While there have been all-boys and all-girls schools in place for centuries, it’s only been in recent years that scientific research has shown why such schools are the better option in many cases for educating young people. What’s been considered “old-fashioned” and even counter to today’s notion of gender equity is experiencing greater attention these days as schools, both public and private, look for better way to shape young people – in our case, boys – into successful adults.
It was cultural and social norms – not scientific findings – that had been the rationale for all-boys schools in decades past. Military academies, such as the Army and Navy Academy (hereafter referred as “Academy”), a college preparatory boarding school for boys in Carlsbad, Calif., have known intuitively and from first-hand experience that middle- and high school-age boys thrive in a single-gender, military-oriented setting where the moral concepts of duty, loyalty, compassion, honor, integrity, courage, respect, and gratitude are important parts of a boy’s education.
But the value of a single-gender learning environment for boys goes far beyond character development. Recent studies show that boys are failing in the standard co-educational school systems. In such settings, boys typically get lower grades than girls; they are more likely to be suspended or expelled; more likely to be prescribed ADHD medication and be placed in special education programs.
In recent years, scientists who study how children learn as well as the physical structure of the human brain have learned why there’s the need for different learning environments and methodologies for boys and girls Their conclusion is based on one primary finding: Boys learn differently than girls, based on their biology.
A few reasons why boys learn differently than girls.
Author and social philosopher Michael Gurian operates a Spokane, Wash.-based institute bearing his name that trains educators, counselors, parents, and other child advocate agencies on teaching practices that optimize learning for each gender. Schools that underwent intensive training included the Academy which was designated a leader in single-gender education as a Gurian Institute Model School in 2015.
Gurian’s research, as well as that of others, has identified several behavioral traits of how boys learn differently than girls, including the following:
- The cerebral cortex of the human brain houses memory, attentiveness, language, and other attributes that impact learning. A boy’s cerebral cortex is mostly dedicated to spatial functioning as opposed to a girl’s brain that typically is focused on verbal skills. Using this knowledge now enables educators, including those at the Army and Navy Academy to design instruction that targets each gender’s strengths and therefore enhances learning. Their findings include the following:
- Boys need to move around to stay alert and focused. They even prefer being on their feet during lessons and other learning activities.
- Boys typically thrive more on competition than girls who usually prefer collaboration.
- Boys’ eyes function best in bright settings and natural light.
- Boys tend to excel in classes where the teacher is not only an educator but a mentor as well. That doesn’t appear to be as important a requirement for girls.
- Boys tend to require more and varying visual stimulants to keep them attentive than girls. They favor symbolic texts and diagrams that stimulate the brain’s right hemisphere where boys are typically more developed than their female peers.
- Since it’s been widely observed that boys have more behavioral problems than girls, boys need more physical activity, not only to stimulate their brains but to manage and relieve impulsive behaviors.
Some benefits and results of an all-boys learning environment
- The Academy, along with other single-gender schools for boys adapt their teaching strategies and physical environment to focus on the specific methods, techniques, and best practices to help boys become more engaged in learning and better all-around students.
- A single-gender learning environment reduces distractions that would occur in co-educational settings where boys often pay more attention to those of the opposite gender than pursuing their own personal development skills.
- Students are often more willing to take greater risks to excel academically when they feel safe from the fear of failing in front of classmates of the opposite sex.
- A single-gender educational setting provides boys the comfort to pursue extra-curricular roles that appeal most to them as well. Again, using the Academy as an example, that school’s middle- and high-school-age boys have the opportunity fill every role in a traditional school setting; from student government, Cadet Corps, and sports leaders to scientific experts and even literary or performing arts as “stars.”
A three-year study by Stetson University of the effects of gender-tailored curricula was tested several years ago in a Florida public school where a group of fourth-grade boys was divided into two cohorts – one co-educational, the other all boys. The same number of students in each class covered the same curriculum. At the end of the study, the boys in the all-boys group produced dramatically higher proficiency scores in reading, science, math, and writing on what was then the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) than the boys in the co-educational class – 86 percent compared to 37 percent respectively.
A similar study also several years ago in Washington state reported that a cohort of boys who were moved into a single-gender educational setting moved soared from 10 and 30 percent performance rankings they had achieved in co-educational classes on the former Washington Assessment of Student Learning up to 73 percent in an all-boys class.
How to help boys learn to become successful in school
So, how can schools teach boys effectively? Gurian listed several essential strategies in an article published by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development a few years ago. What follows are few strategies teachers can use in teaching boys:
- Increase use of graphics, pictures, and storyboards in literature classes and assignments. High school-age boys tend to write with more details, retain more information and achieve better grades when such resources are used.
- Include project-based educational approaches to facilitate hands-on, kinesthetic learning. The more learning that is hands-on and project-driven, the more boys’ senses will be engaged in learning, causing more information to be retained, remembered, and displayed on tests and assignment.
- Provide competitive learning opportunities while holding cooperative learning frameworks. Examples include content-related games and activities for which there are achievable goals.
- Include skills training in time management, how to do homework successfully, and class management. The classroom is the optimum venue for boys to learn how to manage time, do homework, and follow directions.
- Leave 50 percent of reading and writing choices in a classroom to the boys themselves. Non-traditional materials such as novels, magazines and even comic books increases boys’ engagement in reading and improves both creative and expository writing.
- Move around the classroom during class. A teacher’s physical movements increase boys’ engagement and moves the teacher closer to the boys to use “brain breaks” – quick, one-minute brain-awakening activities that keep boys’ minds engaged.
- Allow boys to move around as needed in classrooms while learning and practicing self-discipline in how and where they can move. This strategy is particularly useful when boys are reading or writing. When boys twitch, tap feet, stand up or pace, they are often learning better than if they sit still.
Understanding the differences between how boys learn differently than girls and doing something about in the school classroom is critical to better preparing today’s teen-age sons to become successful adults in tomorrow’s world.