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Are the pace and focus of our classrooms a bad fit for boys?


In explaining the disconnect between boys and school, educator Troy Kemp said, “Classrooms are like quiet back roads with a posted speed of 35 mph. But boys are wired to drive the autobahn.”

An associate headmaster at the private all-boy McCallie School in Chattanooga, Kemp made his remarks at a recent Sunday forum at Georgia Tech on understanding boys. The premise of the forum — boys are often adrift, disengaged, and under-performing — resonated with an audience of parents.

The question the forum examined: Is there something wrong with boys or with schools?

Dozens of mothers and fathers nodded in agreement when Kemp said boys often devote more effort to honing their athletic skills than their academic skills. “When I ask boys why they put in that extra time on the field but not in the classroom, they say, ‘If I do one more pass, I am going to be great. If I do one more homework problem, I am going to be tired.’ ”

Emerging brain research confirms what teachers and parents have long observed. Girls have stronger listening skills, discernment and self-regulation. Their brains are better wired for multitasking, transitioning between activities and grasping detail. Boys have higher spatial-mechanical functioning and a greater drive to move. In general terms of learning styles, more words play to the strength of girls; more actions to those of boys.

Parents laughed when Kemp flashed side-by-side drawings of “My Family” by two elementary school students. The young female artist utilized all 24 crayon colors and included the family dog, a bee on a flower, a butterfly, a bird and a cloud. “The only thing missing is that rainbow,” said Kemp. The boy opted for one color, black, and drew an entire family of stick figures yelling “Help!”

Girls have been recording steady gains in academic performance over the past 30 years. A 2015 comparative study by the international Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found six out of 10 students falling below baseline standards in math, reading and science were boys.

The study looked at the performance of 15-year-old students on the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA. While boys still score slightly higher in math, girls display a significant edge in how well and how much they read. Only 25 percent of boys reported reading as one of their favorite hobbies, compared with 45 percent of the girls. But most troubling was the sharp decline in male scores; between 2000 and 2006, the reading performance of boys decreased by 10 points.

The U.S. data on boys and school confirms the disparity. While the percentage of recent female high school graduates enrolling in college is increasing, it’s stalled for males. Boys make up two-thirds of the students in special education and are five times more likely to be classified as hyperactive. Federal data show boys account for 67 percent of in-school suspensions and 74 percent of expulsions. Across all grade levels, 61 percent of students held back are boys.

Boys have not fared well in test-focused classrooms that emphasize sitting still and completing worksheets. Neither have some girls. That’s why there’s a push on for increased recess for younger children and more hands-on learning for all kids. There’s a growing awareness that it helps boys to teach parabolic equations by making potato guns or vocabulary by classroom scavenger hunts.

At the forum, McCallie assistant headmaster Kenny Sholl recalled when he picked up a fallen stick en route to a math class he taught and students asked him about it. Inspiration struck and he announced it was the “Sword of Geometry” that they could wield when they excelled. “It is still hanging on my wall,” he said, “to remind me it doesn’t take much.”


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.