Have our Boys been Forgotten?

In the new post-pandemic world, nothing looks quite the same. Arguably, the greatest shift in our culture is our common understanding and language around biological sex. What is a man? What is a woman? Does gender impact learning? Three questions that have become increasingly dangerous to answer. In the world of academia, they are landmines quietly waiting to devastate a tenured career. Given the climate where gender relativism and toxic masculinity are king, our young men are paying the highest price. Have our boys been forgotten?

The History of Teaching Boys

Presently, industrialized educational systems have become hostile to the modern-day male learner. Before today’s schools educated the masses of society, boys learned necessary skills from invested parental figures (Gurian & Stevens, 2007). In small tribal communities or vocational apprenticeships, boys were equipped to be productive members of society with an inherent utilitarian drive to their learning. Gurian and Stevens (2007) explain, “Boys learned what they needed to know by hunting with their relatives, managing a farm, fixing machinery, or devising a new invention for everyone in their tribe to use–boys now find themselves in boxlike rooms” (p. 21). Rather than seeing an immediate need for the skills they are learning, boys now spend thirteen years progressing through a curriculum that does not immediately pertain to the success of their future lives. Educating kids through reading, writing, and sitting in one’s seat has become the “acceptable standard” within our schools (Gurian and Stevens, 2007, p. 21). These “acceptable standards” of educating our youth have created devastating consequences for young adolescent males. Around the world, boys take part in educational experiences that fail to support how their brains acquire new information effectively. Simply stated, modern educators are not adequately trained to teach the male brain. In turn, schools are quick to reward compliant behavior over authentic academic growth. These two practices increasingly marginalize male learners year after year.

The State of Males in Education

In comparison to their female counterparts, male learners are underachieving in most aspects of their educational lives. Academically, behaviorally, and socially, boys are not being adequately equipped or supported.
According to Gurian & Stevens (2007), “In thirty-five developed countries–girls outperformed boys in overall educational markers, the male results skewing the overall statistics most dramatically in the basic areas of reading and writing” (p. 21). Nationally, boys account for two-thirds of all Ds and Fs (Gurian, 2017, p. 7). While some boys are performing well, they only account for 40 percent of all As (Gurian, 2017, p. 7). Additionally, boys are responsible for lowering state and federal test scores each year (Gurian & Stevens, 2007, p. 24). Not only are these effects being felt in K-12 schools, each year, fewer males advance to the collegiate level. Sax (2016) states, “The university is where the gender gap in motivation really shows up. Men are the minority at college, and they have been for three decades now. Women are now more likely to attend college than their brothers are; and, once enrolled, women are now more likely than their brothers to earn a degree. Among those pursuing advanced degrees in American universities, women now outnumber men by 59 percent to 41 percent” (p. 9).

Behaviorally, male students are more likely to earn disciplinary consequences and be labeled with learning differences. Gurian & Stevens (2007) explain, “Recent studies show that not only are boys’ self-esteem more fragile than that of girls and that boys’ confidence as learners is impaired but also that boys are substantially more likely to endure disciplinary problems, be suspended from classes, or actually drop out to of school” (p. 24). In K-12 schools, boys are four times more likely to be suspended compared to girls (Gurian, 2017, p. 8). Gurian (2017) further explains:

Boys are twice as likely as girls to be labeled “emotionally disturbed” and twice as likely to be diagnosed with a behavioral or learning disorder. One in every forty-two boys lives somewhere on the autism spectrum. This and other male-specific brain disorders are rising exponentially year by year. One in eleven Americans, most of them boys, are diagnosed with ADD/ADHD. Our Gurian Institute research in 2,000 schools shows that at least one-third of schoolboys diagnosed with ADD/ADHD are misdiagnosed. Suicide kills approximately 30,000 American boys and men per year, and males kill themselves at four times the rate of girls. (p. 8)

Clearly, boys do not fit the ideal behavioral mold in our current educational systems. With disciplinary infractions and medical prescriptions on the rise, boys are in desperate need of a change.

