By now, almost everyone interested in U.S. education policy is aware that the Department of Education has approved much broader parameters for single sex education within public schools. An almost unthinkable development just a few years ago, public education must now wrestle with how to best accommodate gender-based learning differences.
About 15 years ago, the trend toward single sex education would likely have been motivated by concern that girls’ potential was being doused by the dominance of boys’ zealous participation in the classroom, as proposed in the landmark American Association of University Women (AAUW) study, “How Schools Shortchange Girls,” which subsequently became the focus of intense evaluation and debate.
Today, the near constant buzz about the achievement gap between girls and boys, with many boys being left in the dust, seems to be the primary catalyst for a change in educational policy with respect to single sex education. This brewing tempest has become the subject of intense media attention (see Newsweek’s January 2006 article, “The Trouble with Boys“), and once again, has ratcheted up the national dialogue about how to best serve all children.
When I’m on the road, the topic of single sex education has been coming up more frequently. Parents, teachers, and counselors often ask where I stand on the issue. So here it goes!
This trend inspires thought, and hopefully even a little imagination, about whateffective single sex education should look like. For the sake of current public discussion, let’s focus on boys. For many boys, there seem to be some distinct advantages, in that classrooms and instruction can be tailored to fit their particular learning strengths – more about this critical factor very shortly.
One prospective disadvantage, especially for those of us concerned about the social and emotional development of boys, is that boys potentially lose the opportunity for more frequent interaction with female peers. Cross-gender communication skills are at the heart of being a socially and emotionally effective adult, and it’s a valid concern that boys may miss important learning opportunities during a critical phase of their social development.
Boys’ schools have traditionally managed this potential learning liability by providing ample opportunity for students to interact with girls attending other schools, and have encouraged boys to be involved in their communities, where they inevitably work in collaboration with females.
Some schools experiment by separating students by gender only in classes where differences in learning styles are most apparent. (Under the new law, schools can create same-sex classes for subjects such as math or science, a specific grade level such as those awkward middle school years, or even an entire school.)
The Achievement Gap Has Deeper Roots than the Three “R’s”
If we’re truly interested in closing the achievement gap we’ll have to dig for the roots of this performance phenomenon. Limiting the scope of our concern to “Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic” unnecessarily restricts our ability to reach boys at the origins of their learning and achievement differences. The roots of these differences are buried beneath the level of achievement and are deeply seated in boys’ essential nature – the male psyche – itself.
Academic achievement differences emerge in the very first years of education, with many boys lagging behind in reading skills by first grade. The neurology of these differences is discussed in Boys of Few Words, and I have spent considerable time talking to groups across North America about how to bolster the learning skills of boys early in life. Without a doubt, building the listening and comprehension skills of boys is a foundation for longer-term academic and social success.
Our goal: turning on the right hemisphere and pre- frontal cortex – parts of the brain that enable social thinking, problem-solving, and insight. My perspective on these aspects of neurodevelopment is shaped by experience; these traits are curiously absent among so many boys who end up sorting things out in the counseling office.
Having spent considerable time with such boys, I’ve come to believe that the achievement gap can only be closed if we put all the cards on the table: how we format classrooms; where we situate classrooms; hierarchies within the classroom and broader school environment; and even, how we explain the very purpose of school to boys. Whew – what a list! If you’re thinking that sounds like reconsidering a lot of assumptions – you’re right. But if we expect boys to grow and evolve, we must be willing to do the same.
Wilderness programs, typically designed to meet the needs of troubled teens, are an excellent example of how reformulating our work with boys can pay off. These programs do an outstanding job of teaching kids self-reliance, personal responsibility, and behavioral accountability. How do they accomplish this monumental feat? First and foremost – they get boys outdoors.
Finding themselves in the midst of wilderness, thinking strategically, demonstrating concern for others, and working to the best of one’s potential have tangible meaning for boys. The sense of urgency a wilderness trek can entail reinforces these concepts. Having to cope with weather, fatigue, and limited rations speaks to a boy’s understanding of achievement as a matter of survival – and it’s incredibly exciting!
