The Minds of Boys

What’s going on inside your son’s brain? Author Michael Gurian has a good idea and gives advice to parents, teachers, and Scouters on how they can improve boys’ chances for success in both school and life.

The boys in Mrs. Gutierrez’s math class are moving around on the floor, shifting in their seats, and stretching across their desks to get a better look. And nobody’s yelling.

Monica Gutierrez is no disciplinary softie. She teaches at the Regis School of the Sacred Heart in Houston, an all-male Catholic school that follows the principles described in a new book, The Minds of Boys: Saving Our Sons From Falling Behind in School and Life, by Michael Gurian with Kathy Stevens (Jossey-Bass, 2005).

The boys in her fifth-grade class are taking turns pacing off measurements on a segmented line on the floor. The goal is to help them conceptualize the metric system—and to present the material in a way that’s suited for their male brains. A little extraneous individual movement is allowed, too, as long as it doesn’t distract the other students.

“When the body is moving, the information is more likely to lodge in the brain, especially for males,” Gurian explains, observing the classroom on a recent visit to the school. “Movement also helps them to concentrate. Sitting still is often anathema to the male brain.”

BOYS LEARN DIFFERENTLY THAN GIRLS

Gurian has written a number of books about the needs of young boys and their emotional health, including his seminal book, The Wonder of Boys: What Parents, Mentors and Educators Can Do to Shape Boys Into Exceptional Men (Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1997). Now he’s turning his attention to the ways boys learn.

At the heart of Gurian’s theory: Boys learn differently than girls learn because boys’ brains are wired differently. Culling research from the emerging study of “gender science,” Gurian believes that conventional approaches to education are often mismatched to boys’ brains and learning styles. And these differences aren’t just educational curiosities, Gurian argues; they are the source of a crisis in boys’ academic performance.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, boys are behind girls in reading and writing skills—an average of a year to a year and a half. Plus, boys account for the majority of poor grades and disciplinary problems in schools. (See “Did You Know?” sidebar.)

Unfortunately, these are not problems that males “grow out of” or easily leave behind in elementary school. Gurian thinks that’s why 80 percent of high school dropouts are boys and only 45 percent of college students are males.

He has written: “The question becomes, should we keep trying to change our boys, or should we change the educational system in which they are now taught?”

The Regis School is taking the latter approach.

“We contacted The Gurian Institute [a Colorado-based training division Gurian and his associates founded in 1998] and said, ‘We want to be the state-of-the-art school for your principles,’” said headmistress Anne Storey Carty.

BOY-FRIENDLY LEARNING

So Regis became the first “Gurian Institute Model School.” Every staff member has undergone training, and the boy-friendly educational methodology has been incorporated into all grades.

The methodology ranges from simple techniques—like offering Nerf balls to squeeze during class to help students quietly keep their brains engaged through physical motion—to creatively incorporating an array of sensory experiences to boost learning and retention.

In Spanish class, for example, the teacher doesn’t rely on just vocabulary drills and written exercises. The class occasionally holds a “restaurant day” in which the boys serve Tex-Mex food with menus and waiters, all in Spanish.

“The idea is to incorporate as many different sensory experiences as possible—gustatory, tactile, auditory, visual, and olfactory,” Gurian says. “The more senses involved, the more likely they’ll retain the material.”

But parents and Scout leaders don’t need a Gurian-trained school in the neighborhood to reach the minds of young boys. By understanding key differences and applying “male-friendly” approaches to learning, adult mentors can help boost a boy’s chances for success.

Gurian says that research into the physiological differences between male and female brains suggests that:


Gurian says Scouting allows boys to succeed in an “honorable and meaningful group.”.
  • Boys tend toward more impulsive risk behavior.
  • Boys don’t learn as well as girls when sitting still or being sedentary.
  • Boys are more likely than girls to attach their learning to physical movement.
  • Because there’s more “crosstalk” between the two hemispheres of their brains, most girls are better at multitasking than boys.
  • Boys pick up less of what is said in words and need more sensory-tactile experiences to learn well.
  • Boys need more time to memorize material, especially written material.
  • Boys’ brains revert more quickly into a “rest state.” In laymen’s terms, they’re quicker to doze off or zone out.

“Having the research to confirm what we’ve sensed all along was helpful,” headmistress Carty said.

By adjusting the school’s educational approach to better reach boys, Carty said, Regis students are learning more quickly and behaving well, and teachers are better equipped to know how to handle boys’ needs.

SCOUTING HELPS BOYS SUCCEED

Gurian says that many activities in Scouting naturally fit the male learning style. Boy Scouts work on projects, often in apprenticeship relationships that fit boys’ learning styles particularly well. And, he says, Scouting’s character-driven approach appeals to boys’ natural need to prove themselves and to act heroically.

“Scouting is a healthy way to do all these naturally male things in an emotionally safe environment,” says Gurian. That’s especially important for middle-school age boys. At that age, he says, boys will seek an “honorable, meaningful group” to associate with, and without one, boys often hook up with gangs.

