Think about the perfect student, the one who sits quietly, takes notes, and participates when called on. Now, were you imagining a boy or a girl? Chances are, your image of a “perfect” student was female. Why? The attributes I mentioned – sitting quietly, participating when called on, and taking notes are noncognitive skills. These skills, which have nothing to do with a child’s intelligence, include: attentiveness, persistence, eagerness to learn, and the ability to sit still and work independently.
Cristina Hoff Summers pointed out in a February article for The New York Times, “As most parents know, girls tend to develop these skills earlier and more naturally than boys.”
In essence, our educational system is “rigged” against boys. And because of this, regardless of their intellectual ability, boys receive lower grades than girls. In fact, Summers points out that teachers tend to rate boys as less proficient in all skills (math, reading, writing) than girls, but on standardized tests, those same boys will score the same or better.
Saying that our education system is biased against boys might be true, but you could argue that our workplaces, which require people to sit and focus for long periods of time, are also rigged against boys and their later mastery of those essential noncognitive skills.
However, what’s also true is that as boys grow older, they have longer attention spans, can sit still for longer, and gain a greater ability to work independently.
How can we, as parents and educators, make the learning process less unbalanced for our boys? Can we move them out of the back of the classroom?
I believe we can. Here are some suggestions to help move our boys to the head of the class:
More boy-friendly reading assignments. In literacy education, there are books that are labeled “boy books” or “girl books.” And, yep, you guessed it – most books that are incorporated into curricula would typically be labeled “girl books.” Instead of the more classic works of literature, curricula should include science fiction, fantasy, sports, and espionage genres. Even if the boys have not yet fully developed their “noncognitive skills” they will be more likely to read subjects that interest them. Of course, this does not mean that all books should be geared towards boys; rather, more books should be selected with their interests in mind.
More recess. Boys and girls need time to run around and shed their excess energy. In fact, research shows that children are able to better concentrate after they have had some exercise. So, how do you maximize boys’ learning? You let them run around the yard first. When they get back into class, their brains will be primed to learn.
More hands-on learning. While it’s true that boys lag behind girls in noncognitive skills such as sitting still and attending, this is no indication of their intelligence. Therefore, if we create hands-on learning opportunities (which do not rely on sitting still), we will be giving boys a method through which to learn without relying on those noncognitive skills. For example, instead of talking about the lifecycle and anatomy of a plant, dissect a seed and use that hands-on activity as a jumping off point for discussion.
Single-sex classrooms. Our yeshivas have single-sex classrooms, but that is not enough to ensure that boys will learn up to their capabilities. Those single-sex classroom must be run based on the above knowledge: boys read different material, they need to run around a little, and they benefit from hands-on learning. Our classrooms and schools are already separate. Now, we need to make an effort to teach to our boys’ strengths.
Boys and Reading
Boys do not read at nearly the same level as girls. Reading Rockets, an organization devoted to promoting lifelong learning, states the situation bluntly:
The statistics are consistent: Young male readers lag behind their female counterparts. According to the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) in 2001, fourth-grade girls in all of the 30-plus participating countries scored higher in reading literacy than fourth-grade boys by a statistically significant amount.
Why do we care so much about reading? Why is it important to get our boys reading to their greatest potential? The most basic reason is that reading is the most important skill that people have in order to enhance their intelligence. Through reading, people improve their vocabularies and memories, become better writers, and even relieve stress. On a more practical level, literacy levels are correlated with financial success. In sum, we need to ensure that our boys are reading because their lives will be more fulfilling, relaxed, and comfortable.
Boys and ADHD
Another, often less discussed issue with boys’ reading is Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). We all know that reading takes concentration – without it – you can’t get to the end of a sentence. What most people don’t realize is that while it is a common behavioral disorder that affects between 8-10% of school age children, boys are three times more likely than girls to be diagnosed with ADHD.
Of course, only a tiny fraction of boys have ADHD, but this fraction is significantly larger than the fraction of girls that have ADHD. This can also account for the differences in proficiency in boys’ and girls’ reading scores. Therefore, if your child son is unable to focus, is easily distracted, and often fidgets, consider getting him tested for ADHD. His lack of reading skills could be attributed to a surmountable learning disability.
Let’s get those boys out of the back of the classroom and living up to their fullest potential!