What schools can do to help boys succeed

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  • Title:

    The War Against Boys: How Misguided Policies Are Harming Our Young Men
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    HardCover
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Article Highlights

  • Being a boy can be a serious liability in today’s classroom.

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  • Teachers have to come to terms with the young male spirit.

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  • Our schools need to work with, not against, the kinetic imaginations of boys to move them toward becoming educated young men.

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Being a boy can be a serious liability in today’s classroom. As a group, boys are noisy, rowdy and hard to manage. Many are messy, disorganized and won’t sit still. Young male rambunctiousness, according to a recent study, leads teachers to underestimate their intellectual and academic abilities. “Girl behavior is the gold standard in schools,” says psychologist Michael Thompson. “Boys are treated like defective girls.”

These “defective girls” are not faring well academically. Compared with girls, boys earn lower grades, win fewer honors and are less likely to go to college. One education expert has quipped that, if current trends continue, the last male will graduate from college in 2068. In today’s knowledge-based economy, success in the classroom has never been more crucial to a young person’s life prospects. Women are adapting; men are not.

Some may say, “Too bad for the boys.” The ability to regulate one’s impulses, sit still and pay attention are building blocks of success in school and in life. As one critic told me, the classroom is no more rigged against boys than workplaces are rigged against lazy or unfocused workers. That is absurd: unproductive workers are adults — not 5- and 6-year-old children who depend on us to learn how to become adults. If boys are restive and unfocused, we must look for ways to help them do better.


Here are three modest proposals for reform:

1. Bring Back Recess
Schools everywhere have cut back on breaks. Recess, in many schools, may soon be a thing of the past. According to a research summary by Science Daily, since the 1970s, schoolchildren have lost close to 50% of their unstructured outdoor playtime. Thirty-nine percent of first-graders today get 20 minutes of recess each day — or less. (By contrast, children in Japan get 10 minutes of play each hour.)

Prolonged confinement in classrooms diminishes children’s concentration and leads to squirming and restlessness. And boys appear to be more seriously affected by recess deprivation than girls. “Parents should be aware,” warn two university researchers, “that classroom organization may be responsible for their sons’ inattention and fidgeting and that breaks may be a better remedy than Ritalin.”

2. Turn Boys Into Readers

A few years ago, the novelist Ian McEwan found he had many duplicate books in his library. So he and his son went to a nearby park during the lunch hour and tried to give them away. Young women eagerly accepted them. The guys, says McEwan, “frowned in suspicion, or distaste. When they were assured they would not have to part with their money, they still could not be persuaded. ‘Nah, nah. Not for me.’”

“Not for me,” is a common male reaction to reading, and it shows up in test scores. Year after year, in all age groups, across all ethnic lines, in every state in the union, boys score lower than girls on national reading tests. Good reading skills are — need I say? — critical to academic and workplace success. The British, faced with a similar literacy gap, launched a national campaign to engage boys with the written word.

In a major report released last year by the British Parliament’s Boys’ Reading Commission, the authors openly acknowledge sex differences and use a color-coded chart to illustrate boys’ and girls’ different reading preferences: girls prefer fiction, magazines, blogs and poetry; boys like comics, nonfiction and newspapers.

It is hard to imagine the U.S. Department of Education producing such a report. So far, the plight of boys is nowhere on its agenda. But if American parents and educators adopted the British commission’s top three recommendations, it is likely we would significantly narrow the gender gap in reading:

  • Every teacher should have an up-to-date knowledge of reading materials that will appeal to disengaged boys.
  • Every boy should have weekly support from a male reading role model.
  • Parents need access to information on how successful schools are in supporting boys’ literacy.

Boys will read when they find material they like. Guysread.com is the place to go for lists of books that have proved irresistible to boys.

3. Work With the Young Male Imagination

In his delightful Boy Writers: Reclaiming their Voices, the celebrated author and writing instructor Ralph Fletcher advises teachers to consider their assignments from the point of view of boys. Too many writing teachers, he says, take the “confessional poet” as the classroom ideal. Personal narratives full of emotion and self-disclosure are prized; stories describing video games, skateboard competitions or a monster devouring a city are not.

Peg Tyre’s The Trouble With Boys illustrates the point. She tells the story of a third-grader in Southern California named Justin who loved Star Wars, pirates, wars and weapons. An alarmed teacher summoned his parents to school to discuss a picture the 8-year-old had drawn of a sword fight — which included several decapitated heads. The teacher expressed “concern” about Justin’s “values.” The father, astonished by the teacher’s repugnance for a typical boy drawing, wondered if his son could ever win the approval of someone who had so little sympathy for the child’s imagination.

Teachers have to come to terms with the young male spirit. As Fletcher urges, if we want boys to flourish, we are going to have to encourage their distinctive reading, writing, drawing and even joke-telling propensities. Along with personal “reflection journals,” Fletcher suggests teachers permit fantasy, horror, spoofs, humor, war, conflict and, yes, even lurid sword fights.

If boys are constantly subject to disapproval for their interests and enthusiasms, they are likely to become disengaged and lag further behind. Our schools need to work with, not against, the kinetic imaginations of boys to move them toward becoming educated young men.

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Christina Hoff
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