There is nothing like travel to give one perspective, and along these lines I’ve been fortunate to have a Fall filled with perspective. During October, I visited several Australian boys’ schools to give presentations related to the social, emotional, and cognitive development of boys. It was a great privilege and a tremendous learning experience. Every day brought new opportunities to discuss the critical issues those of us invested in boys’ education and development are talking about these days.
The trip entailed visits with nine schools, all members of theInternational Boys’ Schools Coalition. IBSC’s Executive Director, Brad Adams, who graciously accompanied me on this journey across Australia, deserves much credit for making this tour, and the dialogue that resulted, a reality. In Melbourne, Brad and I visited Marcellin College, Camberwell Grammar School, and Brighton Grammar School. In Brisbane, we made stops at “Churchie” (Anglican Church Grammar School), and Moreton Bay Boys’ College.
In Sydney, I spoke at the National Boy’s Education Conference, organized by The King’s School, and spent a day at both the Shore School and Barker College. Finally, in Perth, I was fortunate to be hosted by Christ Church Grammar School, doing presentations for both staff and school community. Because the focus of this trip was boys’ education, the thoughts that follow will necessarily relate to boys, although in many instances the points raised will be germane to both genders.
Without exception, every school brought a wealth of experience and intellectual insight to the workshops I presented. Usually, there was a chance for more informal dialogue about boys and their educational needs in between these presentations. As a result, I met and was inspired by many gifted educators. In some cases, conversation focused on building the core skills of 21st century learners – certainly an important objective of my workshop Building the Eight Pillars of Capable Young Minds (scroll down).
Yet the most lasting impression of my visit is how schools go about shaping “boyness.” There is always a degree of chaos bubbling beneath the order and protocols of schools. If for no other reason, that is so because schools are populated by children – agents of chaos! What I found remarkable about the schools I visited is how well they honor the vitality and promise of that chaos, while remaining committed to the type of structure and order that comprise the essential infrastructure of boys’ education. And it was clear that the boys themselves understood and accepted this essential tension – their countervailing instincts of self- expression and self-control, guided toward a productive coexistence.
Motivation is the Tie that Binds
Wherever in the world people gather to discuss boys’ education, conversation will inevitably turn toward the perennial concern of how to motivate boys. It’s a reasonable concern, given that the experience of adulthood illuminates the consequences of choices made in childhood. Nothing could be more natural for a teacher or parent than to make every effort to direct a child toward choices that will deliver a life of opportunity and success.
This grand plan would work quite well if only the path toward these ideals could be counted on to reflect the psychological needs of boys. But increasingly, the paths that we map for boys’ success reflect things like the wisdom of adulthood, minimizing risk, and the practical realities of the job market.
On behalf of boys everywhere, let me loudly exclaim BORING! What a snooze.
Of course, boys have been conditioned to disguise their lack of motivation. By the time they are eleven or twelve, they’re keenly aware of what the “enemy” (by which I mean the entire realm of commonsensical, advice-giving adults) expects of them. Instinctually, boys know they can’t defeat the enemy, and thus resign themselves to simply outsmarting us. In my experience, those boys who are the best behaved may be the most expert at orchestrating this deception. Their skillful suavity is strategically deployed as a distractor for low motivation. Or, more accurately stated, many boys have an alternativeset of motivators.
Before we rush to solve the riddle of motivation, let’s take a moment to think about what it reflects. Once we grasp that low motivation is in part a compensatory psychological strategy for coping with disappointment, we will be ready to address the core issue – how to help boys build lives that displace disappointment with positive anticipation and the seeds of significance.
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Significance – A Basic Human Need
Those who follow this newsletter know that I have written before about the “missing ingredient” of childhood – purposeful work. Essentially, it is my belief that the delayed onset of work that affects virtually all western cultures is detrimental to the developmental needs of adolescents. For millennia, adolescent boys have counted on some type of quest or work to make the transition to adulthood. As our societies are now designed, however, it is often necessary to remain in school until one’s mid- twenties, years later than when one’s body and mind are ready to engage a more autonomous, meaningful life.
