By now, most teachers have had time to interact with their new class of students and get to know them. Most of you are recognizing the unique qualities of all of your learners, which you can use when differentiating the learning experiences. One quality to keep in mind is that of the “gendered brain.” Cited by many neural scientists, the term gendered brain refers to the various differences in the way boys and girls prefer to learn. These differences show up everywhere from their collaboration skills to the most efficient ways they gather information. Debate continues among scientists as to whether these differences are nurtured, a part of our nature, or both. However, it is generally recognized that temperament, family background, culture, and the environment all play key roles in how the brain develops.
Regardless of where these differences may come from, most teachers will tell you there are distinct differences in how boys and girls approach learning. My intent in this post is to help you understand some of these differences and help you create a classroom tone in which boys will perform to their best.
The basic principles of brain-compatible learning suggest that all learners need:
- A safe and welcoming learning environment, free of threats and high levels of stress
- Stimulating and varied ways of gathering information
- Active and meaningful learning experiences
- Relevant and immediate feedback to correct or support learning
Considering these four principles, let’s look at how they apply to the boys in your classroom. Note that I am generalizing the neurological research on the gendered brain to suggest strategies that can make your classroom more “boy friendly.”
Safe and Welcoming Learning Environments
Knowing that boys are more likely to bond physically rather than emotionally, when setting up your classroom consider that boys will need space to move. Boys also may need a space that they can call their own. So, create spaces in your classroom where boys can work in groups as well as have space of their own.
Friendships are often formed based on shared competitive activities. Boys’ need for physical movement and grouping by actions may necessitate clearing open space within your room for them to work and interact. Obviously, many classrooms do not have abundance of space. Think creatively as to how you can provide boys with space, such as having groups break out into the hallway, gym, playground, or other open spaces on the school campus. When boys feel confined, you may notice an increase in aggressive or stressed behaviors.
Stimulating and Varied Ways of Gathering Information
In general, boys tend to be more visual in their learning preferences. When creating learning activities, make sure to offer ways for students to visually interact with the information. Boys like to group information or put information into categories. Therefore, the use of graphic organizers can have a profound effect on information gathering and organizing. Additionally, because boys are less verbally inclined, keep verbal directions short and to the minimum. Use symbols and pictures to transmit step-by-step directions.
Boys should also be afforded differentiated writing assignments in which they are allowed to draw out their ideas (say in cartoon or storyboard fashion) before they begin the writing process. My good friend and colleague Julie Donaldson (middle school coordinator of gifted education for the Bloomington Public Schools in Minnesota) and I put together a graphic organizer for visual/spatial learners to learn how to write a five-paragraph essay (you can download the PDF). You may want to consider using this format or something similar when teaching boys how to organize their thoughts for writing.
Active and Meaningful Learning Experiences
Again, boys’ natural inclination for movement suggests a need to use kinesthetic activities to increase meaningfulness in the learning. Meaningfulness is when learners can apply new strategies and skills relatively immediately. Have boys practice new strategies and skills in context rather than isolated from the content.
I often use either sports or music analogies when teaching new strategies or skills. When learning a new sport or musical instrument, the learner doesn’t go immediately into a big game or performance. He has to learn individual strategies and practice those strategies in order to develop the skill to be able to play on the field or stage.
When working in groups, make sure that each boy has a specific role to play or task to accomplish, can articulate the directions, knows what the final outcome should be, and is aware of the consequences for lack of collaboration. Be concise and consistent with group norms.
One more thing to consider in the active classroom: the male brain is designed to go into a “rest state” every so often to recharge. Thus, the boys in your class will need periodic neural breaks during which they can switch to a different activity. You can do this by simply getting the class up and having them stretch about every 15 minutes or by showing a graphic brainteaser to allow their brains to recharge.
Relevant and Immediate Feedback to Correct or Support Learning
Finally, because boys are more visually stimulated, I would caution you about asking a boy to “look you in the eye” when you interact with him—whether it’s for redirection or even for positive feedback. Boys who are confronted with eye-to-eye contact may react in one of two ways: They may feel threatened, or they may be distracted by the highly visual stimuli. Instead, I recommend using what is called the “coaches’ talk,” where you walk shoulder-to-shoulder or sit side-by-side and deliver feedback directed toward a simple object, picture, or other visual. This is similar to what coaches do when replaying a game through the use of Xs and Os on a chalkboard or dry-erase board in the locker room.
Also keep in mind the amount of emotion you put into your feedback to boys. Boys have less serotonin and oxytocin, the human bonding chemicals, in their brain, and they devote less blood energy into the midbrain (the emotional center). Therefore, boys are less likely to understand their own emotional functioning, may not relate to emotionally heavy situations, or be less comfortable with the emotions of others. Keep your feedback focused on the performance. Support what the student did effectively and be descriptive about what he can do to correct his learning.
In Advancing Differentiation: Thinking and Learning for the 21st Century, I provide a list of 25 strategies for creating a “boy friendly” classroom. I have been asked by teachers why I don’t have a list for creating a “girl friendly” classroom. My response is: Our classrooms are designed with girls in mind (highly verbal) and often treat boys as dysfunctional girls. The statistics on boys’ poor performance in schools is overwhelming. According to Gurian and Stevens in their article “With Boys and Girls in Mind,” boys:
- Get upwards of 70 percent of all Ds and Fs in high school
- Account for more than 80 percent of discipline referrals
- Represent 70 percent of learning disabilities, including ADD/ADHD
- Represent nearly 80 percent of high school dropouts
Whether you believe that boys and girls are wired differently, the statistics above suggest we should consider the various ways all people like to learn.
What strategies do you use to help make your classroom more learning-friendly to boys?
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Download the “Essay Outline” by Richard Cash and Julie Donaldson
“Smart Boys, Bad Grades.” American School Board Journal, 189(7), 38–39, by W.A. Draves
Smart Boys: Talent, Manhood, and the Search for Meaning by Barbara A. Kerr and Sanford J. Cohn.
Helping Boys Succeed in School: A Practical Guide for Parents and Teachers by Terry W. Neu and Rich Weinfeld
Reaching Boys, Teaching Boys: Strategies that Work—and Why by Michael Reichert and Richard Hawley
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