Looking for Better Things for Boys
by Richard Hawley, Ph.D.
This fall as millions of children have headed back to school an undeniable cloud hovers over what has traditionally been an upbeat and hopeful ritual. The news about American schooling is not good. International findings continue to document substandard and declining performance of American school children at the elementary, middle school, and high school levels, Americans now trailing most of their counterparts in other developed nations in language skills, math, and science. New Department of Education reports indicate that despite economic stimulus boosts, high school dropout rates are increasing to alarming levels. Heightening the drama of these discouraging statistics, a major motion picture, Waiting for “Superman,” vividly documents unacceptable practices in a number of public schools.
The bad news is even worse for boys. As poorly as American school children seem to be doing generally, it is the boys who are principally responsible for the discouraging test results. As assessed by the Department of Education’s National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES), girls significantly outperform boys on the tests used to compare children internationally. Moreover, it is primarily boys who are responsible for the escalating high school dropout rates. The absence of the dropouts—typically low achievers—from the pool of students annually tested and measured indicates that the already bleak picture of boys’ school performance is actually worse than published findings seem to indicate.
In such a climate, we must ask why so many American boys are not thriving in school and figure out how to correct this trend. The good news here is that answers and solutions are readily available. The way out, however, bears no relation to schools “racing to the top” of some putative achievement measure in order to win government-bestowed financial prizes. The so-called Race to the Top, like its forerunner No Child Left Behind, rests squarely on the utterly unsupportable assumption that the best measure of a child’s learning and mastery is his or her performance on quick-scoring, multiple choice proficiency tests. It is beyond mystifying that such an assumption continues to prevail when, in some states, decades of experience have proven that such measures ultimately deaden and routinize classroom instruction to the point that massive, even normative student disengagement becomes inevitable. Real achievement, measurable and otherwise, declines in settings where proficiency tests are the measures of school quality.
My colleague, Michael Reichert, and I recently conducted a study in which we asked thousands of teachers and students around the world, essentially, “Which of your lessons have consistently made boys excited about learning?” The responses, while not always surprising, were enlightening.
Boys responded best to being actively engaged. They responded positively when they were greeted and otherwise acknowledged personally by name. Their engagement and mastery of tasks was greatest when they were asked to contribute and to recite, when they were invited to share, cooperate and compete, when they were given opportunities to get up from their chairs, move, perform, make things. They wanted to apply what they were learning to actual, real-life situations. They wanted to make things, either by themselves or on teams. They wanted to be asked to solve problems when the answers were not already known. Boys wanted to try teaching, explaining, and demonstrating themselves. The boys rose to very high expectations. Unmotivated boys became engaged when they were surprised, taken out of their comfort zone. In our book, Reaching Boys, Teaching Boys: Strategies That Work—and Why (Jossey-Bass, 2010), we recount the teaching practices that most engage boys along with hundreds of specific lessons that have proven effective with male students.
Perhaps our most unexpected finding is the one that will prove most useful in re-engaging students and improving their performance. The boys responding to our study made it clear: a concerned, caring, and responsive relationshipwith a particular teacher preceded engagement in assigned tasks and the subsequent mastery of those tasks. We should have known this. The field of psychology has amply documented that positive attachments in early childhood lead to successful development and maturation. Positive relationships between therapists and clients, between doctors and patients, precede healing and cure. To date, the only transformative agents identified in the education of poor and otherwise marginalized students—especially boys—have come about in response to teachers charged with establishing caring relationships with students as a precondition for their scholastic work. Such, for instance, has been the experience of the miraculously successful Nativity Preparatory Schools established by the Jesuits for low-income inner-city children. Such also was Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s experience of specially assigned male mentors in Chicago’s beleaguered public schools.
Our study revealed ample, proven instructional and relational approaches that work with students, including those children currently believed to be hardest to reach. These effective practices are no secret. Teachers are demonstrating them every day in a wide variety of school settings all over the world.
By all means hold students accountable, and by all means measure their achievements. But do that after students have been engaged, cared for, inspired and known.
Check out Michael Reichert and Richard Hawley’s new book Reaching Boys, Teaching Boys: Strategies that Work–and Why.
Reaching Boys, Teaching Boys challenges the widely-held cultural impression that boys are stubbornly resistant to schooling while providing concrete examples of pedagogy and instructional style that have been proven effective in a variety of school settings. This book offers more than 100 detailed examples of lessons that succeed with male students, grouped thematically. Such themes include: Gaming, Motor Activities, Open Inquiry, Competition, Interactive Technology, and Performance/Role Play. Woven throughout the book is moving testimony from boys that both validates the success of the lessons and adds a human dimension to their impact.