Socially, boys are misunderstood and overcontrolled in hypersensitive school cultures. In the past, boys were allotted the freedom to make mistakes and learn from natural consequences. Today, the natural tendency for adolescent boys to make impulsive decisions are now met with the full force of school disciplinary policy. For example, Sax (2016) elaborates:

Boys have always written stories of traumatic amputation and violent death. In 1977, writing such a story might earn you an award. Today, it may earn you a suspension. Forty years ago, kids could throw snowballs at each other on school grounds without being yelled at. Today, at most schools, they can’t. Boys doing things that boys have always done now get boys in trouble. (p. 54)

Additionally, Sax (2016) explains a similar shift in understanding boys socially in today’s schools:

Gym class used to offer many opportunities for boys to experience “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” –even if the game was just kickball or dodgeball. But over the past 30 years, many school districts have eliminated sports such as dodgeball, in the belief that dodgeball and similar sports reward violence. Likewise, competition has been systematically eliminated from many districts’ physical education programs, in the belief that competition alienates some kids from sports. And perhaps it does. But some boys need the zest of competition as a motivator. (p. 57)

Legally, schools do need to protect themselves from liability threats by enacting zero-tolerance policies. However, these and other strict mandates only further increase discipline referrals for young men without providing tangible evidence of reducing violence or remedying negative behavior (Sax, 2016, p. 55). As a result, more boys conclude that schools are not for them.

Understanding the Boy Brain

Before schools can begin to truly support male learners, they must first understand how the male brain differs from the female brain. First, let’s note that the human brain is the most complicated object in the universe (Jensen, 2005). As a result, the way the brain learns is equally as complex. During the learning process, new information is first received through our senses and then processed through a combination of brain regions. Continual repetition of skill or greater applied depth of information will create stronger neurological pathways. Therefore, incorporating practice and multiple modalities into our lessons is key. For boys, this is especially true. Understanding the following five key regions of the brain can have transformational effects for our male learners.

  1. Prefrontal Cortex
  • The prefrontal cortex is referred to as the “headquarters” of the brain, housing metacognition and executive function (Wilson & Conyers, 2016, 37).
  • “It’s involved with purposeful activities like judgment, creativity, problem-solving, and planning.It also holds short-term memory so you can juggle two or more thoughts at once” (Jensen, 2005, p. 9-10).
  • Since the prefrontal cortex develops later for boys, they often struggle to develop metacognitive skills, understand the complexities of problems, and remain organized.
  • The lack of self-control contributes to increased missing assignments and impulsive behavior issues within a classroom (Jensen, 2005, p. 30).
2. Motor Cortex
  • “The motor cortex aids in managing voluntary movements, while Broca’s area of the brain is crucial in processing speech. The motor cortex is the brain’s most reliable memory area. If you haven’t been on a bike in 20 years, you can still ride one perfectly well…because complex bike riding information is stored in your motor cortex” (Biffle, 2013, p. 18).
  • Because boys don’t learn best by sitting and talking, the motor cortex is highly underutilized by educators (Gurian & Stevens, 2007, p. 49-50).
  • Connecting concepts to movements and gestures better allow male students to commit that information to their long-term memories and further develop their prefrontal cortex.
  • When educators solely rely on verbally communicating content, most boys are inherently placed at a disadvantage.
3.Visual Cortex
  • “[The visual cortex] occupies such a substantial area that some scientists call the brain the ‘seeing brain.’ The visual cortex is one of the brain’s most trustworthy memory areas. You remember faces much better than names because information about how people look is stored in your visual cortex” (Biffle, 2013, p. 19).
  • “The male brain, on average, relies more heavily than does the female on spatial-mechanical stimulation and thus is inherently more stimulated by diagrams, pictures, and objects moving through space than the monotony of words” (Gurian & Stevens, 2007, p. 53).
  • Using strong visuals activates the visual cortex for increased retention of information.
4.Temporal Lobe & Wernicke’s Area
  • Within the temporal lobe is Wernicke’s area; an important region for hearing and understanding language (Biffle, 2013, p. 19). Wernicke’s area, the main language center of the brain, develops earlier in females (Gurian & Stevens, 2007, p. 49).
  • Girls have, in general, stronger neural connectors in their temporal lobes than boys do; these stronger connectors appear to facilitate more sensorial detailed memory storage and better listening, especially for tones of voice. Boys, in general, pick up less of what is naturally going on around them, especially when it is said in words, and need more sensory-tactile experience than girls in order for their brains to light up with learning (Gurian & Stevens, 2007, p. 48).
  • Due to the delayed maturation of the Wernicke’s area in boys, the practice of lecturing in schools is not a developmentally appropriate practice.
5. Limbic System
  • The limbic system helps to regulate emotions and store memories (Wilson & Conyers, 2016, 36).
  • There are more connections from the limbic system to the prefrontal cortex, rather than the other way around. Therefore, our emotions can easily outweigh rational thought (Biffle, 2013, p. 20).
  • “Growing up is often a struggle between unequal forces, a partially-developed prefrontal cortex trying to guide a fully mature limbic system. The hand of a child trying to rein in the emotions of an adult” (Biffle, 2013, p. 21).
  • This unique pairing contributes to the increasing disciplinary infractions on male students and their inability to self-regulate in overly controlled classroom environments.

