets the benefit of two different sales pitches. Campbell adds that involved fathers help channel aggressive tendencies in older boys.

“They’re instinctively good at this. When they notice their son stewing about something, they might suggest a game of hockey or a jog.”

In addition to monitoring his progress at home, parents need to find out whether the school makes provisions for an adolescent boy’s intense and biologically driven need for mentoring, Gurian says. “Ideally, the school should be inviting male speakers to share their career choices and life experiences with male students.”

If this isn’t happening, parents can use tutoring as an opportunity instead. Look for a male tutor “with the capacity to inspire trust and respect,” he adds. As well, Gurian suggests that fathers volunteer to speak at school, thus “helping mentor their sons and other teenage boys into healthy manhood.”

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