The Benefits of Risk
Think of the Discovery Channel’s recent series on Alaskan fishermen. Why would men pursue a relatively low-paying occupation that has one of the highest fatality rates – (not to mention a 100% injury rate) – in the world? Because the risks raise the ante on making good decisions, teamwork, and attention to detail. Skills that often seem latent in males suddenly emerge with gusto when one’s safety is on the line. Of course, school does not involve such drama, yet the conundrum educators face is that the brains of boys – their fundamental need for stimulation related to urgency – are out-of-sync with the demands of social evolution. Most boys will never engage in such high-risk work as Alaskan fishermen, but that doesn’t change the reality that wilderness – an opportunity for “wildness” – sets the table for an experience of the world that awakens the minds of boys.
Keep It Movin’
One natural aspect of wildness which helps to propel boys’ learning is motion. A boy who is constantly on the move may represent a clear disruption to others, but at the same time, movement may be a distinct advantage for some aspects of his learning. In Boys of Few Words, I cite studies which found that raising the blood pressure of boys through activity helped their minds to be more “absorbent.” Unlike girls, who seem to be better at paying attention when bored, boys’ brains are built to shut down under tedium: all that goofing, pencil tapping, and fidgeting are attempts to wake up a sleepy brain.
And along these lines, there’s a reason why surfing is helping to sooth the minds of children with autism spectrum disorders – and it is motion. (For an excellent discussion of this very hopeful development, read Paul Solotaroff’s moving story, “A Father’s Hope,” about surfing with his seven- year-old son, in the September 2006 issue of Men’s Journal). The sensory changes involved in moving through space activate the brain in very constructive ways. Those of us who work closely with boys have likely seen that all kinds of social perceptual skills get turned on when a boy’s body (and brain) are set in motion. Could movement be one of the keys to lifting boys out of a state of self-absorption? In many cases, I think so.
The benefits of motion also help to explain why so many parents are discovering that boys get through homework more easily when it is broken up into small chunks of study, alternated with opportunities for movement. Given that homework occupies an ever-increasing amount of time at home, it’s no wonder we see boys reflexively rebelling through increased hyperactivity. Moving boys’ brains back and forth between problem-solving and action introduces a more ecologically sensible balance into a process (homework hour) that feels at least a little unnatural for some boys.
All of this begs the question: Are we supposed to teach reading in the woods? Is math supposed to resonate with the natural environment? (Friedrich Froebel thought so.) At first thought, it might seem logistically and conceptually far-fetched. But violations of traditional assumptions always seem far-fetched – until they prove their worth. Although we might have little interest in change for the sake of change, keeping boys emotionally invested in being educated will require cultivating the roots of motivation as a pathway to achievement. For better or worse, those roots enjoin the natural environment where action and mastery have real meaning for boys.
What about urban boys, you might ask?
It’s particularly important to provide healthy outdoor experiences for city children. While some urbanites can access safe and beautiful parks, summer adventure camps, or other forms of outdoor engagement, the picture for poor kids in the paved- over parts of town is less auspicious. The life-or- death risks of the “urban jungle” represent a perversion of the real need for action and mastery in a safe, supervised setting.
The hunger for “wildness” is nearly insatiable for many kids during adolescence. The answer is not to restrict wildness, but instead to work toward cultivating its form. The will to be energetic, spontaneous, and competitive is not ugly– just the opposite, it is extraordinarily beautiful – if it can be developed in socially constructive ways.
By way of thousands of hours spent working with boys, I’ve learned that one can teach them almost anything if the information is presented in such a way that it is consistent with their psychology – i.e. ideals, motivations, interests. We will surely be misled if we focus on the content of boys education to the exclusion of its form. I do not want to suggest that boys must be educated outdoors; that they should learn grammar while on skateboards, or that we make school sports a more risky, competitive undertaking than it already is.
But somewhere in their education, boys need to find validation for the drives and needs that feel right to them. We should think of this less as giving in, and more as strategic negotiation. Creatively evolving instruction in this way is the “tipping point” with respect to whether or not the achievement gap will be successfully closed.
