Author Says Schools Don’t Accomodate Boys’ Learning Style
William S. Pollack, a clinical psychologist, the director of the Center for Men and Young Men at McLean Hospital, and an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard University Medical School, has written numerous books on boys’ emotional, psychological, and social needs. He recently spoke with Staff Writer Michelle Galley about how boys fit in to the current educational environment.
Q. In Real Boys, you wrote, “It is in the classroom that we see some of the most destructive effects of society’s misunderstanding of boys.” How does society misunderstand boys, and how does that play out in schools?
A. It is important that we don’t blame schools as being a place where we misunderstand boys, with the idea that we understand them everywhere else. Most co-educational classrooms across America are some of the most unfriendly places for boys.
And that’s not because there is a war on boys, and that’s not because teachers don’t care about them, or because superintendents and principals aren’t interested in them. It’s because our understanding of what makes boys happy in a classroom, what normal behavior is for boys, what the best environment for learning is like, and what approaches we need to take in teaching boys has not been high on our priority list.
As a result, we’ve often misunderstood boys’ energy for hyperactivity. We’ve tried to teach them how to read and write too early and in ways that don’t work. And we’ve often used forms of discipline that are shaming and hurtful.
Q. Why is it important for educators to nurture the emotional growth of boys?
A. It is as important for educators to nurture the emotional growth of boys as it for girls, although the means we may use may be different, given both the social and biological differences that boys present when they enter school and throughout their school years.
Q. What are some of those differences?
A. The research is still out, [but] I think boys tend to learn through manipulation and through movement of objects, and through being able to move around physically.
If we create classes that allow boys to have more recesses, that allow boys to learn math by doing, that allow boys to roam and move within the school setting, we are creating an emotional link to boys in which boys feel empathic and understood.
Then we can also talk about their feelings and emotional intelligence as well as intellectual functioning, because they feel connected to us, they feel understood by us, and they feel good about themselves in the learning.
If, on the other hand, we create an environment where boys are required to sit in their seat, not to call out too much, and not be too active, then we squelch much of the action that boys engage in.
We are still bringing our boys up according to what I call “boy code.” Early on, society tells them that they shouldn’t show their feelings. Society and parents unwittingly teach them fewer words for those emotions. Instead, what they use are actions.
A lot of the way they communicate is through action, and a lot of the way schools try to structure things is through talk. Sometimes, you get a disconnect as a result. If you realize what “action talk” is, you can learn how to translate for the boy and for the school, and all of the sudden the connections come back together.
The second piece is that if we want to have happy, caring, loving, and empathic boys, we have to start by being empathic to boys and what their needs are, rather than seeing them as being deficient and not fitting into our models.
Q. Should boys and girls be taught differently?
A. Because of the way that boys and girls are brought up in society, they come to school already socialized in a different way. Does that mean that we shouldn’t help girls learn the kinds of things that boys have? And [not] help boys learn the kinds of things that girls have? Absolutely not.
But it does mean we have to recognize that we are getting two very different entities on the whole. Now, of course, I’m generalizing. There are many boys who are very sensitive and very talkative, and very able to put things into words. There are many girls who are very action-oriented and movement-related. I wouldn’t want to make it seem that every boy is this way or every girl is this way.
But the majority of them come to us in a different way, and we have to have curricula and emotional attitudes that honor that difference. Meet them where they’re at—boy and girl—and then help move both of them along with the idea that, as time goes on, there will be more crossover, and each can learn from each other. But we [need to] realize that there are differences from the beginning and [not] penalize boys as a result of that.
Q. What changes do you suggest schools should make to create an equitable learning enviroment?
A. A couple of things. One is to recognize boys’ learning tempo. The average boy learns to read nine months later than the average girl does. Between nine and 12 months later in the capacity for writing and forming written words. Yet our curricula continue to teach boys and girls as though there were no gender differences.
Whether you call the reading groups the kangaroo group and the zebra group, or the orange group and the yellow group, by the time boys are in 3rd grade, they feel girls read better and faster. Reading, as one boy said, “is for girls.”
So we have to recognize the differences, intervene early on, and give [boys] a curriculm that fits for them. If boys learn how to read at a slower and different pace, then recognize that as not being bad, but different.
The average boy, up until the 4th or 5th grade, needs between four and five recesses. He is lucky in most public schools if he gets one. And what happens if he squirms in his seat and he acts out? He is usually told that he is bad, and he is punished. Or he is told that he is hyperactive and there is something wrong with him.
Q. Why do you think more boys than girls are placed in special education classes?
A. Well, special education is a fascinating question, because we have a big debate about single-gender education in America. We already have single-gender education, and it is called special education. Between 70 percent and 75 percent of all special education classes are boys.
I think that exists because the classic classroom doesn’t recognize boys’ natural behavior tempo, and so boys either feel like they don’t fit in, and they start to act out. Boys aren’t taught to express their feelings early on, and they have a harder time doing it. They will do it through action or behavior, and then we say they are being bad.
The curriculum is set up in a way that works better for girls. Not because we are favoring girls, because it just happens to work better for girls, and the boys don’t do it as well.
[Then] we say boys aren’t performing well enough, and they need special attention. Now that would be OK if special attention really meant paying attention to special needs. But we all know that “special needs” is really just a euphemism for being to some extent defective and not fitting into a system.
Erik Erikson, the great child psychologist, said years ago that when a disease or a disorder in children reaches a number above 10 or 20 percent, we need to stop calling it an illness or a problem and start saying it is normal or normative, and wonder what it is about our society that is wrong, rather than the child.
A version of this article appeared in the January 23, 2002 edition of Education Week as Q & A