Am I suggesting that being a student is not meaningful? No. To the contrary, few experiences are as meaningful, or as privileged, as the opportunity to be a student. Yet I am raising awareness of a globalsocioeducational conundrum:
An education that sufficiently prepares one to enter the market of desirable jobs requires young people to remain relatively passive for years beyond the point at which they are ready and willing to become more “necessary” to the worlds they inhabit.
Although I’ve been writing and talking about this issue for some time, interacting with Australian educators afforded me the perspective to understand that what I’ve been trying to say is both deeper and more fundamental than I had realized. Simply put, boys yearn for significance.
The need for significance runs so deep, and is so universal, that it is as endemic to living in a tribe as it is to living in the world’s most cosmopolitan cities. It is a need that manifests itself in the basic human need to be productive and expressive. When I give talks about the communication challenges of boys, I am trying to address this issue. The important reward for communicating is not more friends or greater popularity (those are fringe benefits), it is an opportunity for significance. By making themselves known to others, boys build a bridge to a world larger than themselves – an essential step toward significance.
It was exciting to see how this need for significance was being recognized and nurtured by Australian boys’ schools. To cite just a few examples:
- Thriving arts programs that give boys a myriad of ways to express themselves, and opportunity for sharing their creativity with a larger school community. (I saw some amazing visual art and video that clearly gave boys a chance to demonstrate their motivation to be excellent in ways that reflected personal priorities.)
- Connecting boys with their environment and the cultural diversity of their nation by way of mentored cross-country travel. (Imagine boys on a four week camping trip across the continent without iPods and related electronica. Then imagine boys creating a documentary book of this adventure so excellent it would be worthy of a high-quality bookstore.)
- Encouragement of boys’ industriousness through extracurricular projects involving technological problem-solving. (Think of groups of students across Australia competing to design the fastest Formula One racing car possible.)
It is certainly true that the resources of private schools make opportunities such as these possible. Yet the spirit of these opportunities is what matters most, and what can serve as a template to any school sincerely concerned with motivating boys.
The Psychology of Vocation vs. the Psychology of Success
So many have been mislead to think about vocation as a matter of choice – as though picking a career were akin to selecting one’s lunch from a buffet filled with all sorts of delectable choices. Such deceptions are implicit in career tests and “help wanted” ads. Unfortunately, this type of trivial approach to discovering one’s life path is a recipe for disappointment – even though it is precisely what most boys have in mind as they ponder the question, “What will I be?”
Self-help books notoriously promote the idea of doing what makes you happy. What nonsense! This advice does little more than reflect a value system that emphasizes pleasure and narcissism at the expense of knowing one’s true destiny. The last thing boys need is permission to be more pleasure- centered.
If we really want to increase the motivation of all boys, we should spend less time talking about success and considerably more time emphasizing the merits of vocation. Is the purpose of doing well in school to be a good student? Of course not. And the purpose of being a good student has to be anchored to a reward greater than success for its own sake, or even being promoted to the next tier of education.
Still, if you’ve spent time with boys you know that they like to fantasize about success, which they most assuredly translate as an abundance of riches, power, and sex. In short, a life built upon a foundation of pleasure. Some boys (and perhaps a few men) mistake pleasure to be synonymous with happiness.
Psychologically, pleasure shields boys from an enduring conflict which they cannot resolve without assistance – the growing divide between their idealized selves and the relative humility of their day-to- day experiences. If there is a “crisis” of boyhood in the world today, the immensity of that span embodies its essence to a far greater degree than not working up to one’s potential in school.
If I could suggest the one thing that any of us could do today to improve a boy’s motivation it would be to orient him to the notion that his primary job is not to create success, but to discover his destiny.
When I talk to boys about the idea that their destiny already lives within them, they get quiet – and very attentive. The concept of destiny is made contemporary by explaining that it is comprised of the individual strengths, experiences, and curiosities of an individual. I try to convey to boys that is their duty to honor the destiny that lives within them. Doing so is apart of a social contract a boy has with his family, teachers, and all others who have invested themselves in his life. The key aspect of this message is that boys are not so much accountable to the expectations of others as they are to the fulfillment of their calling and potential.