Working with boys on their social development, one primary message should be that we talk and listen not only with our mouths and ears, but also with our eyes. The eyes are the most expressive part of a face. Our eye movements go a long way toward helping us project our emotions, while the eye movements of others are crucial in helping us to decode what others feel.
Eyes are especially important with respect to developing empathy. Most kids are more willing to interpret what they see, than the subtleties of what theyhear. In other words, a child will interpret a particular facial expression faster than he sorts out the mood expressed by a particular tone of voice. One reason for this may be that we can multitask with our eyes much more efficiently than we can with our ears. As a result, our eyes have had a lot more practice making sense of the social environment.
In a new study from the Journal of Human Evolution (reported in The Economist 11/4/06), researchers at the Max Planck Institute in Germany indicate that the eyes also help signal others in a way few of us have likely considered. It turns out that the white part of our eyes (sclera) evolved so that one person can see that another person is looking in a particular direction.
Basically, if I see your sclera, I know you’re not looking directly at me, and I’m instinctively prompted to track the direction of your gaze, resulting in a mutual direction of gaze – an important step toward shared experience, including empathy.
This is a particularly important insight with respect to understanding empathy among males because males don’t always do their best empathizing through direct eye contact. Instead, they often prefer to identify with each other by staring at a common focal point.
(I wish I had a nickel for every time I’ve advised a father to go for a drive with his son when they need to discuss a difficult topic. Why? Because they will both be looking forward, reducing vulnerability while enhancing the benefits of shared experience.)
In my Mighty Good Kids workshops for boys, I often direct the group’s attention to something visually captivating in an effort to create a shared emotional experience: perhaps a short video of someone climbing the summit of Mt. Everest, snowboarding down the Colorado Rockies during an avalanche, or coping with another type of adversity. It’s an effective way to create animmediate, shared, emotional experience – also known as bonding.
Ask Dr. Cox…
My son is 8 years old, very bright, and does well academically. He is shy and has some social anxiety at times. One behavior however stands out. He misreads social cues. For example if someone holds the door open for him, he is offended that they don’t think he can do it himself and refuses the offer silently. If they persist he get emotional and sometimes cries. On another occasion his scout leader offered him a hand to stand up from sitting on the ground. He refused this also by looking down and being silent. The longer the leader waited with hand extended, the more upset my son became. He told me later that he could stand up by himself. Does this behavior seem unusual and do we need to get a professional opinion or is it most likely related to social anxiety? Thank you from a confused parent.
Wichita Falls, TX
Great question. I hear about this problem frequently – it has perplexed many parents. Although your son may have some social anxiety, his problem misreading social cues has more to do with an under-active right hemisphere than anxiety. The brain’s right hemisphere is critical to accurate social perception. When the right hemisphere is not doing its job, kids tend to misinterpret the behavior of others, and unfortunately, often respond to others inappropriately. They have particular trouble understanding the intentions of others. Second, when boys are chronically frustrated by misinterpretation, it inevitably leads to excessive, unwanted self-consciousness. As they try to reduce the vulnerability of such feelings, they sometimes react angrily toward those who recognize their problem – and who, with good intentions, are trying to help rather than stigmatize. It’s a developmental challenge that calls for strategic coaching involving:
1. Matter-of-fact discussion of what others are actually thinking and feeling when they offer help. Your son may be interpreting these offers of help as “insults” meant to highlight his mishaps or “weakness.”
2. Practice in reading the nonverbal communication of others. Playgrounds, malls, and other public places are great environments for rehearsing these skills. (Please see Boys of Few Words for multiple suggestions/techniques.)
3. Affirmation and public praise of skills your son does possess.
4. Implementation of a nonverbal signaling system that you (and others) can use with your son to ask him if he wants help, without making him feel self- conscious in front of others. This technique works best when the signal is suggested by the child and when it is “way cool.”
