“My daughter loves school,” my friend confided. “She does well, she works hard. The problem is with my son.” And so it is that school works well for some, and less well for others. The problems are sometimes reversed with school being easier for sons, or for one son or daughter than another, but psychologists and educators have noted what some have described as an epidemic of underperformance by boys. It is nothing exactly new. Going to school in the fifties and sixties I was one of those boys myself. My grades were average. My test scores indicated I should have done better, and I can describe from my own experience what it means to be trapped in school, bored and disinterested. I graduated from college only due to the pottery class which provided a desperately needed dose of hands-on sanity.
Boys Adrift: the Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men, by Leonard Sax notes that boys naturally mature at a slower rate than girls, and are often less ready for sedentary classroom activities. He also notes that the rapid increase in the effect of video gaming lessens the physical activities that facilitate reading readiness. There are other environmental factors as well, having to do with chemicals in the environment that accelerate physical maturity for girls and retard the development of boys. Overall, the issues are complex. But what they add up to is that boys are often ill-served by the current model of education. And the effects are enormous. Major universities are admitting boys at a lower level of tested intelligence and college preparation in order attempt to maintain a gender balance. An article in a New England newspaper wondered aloud where young women would be able to find mates with an equivalent level of education and earning capacity.
And so, the question must be asked, "How do we create schools that will benefit all children?" Is there a formula for it? These questions are nothing new. John Amos Comenius, considered the father of modern pedagogy (the science of education) observed:
Boys ever delight in being occupied in something for the youthful blood does not allow them to be at rest. Now as this is very useful, it ought not to be restrained, but provision made that they may always have something to do. Let them be like ants, continually occupied in doing something, carrying, drawing, construction and transporting, provided always that whatever they do be done prudently. They ought to be assisted by showing them the forms of all things, even of playthings; for they cannot yet be occupied in real work, and we should play with them.There is a rapid rise in the use of Ritalin and Adderall to control classroom behavior and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Certainly some girls are diagnosed with ADHD and prescribed medication for it. But the the largest number affected are male. If Comenius were making his observations today, in watching boys, he would note the same qualities in them now as then, and suggest that we make use of their natural inclinations to their educational advantage. One cannot help but wonder if the structured learning in our schools is at least partially to blame for ADHD and the underperformance of boys. That schooling works for some may justify its existence, but that it doesn't work for others should call into question its methods. Howard Gardner popularized the notion that we learn in a variety of ways, that we each are smart in some ways and not others, and yet, there has been no direct implementation of his concepts in American classrooms. So, how do you go about such needed change? I call it the "strategic implementation of the hands" and create my own acronym "SITH." Make everything children learn "hands-on" meaning of course that it must engage the real world, the child's physical senses, and the opportunity to respond to learning through the arts. Simple enough. But it will take work, and it will take change.