The Hope in Christian Education

The world has presented a beautiful opportunity for Christian schools to champion the beauty of God’s creation within our children. As believers, we need to look no further than Genesis 1 to see His intentionality and purpose for mankind. Created in His own image. Male and female He created them. So, as Christian educators, let us teach with the brain in mind. Let us question industrialized learning systems. Let us ensure that children, boys and girls, are truly seen for their inherent worth and purpose. Let us personalize the learning process for all learners. Let us cultivate rich learning communities that once bestowed masculinity within our young men. Let us never forget our boys.

 Tyler Eatherton

Tyler Eatherton serves as the Middle School & Junior High Principal at Little Rock Christian Academy in Little Rock, Arkansas. He oversees LRCA's student house system and teaches junior high leadership classes. Tyler is a co-creator of The StoriED School, an educational mindset and two-day professional development experience for Christian educators. 


 Works Cited

  • Biffle, C. (2013). Whole brain teaching for challenging kids: (and the rest of your class, too!). Whole Brain Teaching LLC.
  • Gurian, M., & Stevens, K. (2007). The minds of boys: saving our sons from falling behind in school and life (1st ed.). Jossey-Bass.
  • Gurian, M. (2017). Saving our sons: a new path for raising healthy and resilient boys. Gurian Institute.
  • Jensen, E. (2005). Teaching with the brain in mind, Revised 2nd Edition (Revised 2nd ed.). ASCD.
  • Sax, L. (2016). Boys adrift: the five factors driving the growing epidemic of unmotivated boys and underachieving young men (Revised, Updated ed.). Basic Books.
  • Wilson, D., & Conyers, M. (2016). Teaching students to drive their brains: metacognitive strategies, activities, and lesson ideas. ASCD.
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Comments on "Have our Boys been Forgotten?"

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Craig Doerksen - Friday, September 16, 2022

The realities unpacked here--and the implications for how we 'do' education and school--cannot be overstated: they call for no less than a redesign of school. I say this as one who started a school to tackle a parallel set of challenges, and found that \_these\_ concerns were perhaps equally important--boys engaged with a sense of 'doing' and 'building' while they learn history, English, and the rest of the traditional cerebral academic subjects we are all familiar with, become a different kind of student altogether--curious, engaged, creative, leaders. All I would add is this--don't just teach with the brain in mind--teach with the body in mind: it will activate the minds in ways yiuy (and parents) didn't dare hope possible.

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