The past 10 years have put tremendous pressure on public education to change. There is growing dismay that the U.S. education system spends considerably more and achieves less than that of many other countries. Over the past year, federal funding for the Race to the Top competition leveraged even stronger incentives for states to pass legislation holding teachers accountable for students’ progress—despite the lack of clear evidence to support the contention that corporate-based strategies such as merit pay and performance metrics lead to improved student performance. Our own work with teachers over the past 25 years leaves us skeptical that current educational reform proposals address the real basis of effective schooling: teaching approaches that produce demonstrably engaged and self-directed learners, even among the seemingly most school-resistant population of students—boys.
Good teaching, in other words, derives from a creative process of mutual responsiveness that is based, ultimately, in teachers' abilities to care, to be present, and to be flexible."
At every grade level and in every demographic category, boys are dragging down overall achievement averages. In fact, because they constitute the bulk of school dropouts, the real degree to which boys achieve poorly is actually masked by their exclusion from these same achievement averages. Casting, as some have, the declining school performance of males as the unavoidable consequence of female advances is neither accurate nor fair; boys are not turning off to school in some reaction to girls’ success. As educational historian Michele Cohen has said, in fact, a “habit of healthy idleness” has characterized the approach of many boys to schooling for generations.
As it happens, we now have better insight into the relative disengagement of boys from schooling and the corrective measures that dedicated teachers can take. In an international survey I recently conducted with Richard Hawley that reached 1,000 teachers and 1,500 adolescent male students in six countries, including the United States, we solicited narratives of “most effective practices” and “most memorable experiences” and were able to identify several underlying themes in the thoughtful and often deeply personal responses we received. Among the key components to approaches that work was the finding that boys, at their best, are “relational learners” and that the relationships teachers and students mutually forge precede their engagement in classroom lessons. This finding was found across geographical boundaries and various types of schools, at all grade levels, in all scholastic disciplines, and independently of the gender of the teacher. Fundamental to this necessary relationship-formation were a number of ways in which teachers establish a distinctive and enabling “presence” with their students. The survey results indicated that boys need to feel their teachers—their warmth, their mastery, their inspiration—before opening up to invest themselves in learning.
Once established, the right kind of teacher-student relationship grows in effectiveness as students and teachers alike come to realize and trust the reciprocal nature of their relationship, so that in time, students—even the most challenged and challenging—come to elicit from their teachers the kinds of instruction they need. For this reciprocal communication process to work, however, teachers must be keenly attentive to students’ reactions and in a position to respond to their feedback with adjustments in how they conduct the lesson, until they get it just right. Good teaching, in other words, derives from a creative process of mutual responsiveness that is based, ultimately, in teachers’ abilities to care, to be present, and to be flexible.
In sum, our study’s findings offer a ray of hope for improving boys’ scholastic performance, not to mention American educational practice—and in terms teachers can clearly recognize as bearing on their daily work. The variety of proven, successful approaches offered by the teachers in our study—approaches warmly validated by the students—present a promising alternative to much that is being proposed by education pundits, such as “motivating” (in fact, threatening) teachers by linking their professional evaluation (and pay) to their students’ performance on standardized tests.
From the distance of a legislature or a state department of education, it can be seductively tempting to reduce the complex and deeply personal human relationships underlying effective teaching to clear and chartable “metrics” with their sheen of “science” and precision—a mirage that continues to beckon despite decades of failed practice in school systems and states that have adopted test-driven assessments.
There has to date been far too much analytical effort directed at the putative cultural or systemic causes of school failure and, in particular, the failure of boys to thrive in school, when there is massive and easily accessible data showing exactly how teachers and boys get it right every day and in every type of school. Teachers who succeed with boys—and with all types of students—are not only at hand; they are, we have found, eager to share their experiences with their colleagues and all who are concerned about the general welfare of children. And this, as we reckon, should be very good and welcome news.
A version of this article appeared in the November 17, 2010 edition of Education Week as Hopeful News Regarding the Crisis In U.S. Education