Here are some other boy-friendly approaches that parents or Scout leaders can employ when leading activities or helping a boy learn:

  • Find appropriate ways to “work off” physical energy and keep the brain stimulated. Use movement to reinforce any kind of learning, especially verbal and written material.
  • Use “vertical mentoring”—have older Scouts help the younger Scouts.
  • Use lists when giving instructions or teaching material. “Boys have list-making brains,” Gurian says.
  • Find ways to incorporate reading and writing into program activities with The Boy Scout Handbook and troop newsletters or Web sites. Have Scouts prepare speeches and reports for appropriate merit badges.

Beyond instructional techniques, parents and other adults should always reinforce the importance of doing well in school, Gurian adds.

“The fact is, males need success in school,” he says. “Success in school is closely linked to success as a husband and a father.” And failure in school, he believes, explains in part why males represent a majority of the homeless population and most of the prison population.

THE ‘HEROISM OF HOMEWORK’

Gurian likes Scouting programs that promote literacy, such as the Wolf Cub Scout “Books, Books, Books” elective and the Boy Scout Reading merit badge. He also praises the fact that publications likeBoys’ Life, with quality, age-appropriate fiction and other boy-focused material, reinforces the message that reading is enjoyable and important.

He encourages Scout leaders to appeal to boys’ heroic instincts, to “emphasize the ‘heroism of homework’—that is, to reinforce the message that doing your homework is a sign of personal responsibility, and it’s an issue of meaning and honor.” For boys who don’t perform well in school, he says, homework is often the missing link.

Gurian sees a little bit of that heroism in the Regis School, when a small boy bravely volunteers to go to the front of the classroom to tackle a tricky alphabetization exercise. He makes a mistake, then tries again and gets the right answer.

Praising the boy’s stick-to-itiveness, the teacher asks, “Did he mope?” “No!” the boys reply.

“Did he cope?” the teacher asks. “Yes!” the students say.

Gurian beams. “Inside every boy there is an educational hero who is trying to flourish,” he says. “Every boy can learn if his education is well cared for.”

Mary Jacobs is a Dallas, Tex., freelance writer.


Did You Know?

Boys get the majority of the D’s and F’s in most schools—in some, as high as 70 percent.

  • Boys make up 80 to 90 percent of disciplinary problems.
  • Of children diagnosed with learning disabilities, 70 to 75 percent are boys.
  • Of children diagnosed with behavioral disorders, 80 percent are boys.
  • More than 80 percent of schoolchildren on Ritalin or similar drugs are boys. As of 2004, the number of boys on Ritalin approached five million.

Source: The Minds of Boys


Brain Health for Boys

Two physiological stressors on a boy’s brain development can directly compromise his daily learning: compromised nutrition and too much “screen time.” (These can affect girls, too, but they further exacerbate boys’ learning differences.) Here’s Michael Gurian’s advice in these areas:

Nutrition:
Gurian poses three nutritional questions: Is my son getting enough water? Is my son getting enough protein? Does my son eat too much sugar?

Water intake is important because thirst increases cortisol levels, which can thwart a boy’s concentration. Within five minutes of drinking plain water, cortisol levels can decrease.

Similar studies suggest that protein enhances thinking, while too much sugar and refined carbohydrate consumption has the opposite effect.

Gurian advises parents to encourage their boys to drink plenty of water and to cut sugary breakfast cereals. He encourages adding eggs, cheese, or peanut butter to the morning menu.

Screen time:
Too much time spent with “nonmotor brain stimulants” like TV, videos, and computers is linked with attention deficit and other difficulties. That’s because young brains develop “brain bypasses” in key development areas, such as attention centers, with too much screen time.

“The passive stimulants of TV, videos, and computers do the attention work for the brain,” Gurian explains. “Thus the brain doesn’t have to learn how to do it organically.”

The answer is to limit the time your boy spends in front of a screen, paying close attention to the video games he plays and the DVD’s and TV shows he watches.

“Helping our boys succeed in school and in life requires each of us to manage screen time with more vigilance than we may do currently,” Gurian has written.

On school nights, Gurian advises parents to restrict screen time to no more than an hour, and then only after homework, family time, and athletic activities are completed. If a boy is not finishing his homework, parents should cut out TV and video games entirely on school nights.

It’s O.K. to loosen up a bit on the weekends—perhaps two hours a day—but only if it doesn’t interfere with plenty of physical activity and family time.

Other guidelines include no TV in the boy’s bedroom or in the car, and no computers with unsupervised Internet access before high school age.

In terms of content, Gurian says he’s not as alarmed as some about reasonable quantities of time spent with certain types of video games that involve violence; aggression play is part of a boy’s nature, he says. But those must be balanced with plenty of character and moral development.

As a resource for quality boy-oriented books and movies, he offers a list of recommended titles in a book he co-authored with Terry Trueman, What Stories Does My Son Need? A Guide to Books and Movies That Build Character in Boys (Penguin Group, 2000), and in the appendix of his book The Good Son: Shaping the Moral Development of Our Boys and Young Men (Penguin Group, 2000).

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