Boys and Learning

Hopefully, society is well past the “politically correct” (an oxymoron in a democratic society) approach that the only difference between a male and a female is in socialization—that aside from reproductive organs, there is no difference between the sexes neurologically, emotionally, or psychologically.

Whereas good relationships are important to girls, success is more important to boys. A boy measures everything he does by a single yardstick: “Does this make me look weak?” If it does, he is NOT going to do it.

With this in mind, it is important to remember that competition improves performance—not learning. Some students will practice for hours spurred on by the competitive spirit in music competitions, athletics, or speech contests. These students are motivated to compete. Competition can be fun, as witnessed by the hours that young people invest in such activities. However, when learning involves competition, it  is devastating for the boy who never finds himself in the winner’s circle. Rather than compete, the boy will drop out or give up.

As an elementary school principal and the elementary committee chair for one of the regions of the Association of California School Administrators (ACSA), I recommended that the entry age of kindergarten be raised, rather than lowered. I had seen first hand how so many young boys were not cognitively developed enough to handle some of the “sitting still” academic challenges facing them. The situation has grown more devastating in recent years since the introduction of standardized testing has turned kindergarten into first grade—to the detriment of creativity and social interaction skills.

During my presentations, I hear an increasing number of kindergarten teachers each year telling me that their current crop of young boys is the worst they have ever had. For a number of reasons, these young boys are simply not socialized enough nor are they cognitively developed enough for us to thrust academics on them.

More and more young boys are in danger of being “at-risk” as early as kindergarten because the feeling associated with weakness in the academic skills negatively impinges on their self-talk and self-esteem. I repeat a recurrent theme in my presentations: “People do good and put effort into their learning when they feel good, not when they feel bad.”

Boys would rather drop out by losing interest and/or misbehaving than show that they cannot perform. Weakness does not motivate them to want to participate. It takes a masterful teacher and parent to encourage them to persevere.

The three principles to practice of (1) communicating in positive language, (2) reducing coercion by prompting choice-response thinking, and (3) sharing how to act reflectively—rather than reflexively—can be of significant assistance when dealing with young boys. See the teaching model.