May 5, 2014
'Boy-Friendly' Learning Emphasized at a Connecticut Private School
For years, as countless adolescents can attest, a normal classroom environment has consisted of drowsy students sitting at their desks, perking up only occasionally to take notes or answer a question, as their teacher stands at the front of the class lecturing on the same material, year after year, regardless of the changing outside world.
Now, with new emphasis being placed on a boy-friendly curriculum, researchers such as Dr. William Pollack, a socio-clinical professor and author of “Real Boys,” have found that males do not excel in passive learning environments, a fact demonstrated by the gap between male and female academic results. Instead they require a more active learning environment, where they can participate in experience-based learning with a more flexible curriculum, a model where they might be able to have a say in what they learn.
This type of gender-based curriculum has been embraced in all-boys schools, usually boarding schools, such as South Kent School in Kent, Conn., and, to some extent, in coeducational institutions such as the prestigious Hotchkiss School in Salisbury. There the curriculum is referred to not as being boy-friendly, per se, but rather as an active curriculum where both boys and girls can succeed at the same time.
Mr. Pollack said that part of a boy-friendly learning environment is focused on developing boys as whole human beings, allowing them to get in touch with their emotions and to talk about when something is bothering them, rather than forcing themselves to behave in accordance with society’s male stereotype. Mr. Pollack refers to this as the “boy code,” and, he asserts, it affects academics as well general behavior because boys are taught it is not “manly” to ask for help when they don’t understand something in class. As they start to fall behind, they begin to act out against a system that is failing them.
“Boys are taught to be more stoic, to not show their pain or even to talk about their difficulties,” Dr. Pollack said in a phone interview. “Boys are less likely to show their dissatisfaction except through actions that are usually seen as misbehavior. They’re very sensitive, just as much as girls are—they’re very easily shamed. What starts to happen is that boys start to feel embarrassed and when you interview them, they start to feel stupid and then they become very quiet.”
Dr. Pollack said that the traditional learning structure doesn’t work for males because the average boy develops 12 to 18 months later than does the average girl. Despite those neurological differences and a slower maturation—girls tend to fully mature at the end of high school or beginning of college while boys do not fully mature until the end of college—the same curriculum is taught at the pace to both genders. Boys, forced into learning at the same pace and in the same way as girls, often are unable to do so and turn off to learning.
As early as the end of kindergarten, children are expected to be reading ready, but Dr. Pollack argues that the average boy does not have the cognitive capacity to do that. In the 1970s, major efforts were made to promote girls’ improvement within the education system, but rather than creating an equal learning environment, classroom teaching styles heavily favored female students at the cost of the success of their male cohorts. Now, boys are an average of 1.5 years behind girls in reading ability, a gap that persists through college and even upon entering the workforce.
Dr. Pollack said that a boy left to his own devices and allowed to learn at his own pace would be fine and would catch up to girls by the third or fourth grade, but he is not allowed that opportunity with the way the curriculum is usually set up.
“He’s forced into this structure—that’s not good for girls either but it’s even worse for boys and so they tend to turn off from the educational aspects,” Dr. Pollack said. “The second part of that is when boys turn off, they tend to turn to what I call gross motor play and what some teachers call acting out in the classroom and they become more problematic with so-called behavioral problems.”
Part of what Dr. Pollack and his colleagues researching “boy-friendly” learning have discovered has been put into practice at certain all-boys schools and, on a smaller scale at co-educational boarding schools or, on an even smaller scale, at public schools. Some of this change is being seen in Connecticut, such as at South Kent School, an all-boys boarding school.