Doing purposeful work is one way that people bring shape to their calling and define their significance. That is exactly why we need opportunities for boys to do real, necessary work, rather than activities which are obligatory or symbolic. Creating these opportunities requires little money, but substantial time. Why? Because capable mentors are what make these experiences meaningful. Compensation for the type of work I’m describing is less important than the satisfaction of being useful and appreciated.
When we try to explain this principle to boys, they will probably stare blankly back at us. Don’t waste a lot of time trying to explain the merits of purposeful work. Instead, spend your energy on trying to orchestrate a great experience.
I hear from and talk to parents often who ask me why their sons are unmotivated to take responsibility for themselves. The answer is straightforward: the opportunities that lie before them seeminsignificant. Unconsciously, most boys believe that significance is derived from a job’s external attributes: status, authority, and compensation. If they are so unfortunate as to enter the food chain (by which I mean job market) before they taste significance, there is a good chance they will be devoured by the fictional portrayals of success that infiltrate media, and currently have us on the brink of global economic ruin.
It’s Time for International Dialogue
Because the need for significance is so fundamental to boy’s development, it is my hope that an international community of schools and allied organizations will begin to examine this need, and the practicalities of how to best respond. Perhaps professional groups and conferences might temporarily shift from focusing on boy’s achievement, to engaging a dialogue about the practical need for significance? Such a shift would be productive because the shortest route to improving achievement is to embed that journey in the psychology of significance.
(*If and when such conferences are planned, it would be fantastic to showcase the ways in which boys are already making themselves significant. This would be less a “talent show” than a demonstration of how the intellects of boys bind with their energy to produce significant results. Living, breathing motivation.)
How can we help boys to heighten their sense of interdependence, empathy, and recognition that their collective efforts are enormously powerful – even massive?
Can we begin to imagine a project that would experiment with bringing boys together to discover this potential for significance? I hope so, because it would reflect positively on the schools involved, and would contribute to reframing discussion about who boys are.
The next big wave in pedagogical reform appears to target the need for a relational approach to teaching. As that wave breaks, we will necessarily need to look more closely at the difference between how we view boys, and how they view themselves.
We have had nearly a decade’s worth of reporting on boy’s deficiencies. We should by now be keenly aware of where boys need extra help and time to do well. Now, it’s time to focus on the natural strengths of boys: industriousness, creativity, and stamina to name just a few. Although we can’t reasonably expect to motivate boys by pathologizing their nature, we can help jumpstart their productivity by giving them a necessary role to play – an opportunity for significance.
Boys’ Voices and the Power of Narrative
One of the great contributions of an organization such as the International Boys’ Schools Coalition is that it serves as a catalyst for distilling educational strategies that are most effective with boys. During the course of my travel, I learned that IBSC is on the cusp of releasing a major report detailing what boys have to say about the instructional style of great teachers, and how specific elements of those approaches help them learn. I had a chance to preview of this report, and its content is a treasure trove of useful information. It is my hope that IBSC will eventually transform the insights of this report into a multimedia experience. Hearing boy’s voices explain what works and what doesn’t in the classroom will triple the net gain of these insights.
Boy’s voices are also needed with respect to motivation. The field of psychology has a way of compartmentalizing questions in the interest of defining an explanatory equation. Yet even if we could dissect the component parts of a well-motivated adolescent, would it lead us to the types of relationships that motivate boys?
I believe the compass we need has less to do with explanatory pie-charts and statistical analysis than compelling narratives. We need boys to tell us the stories of how they got excited about learning something, or found the energy to take action. We build our lives and sense of purpose around stories rather than imperatives, or even goals.
The ubiquitous, reflexive tendency to emphasize goals displaces a deeper need for meaning. The need for meaning and relevance wraps itself around the roots of motivation: What’s the meaning of asking me to do this? How does this activity lead me toward significance? Motivation will not ascend to find air and light until these questions have been adequately answered.
