When I tell people that I work with boys’ schools helping develop programs and strategies, what I usually get is something about how hard that task is. Teaching boys is considered well-nigh impossible by most. Actually, I think teaching girls is harder because they find it difficult to admit to the teacher that they don’t understand. Girls nod their heads, take lots of notes, and the teacher does not know if the students get the point. If boys don’t understand, the teacher knows, usually immediately, which means that a quick response solves the issue. In a coed class, girls look like good students and boys look like problems because the girls are nodding and taking notes and the boys are asking questions that may seem like they are off-task. It is pretty simple, meet the boys’ needs and everyone learns. But most teachers are women and they don’t see the solution that way.
One problem that the IBSC (visit http://www.theibsc.org) is facing is the problem with boys in the upper levels of high school who are not ready to go to college. Many schools are suggesting that the boys take a gap year or two to mature because so many boys are going to college and then flunking out because they are playing, not studying. A new book by Kay Hymowitz, Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men into Boys addresses this issue.
How are boys’ schools different from coed schools? Let me give you an example. teach AP Psychology in my local public high school and the class is, of course, composed of both girls and boys. Several years ago, I had a very active and bright young man who was getting up to throw paper away several times during the class. I suggested to him that if he needed to stand up and pace in the back of the classroom, he was welcome to do so as long as he didn’t bother anyone. He was grateful that I recognized his need for movement and so he took me up on my offer several times during each class – he would pace and then he would go back to his desk. Several days later, the teacher whose classroom I was borrowing for my class came in to get something while my class was in session. Later she pulled me aside and warned me that the young man who was walking in the back was likely to take advantage of the fact that I was not a full-time teacher. I told her that I had invited him to walk as he needed the activity to focus on the class discussion. She expressed doubt that his movement would help. I suggested that she come in at the end of class the next day and I would ask him a question and she would see how the movement helped. When he was asked the question, he stopped his pacing, gave a full answer, mentioned several related topics, and offered to draw a diagram on the board to illustrate his remarks.The regular teacher was plainly stunned as this student was not doing well in her class where she expected him to sit at his desk and take notes. From years of teaching in all-boys’ classrooms, I learned that some boys need physical movement to pay attention and that as long as they are in the back, they aren’t bothering anyone.
Simply being male puts a student at greater risk of being identified with learning disabilities. The boy in my example was identified with attentional problems. Yes, he is active, but it is that activity that helps him learn. He later told me that he would delay taking the medicine for his attentional issues until after psychology because he didn’t need the medicine to do well in my class.
Why is school such a dangerous place for young men? According to Ms. Hymowitz, the problem would seem to be that women have taken over education and boys are considered abnormal. I totally agree. When I talk to teachers in coed schools about normal boy behavior, many have a hard time understanding that boys may approach the learning process in a different way than girls do. Part of the issue has to do with the intense responding typical of males who are stressed. For generations, we have learning that the result of stress is the fight-or-flight response. In 2000, Shelly Taylor at UCLA published an article pointing out that many women do not respond to stress this way but in something she calls tend-and-befriend. Taylor et at state that under stress many women respond by shutting down, becoming quiet, and talking with their friends. I have come to understand that many women, and most teachers are women, see the intense responding of young men as violent and dangerous and move to shut them down. Consequently, the young men think they have done something wrong, they feel guilty, and, most importantly, they never learn self-control.
Boys need to roughhouse, to engage in rough-and-tumble play. There is a growing body of research that indicates that boys learn empathy and self-control through this active play. The problem is that female teachers find it frightening, think it is fighting or will lead to fighting, and move to shut the young wrestlers down. So now boys get into trouble in school for being boys, but mainly because they are not girls, and they are not interested in the type of play that the female teachers think is appropriate.
The boys are not getting this play at home either. Mothers are now the “gatekeepers of father involvement”
So, boys’ schools are necessary to help save the young male. Don’t forget that the IBSC is an international organization and this problem is seen all over the world. Boys’ schools are becoming havens for boys to learn to become men. The world should take notice that these young men are kind, thoughtful, emotional, and self-controlled. They are artistic, musical, and literate. Boys’ schools, and girls’ schools as well, allow students a safe place to develop as human beings without stereotypical limitations. Ms. Hymowitz is absolutely correct.
Abigail Norfleet James PhD (http://www.abigailnorfleetjames.com) is the author of The Parents' Guide To Boys: Help Your Son Get the Most Out of School and Life, Teaching the Male Brain: How Boys Think, Feel, and Learn in School and Teaching the Female Brain: How Girls Learn Math & Science.