The Minds of Boys
By Mary Jacobs
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 systemand 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 skillsan 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.
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 techniqueslike offering Nerf balls to squeeze during class to help students quietly keep their brains engaged through physical motionto 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 possiblegustatory, 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:
"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:
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 like Boys' 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.
Copyright © 2005 by the Boy Scouts of America. All rights thereunder reserved; anything appearing in Scouting magazine or on its Web site may not be reprinted either wholly or in part without written permission. Because of freedom given authors, opinions may not reflect official concurrence.