Dr. Hoff-Sommers has recently written an article which has been published by TIME magazine titled “What Schools Can Do To Help Boys Succeed.” It has been successful in generating quite a discussion and positive feedback.
I agree with most of her article, and will provide some of my own observations over the course of my study of boys’ educational issues that run parallel to hers. She begins (my comments are interspersed):
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.
And that is why Dr. Gurian, as I mentioned in my review of his book Boys and Girls Learn Differently, recommends two teachers for each average preschool/kindergarten classroom (one teacher just can’t take care of all of them), and an increased use of methods to allow boys to physically “act out education,” so to speak, which minimizes their desire to “act out” in other ways.
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.”
And boys are treated like defective girls in more ways than just how schools teach verbal concepts. They are also punished for misbehavior while girls are given a free pass, as seen in the case when both boys and girls in an Oregon school were slapping other students’ bottoms, and only the boys were punished. In addition, schools almost never punish female students for making false accusations of abuse, as Title IX Coordinator Michele Vieira kindly confirmed for me.
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.
In addition, the workplace has a much more diverse means of engaging with its tasks than academia. Not every job requires sitting down 95% of the time. Many retail jobs – both lower-level and management – require frequent movement.
The workplace is also focused on getting things done that have clear, practical, empowering goals. Too often, schools send the message that what they are doing is “busy work” that has no real-life practical value, and that “getting a grade is its own reward.” Those kinds of messages cause boys to tune out. I know it tuned me out.
Dr. Hoff-Sommers has three main suggestions:
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.”
I would also like to make note of something regarding recess and unstructured play that I haven’t seen MRAs mention before, but have recently had the pleasure of reading in Peg Tyre’s book The Trouble with Boys. Part of the decrease in boys’ free playtime (“unstructured play”) is due not just to educational trends at school, but social and economic trends as well.
In particular, over the past half-century western countries have seen an explosion in urban and suburban development. Whereas in the early 20th century most people lived in small farming communities out “in the country,” these have been largely replaced with the suburbs. And while it used to be common for children to play outside and roam across a wide swath of land, many kids now live in small cookie-cutter communities with just a small patch of land out front. And out of fear of crime, many parents no longer let their children outside to play.
Dr. Hoff-Sommers continues:
2. Turn Boys Into Readers
A few years ago, 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.
I’ve bolded the above section for emphasis. We must start putting pressure on the Department of Education. Richard Whitmire, a longtime education reporter and former president of the National Educational Writers Association, criticizes the Dept. of Ed. more than any other entity in Why Boys Fail. See my review of his book here.
The reality is that many administrators are afraid of doing anything if they don’t have the paternalistic (maternalistic?) hand of another institution holding their hand the entire time. They are also afraid of sticking their neck out and taking much of the liability of speaking up for boys upon themselves.
Yes, boys’ literacy skills are an essential part of pro-male advocacy in school – just as essential as math concepts are to pro-girl educational advocacy. In addition to Guysread.com, I would also recommend the book Misreading Masculinity by Dr. Thomas Newkirk.
3. Work With the Young Male Imagination
In his delightful Boy Writers: Reclaiming their Voices, 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.
Much of the disapproval directed toward boys has been tied up in the hysteria over school violence, which ratcheted up considerably during the Columbine High School Massacre and has been rising ever since. Concepts of violence may be difficult for some men’s advocates to address. How do you, for example, agree that boys should be allowed to write about physical conflict without tacitly promoting violence?
There are several answers to this question. First, there is always the concept of academic freedom, something which is almost always referred to as the right of faculty members to write and say what they want. Given that students in lower education are subject to restricted freedoms under the legal concept of in loco parentis (wherein teachers and faculty act in the place of parents), I suggest an alternative or parallel approach.
The reality is that the majority of boys’ writings on physical confrontations do not advocate violence as we normally conceptualize it. When we think of violence, we normally think of someone assaulting someone. Self-defense, however, is not normally characterized as violence per se. And much of boys’ writings involves the positives of defending either oneself or others from evil forces.
The story in Peg Tyre’s book of Justin, the third-grader in Southern California, also reminds me of what Dr. Gurian says in Boys and Girls Learn Differently: sometimes teachers react the way they do not because what boys are doing is inherently wrong, but because it bugs them. Because it makes them…here’s the magic word…uncomfortable.
Being “uncomfortable” is a loaded word in academia. Being “made to feel uncomfortable” is often a precursor to charges of harassment (both slanderous and legitimate). But discomfort also occurs when people or situations challenge our normative experiences.
Sometimes it is not the fault of the person who challenges our comfort zone. Sometimes it is our fault because we think that the bubble we live in represents the entire world around us. As sociologists and criminologists often point out, “deviance” is not necessarily mean “bad”; it is just something that is not the norm.
And what is normal for boys might not be normal for a 24 to 52-year-old female teacher whose peer group is primarily composed of people of the same sex/gender, many of whom have long forgotten what it is like to be a kid, and none of whom have known what it is like to be a boy. This is what is normal in lower education. It is not misandry, but it is gynocentrism, a type of institutional bias.
We live in a pluralistic society. Knowing this, why can’t our educational institutions just be more tolerant of diversity?
Now that is an interesting question. Well done, Dr. Hoff-Sommers.