HELP!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! We live in a small rural town that seems to be a really tough place for boys- There are three boys ages 17 to 12 who all show the same behavior: not doing school work, not talking much, and rarely speaking the truth. They are developing really tough attitudes. My brother and I are at a loss for what to do. His children have been doing this in this town for a while and my son just moved here from California. I don’t know how to get out of this downward spiral! My brother and I are really worried. Is there anything you can suggest to us?
From a rural town in Colorado
I can feel how much stress this situation is causing you and your brother. I would suggest several actions on your part.
1. First, the boys need a mentor – someone who is comfortable doing “guy stuff” with them, and who can also reinforce solid moral behavior. While I’m sure your brother is trying his best, sometimes it’s an uphill battle for dads, especially those of teenage boys. At this independence-seeking age, another adult male may be the best role-model or messenger. A boss, coach, teacher or friend may fit the bill.
2. Give them opportunities for leadership. My last newsletter discussed the importance of giving boys acknowledgement as a motivating tool for better behavior. Getting them involved in a project to build their self-esteem and show them how to get positive recognition for being of service to others.
3. Give them a job to do, preferably an outdoors, physical one. However, make sure that the work they will do is supervised, preferably by someone who has experience corralling teenage boys. (School, community groups and religious organizations often offer such opportunities; if you’re really rural, you may have to do something more informal, like helping a neighbor.) Helping to build a house with Habitat for Humanity is one option that comes to mind; if you have a local chapter, see if younger people can participate.
4. As you doubtless know, peers are tremendously important and influential at this age. They may need different friends. Being the “new kid” is hard. They may be adopting rough attitudes in order to avoid bullying and to fit in. You may have to drive further a-field or “import” friends with better attitudes. Of course, you have to be subtle here – if you harshly forbid them to associate with certain kids, those will be the ones they’ll want to hang with. Talk with the boys’ teachers and guidance counselor to find out what’s happening in school, and what the social environment is like for them.
Finally, get a professional involved if the problems persist. Please don’t assume “they’ll grow out of it.” When it comes to the development of boys, we have to “strike while the iron is hot.” A slightly problematic trait at 16 may grow into a serious behavior for a man of 21. Your question suggests that you understand this, and want to do all that you can now. Good luck!
* I’ve done a good deal of traveling and speaking since my last newsletter, “Tough Jobs Are the Medicine of Choice for Tough Kids.” Many people have shared their perspective of my suggestion that we make troubled kids leaders as an antidote to apathy and oppositionality. I’d like to summarize a key concern that has come up in response to that suggestion, and then provide my own perspective of this very important issue.
How can I practically or reasonably make someone a leader who doesn’t deserve that status? How can I justify such a “promotion” to that individual’s classmates or teammates? Won’t this action demonstrate a double-standard whereby some kids gain leader status without actually earning it?
The key to this conundrum is letting go of the assumption that “leader” means “better than.” Many of us – me included – grew up with the notion that “leader” connotes “specialness” – an association that suggests leaders are privileged, entitled people. But what if we take a more social view of leadership, thinking of leadership less as entitlement, and more as a form of service to others? The latter definition might have more to do with obligation than entitlement.
Kids also have to be taught that when leaders seek and accept help it is a sign of strength, not weakness. This is the essence of leading by example. (For an account of the disastrous results when leaders don’t seek such help, consider assigning students Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air.) Reframing the tenets of leadership will only work if we clarify our understanding of leadership to boys in concrete terms. Yet when we do that, everyone will understand the obligations involved in becoming a leader, and by extension, why it’s more urgent that some boys become leaders than others.
Do you have a question for Dr. Cox? Email it to: Ask Dr. Cox
Please begin your comments with “Question for Dr. Cox.” Your query could be answered in a future issue.
Adam Cox, PhD, ABPP
Along the Way: Last month I had the good fortune to be the keynote speaker for the regional conference of the Int’l Boys’ Schools Coalition in Toronto. The energy among faculty, parents and school directors was absolutely fantastic! Brad Adams, newly appointed Executive Director of IBSC has some great ideas for disseminating “best practices” to the wider community of those educating boys. I look forward to speaking at IBSC’s international meeting in June, 2007 – Boston, Massachusetts.
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