Parents making decisions about schools are going to experience feelings of uncertainty. In fact, they might feel caught in a game of Red Rover. Coed vs. single-sex? All involved, including psychologists, have various opinions, and most are more than willing to share their thoughts or engage in debate. In the book Why Gender Matters, Dr. Leonard Sax discusses gender differences and explains that girls and boys enter the classroom with different needs, abilities, and goals. Most experts, including Dr. Sax, agree that boys are in crisis. The trouble is that most schools are not designed with boys in mind. Instead, they celebrate students who can sit still, listen carefully, respond verbally, and multitask — and girls are usually the ones who fit that description. It should be no surprise then that females now surpass males in college enrollment. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 11.7 million females will attend college in fall 2016, compared with 8.8 million males. Many advocates of single-sex education feel that brain-based differences should not only be acknowledged and accepted but also used to enhance student success among both genders.
At PDS, we choose to know boys. Boys aren’t just loud, squirmy, messy, and sometimes smelly; they are energetic, curious, and competitive. Ask any boy at any school, “What is your favorite part of the school day?” Inevitably, the answer is recess or P.E. This is not surprising. In fact, brain research, as explained in Boys and Girls Learn Differently by Michael Gurian, reveals that in addition to having higher rates of metabolism, boys’ brains secrete less serotonin than girls’. This makes boys more impulsive and fidgety. Gurian says that boys need movement to not only relieve impulsive behavior but also to stimulate their brains.
Because we intentionally seek to be a boys’ school, research of this nature drives both our school schedule and classroom design. Elementary boys attend P.E. on a daily basis, and opportunities for unstructured recess exist for all grade levels. Classroom spaces are designed with flexible seating arrangements, allowing students to get up and move around rather than always sitting in desks. It is common to see boys standing at their desks, working in classroom nooks, or sitting in bouncy chairs.
In 2009, a study was commissioned by the International Boys School Coalition to identify successful teaching practices for boys in schools across six countries. The study revealed that boys often experience successful learning outcomes when the lesson includes an element of surprise, a hands-on activity, a moment of competition, or an opportunity to role-play. This supports what we see in action every day at PDS. Our boys are much more excited to engage in learning activities when competition is involved.
Step into a first-grade classroom during a game of Sparkle (a spelling game), and you will see boys light up as they practice their spelling skills. An all-boys setting allows the students to try out new roles and experiences without the worry of girls being present. In fifth and sixth grade, Mr. Hatcher invites boys to bring history to life by acting out scenes from America’s past. Walk into the lunchroom, and you might find a sixth-grader standing on a table reciting Teddy Roosevelt’s “The Man in the Arena.” We completely agree that boys learn best by being active and experiencing hands-on learning. Learning about plants? We’re going to grow them. Studying electricity? Let’s construct a circuit.
Abigail James, author of Teaching the Male Brain, cautions that boys might give up on school if they cannot find ways to be successful. In a coed setting, it can be overwhelming for boys to compete with girls’ early acquisition of verbal skills. Girls will read earlier, and often that advantage continues through high school. As a result, boys struggling to keep up can begin to think that reading is not for them. It is important for us to push back on this mindset by helping our boys experience an adventurous reading life.
PDS teachers encourage boys to choose high-interest books within a comfortable reading range. We intentionally teach reading in small-group settings and introduce our students to books featuring strong male characters. Although boys often prefer nonfiction, we encourage them to engage with all types of reading genres. A quick glance at a PDS boy’s reading log might reveal time spent reading the sports section of the newspaper, a fantasy book by J.R.R. Tolkien, or a historical graphic novel. Our reading workshop approach accepts that boys develop on a different timetable than girls and allows them to build an authentic reading life.
There is no debate that the single-sex environment at PDS provides unique learning opportunities that are specifically geared to meet boys’ needs. While we spend time studying effective pedagogical strategies, we also know that the relationships we develop with our students are often the backbone of their school experience. Michael Reichert and Richard Hawley explore the importance of relational teaching in their recent book, I Can Learn from You: Boys as Relational Learners. Reichert and Hawley share several studies that indicate relationship as one of the most important aspects of a boy’s educational experience. Boys appreciate teachers who get to know them, and they will often find motivation to overcome academic challenges when engaged in a positive teacher-student relationship. PDS boys are lucky to be impacted not only by teachers but also by coaches, mentors, and administrators.
Each step in the journey at PDS is a strategic decision to bring out the best in our boys. We invite all boys to join us in the journey — Red Rover, Red Rover, send ALL the boys over!
Does a Typical School Classroom Underestimate the Ability of Boys?
• A nationwide study by Marcia Gentry and her associates, published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, confirmed what many earlier studies had suggested: at every age, boys in coed schools are less enthusiastic about school than girls are.
• Boys’ brains secrete less serotonin than girls’. This makes boys more impulsive and fidgety.
• The hippocampus, where memory and language live, does develop more rapidly and is larger in girls than in boys. This impacts vocabulary, reading and writing skills.
• Boys, have more of their cerebral cortex defined for spatial relationships. As a result, they learn easily through movement and visual experience.
• Across all grade levels and academic subjects, girls earn higher grades than boys. Not just in the United States, but across the globe, in countries as far afield as Norway and Hong Kong.
• According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 11.7 million females will attend college in fall 2016, compared with 8.8 million males.