I feel grateful to the schools and landscape of Australia for helping me to hone what is significant in my own work. New England is home, but the warmth, humor and love of family I encountered in Australia reminded me that belonging can be found anywhere that people share a common sense of purpose and the will to connect. Across the big pond it’s already tomorrow, and that day, like all tomorrows, is ripe with possibilities and promise. No worries mate!
Gender Comparisons in the Education of Preschoolers
For many years it has been widely assumed that preschool age children can maintain a positive self- evaluation even when they see they have been outperformed by a peer. Psychologists have explained this ability as a function of preschoolers’ belief that they will be able to improve their performance on a given task the next time they attempt. This type of self- belief buffers self-esteem, and insulates young children from the anxiety implicit in being compared to a peer.
However, a new study by University of Michigan psychologists Marjorie Rhodes and Daniel Brickman (Psychological Science, October, 2008) questions these previously held conclusions about preschoolers. These scientists found that positive self- appraisal does not work when children’s output is being compared to that of a child of the opposite gender. Both boys and girls appear to be more psychologically vulnerable to performance comparisons made across gender. According to the researchers, even seeing that they have performed more poorly than the opposite gender one time can apparently have lasting negative consequences for behavior and self-concept.
This study highlights some important issues related to the value of single-gender education, as well as how teachers can manage the negative effects of cross-gender evaluation in coeducational classrooms.
Ask Dr. Cox
Q. My husband and I are having a conflict. We have two sons, 4 and 9. My mother-in-law has always been a big part of their lives (and babysat them for some time when they were young) but recently has had some serious health issues. It has changed her appearance and also made her very frail. My husband wants to continue with the family tradition of visiting her for the whole day on Sunday. The problem is that my youngest son is now afraid of how she looks and my oldest son continues to act like her house is still the “playground,” making noise, running around, etc. My husband gets very upset about this and we have had a lot of conflict and family arguments. He thinks my oldest son owes his grandmother the same length of visit. I agree that he can change his behavior (sit quietly or play a quiet game) for some time and I do want him to act respectfully but it’s a long day for him. And my husband forces our youngest son to stay in the room and gets upset when he doesn’t act “normal.” What do you think is reasonable? Kara T., Needham, MA
Family conflicts during life transitions are common. I imagine that your husband is upset about his mother’s changing health and agree that we can’t abandon family when they become ill, disfigured, or “boring.” It’s actually a unique opportunity for your sons to learn a practical lesson about compassion and empathy. That being said, we can’t force how people feel and it’s wise to work with a boy’s natural inclinations rather than against them. Right now, they are probably experiencing the visits as unpleasant, dull, and anxiety-provoking, and your reactions may be reinforcing that.
Try doing some coaching ahead of time, and also change the narrative about this situation. Rather than forcing your sons into compliance, work with them to establish leadership roles about practical things they can do to make the visits pleasant and helpful for their grandmother. Perhaps you can funnel your eldest son’s natural energy into a project around his grandparent’s house (walking her dog, replant her roses, hose down her driveway, etc.). You should also enlist your eldest son’s help in explaining the changes in her appearance to your younger son. Don’t force contact, be reassuring, and find a way to engage your youngest son in the visit – perhaps a special quiet toy that he only gets to use at during grandparent visits.
Q. Why is my 14-year-old daughter so sweet to her friend’s parents and so rude to me? Gayle L. Orlando, FL
Your daughter probably does not want to jeopardize the relationships that mean the most to her right now – those with her peers. If she’s rude to a friend’s parent, she risks offending her friends or being denied access to them by their parents.
Be firm and strategic. It’s tempting to avoid a rude child because they have a way of making us feel bad about ourselves. Yet the problem can only be helped by doing just the opposite. Spend ample time with your daughter, preferably engaged in a productive activity such as chores. In the midst of that activity is the time to talk to your daughter about how she relates to you and other adults. As a better relationship takes shape, you can reward your daughter with what she likely craves: car rides, cash, and access to friends with whom she can practice her newfound social skills. Don’t be disheartened by the economy of adolescence, it’s universal, and has more to do with the developmental needs of kids than our failure as parents.
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