‘Think about what a boy was doing 4,000 years ago,” she says Abigail Norfleet James, the author of “Teaching the Male Brain.” “A 10-year-old boy was in charge of the herd. He spent all his time on his feet, looking out in the distance. His eyes were designed to be attracted by movement, and he was very good at his weapon of choice, the slingshot. You take that child and move him to the present and his body and his skills have not changed. Put in him in a chair in a classroom, put a piece of paper 18 inches in front of him, tell him to focus for hours and then tell him he’s learning disabled because he can’t stay on task.”
James will speak on Monday, November 24, at Princeton Academy of the Sacred Heart, 1128 Great Road, Princeton. The all-boys school serves students from junior kindergarten through eighth grade and is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. James’s lecture is free and open to the public.
Her book addresses the following questions:
Are boys’ brains biologically different from girls’ brains in the way they are built and in the way they process information?
Does this make a difference in the way boys develop and learn?
Can understanding these gender differences make our schools more responsive to the needs of boys and help teachers become better teachers?
With the caveat that there are, of course, exceptions to every rule and not all boys and girls will fit into these models, the answer to these questions is a resounding yes, says James, a consultant who is nationally recognized for her expertise in developmental and educational psychology as applied to single-sex classroom. Her book explains the research and intellectual foundation for the new thinking about the way boys learn, and offers practical advice about how to apply this knowledge to the classroom, making a better learning experience not just for boys, but for girls as well.
“No matter what the boy’s background, it appears that the major problem any boy has in school is that he is a boy,” James writes. “Deal with that issue first and other efforts to include him in school are likely to be more successful.”
A growing stream of media reports shows boys falling behind in school while girls are gaining the upper hand. James, who taught for years in single-sex secondary schools, believes that many of the problems that boys have in school are the result of teaching practices that do not respond to the learning styles and approaches of the male brain.
James says most boys learn very well with a teaching style that incorporates activity, movement, and hands-on skills. While these strategies are used in a child’s early years, they fall off considerably later when those strategies are no longer considered age-appropriate. “One lesson that the American school system teaches boys well is how to hate school,” says James. “Ask kindergarten boys how much they like school and most will tell you how much fun their classes are. Ask a sixth-grade boy the same question and most likely he’ll tell you he doesn’t like school and can’t wait to get out.”
James suggests that all lessons, especially reading and writing exercises, can be adapted to a highly active style that is visual. “Some children absorb information more readily if they can touch, feel, and explore. A great place to incorporate this is in science classes that require physical engagement.”
James was born and raised in Orange, Virginia, outside of Richmond. Her father headed the foreign language department and taught French and Spanish at an all-boys boarding school, so her first home was an all-boys dormitory. Her mother, Elizabeth Copeland, managed public relations for the school and also reported for the Richmond, Virginia, newspapers. James had one brother, older by eight years.
She was sent to an all-girls Catholic high school in Richmond as a boarder because, she says, “Mother said she would not raise a high school-aged girl on campus with 320 boys.” But her lifelong interest in single-sex education already had been piqued. James earned a bachelor’s in science education in 1970 at Duke University, then a doctorate in educational psychology in 2001 from the University of Virginia.
Much of James’ knowledge about boys and learning also comes from her own personal experience of raising a son, Brennan, now 24 years old, with her husband, John, a landscape architect. “At Brennan’s first grade conference, his teacher told us he could not read. I was shocked. We had read to him every night of his life.” James teamed up with the parents of two other boys in the class to hire a teacher to teach phonics. “That helped, and by the third grade, Brennan was able to keep up with his assignments, but we continued to read long assignments to him. We were still reading aloud to him even in the fifth grade, but we had upped the level of the books, and we enjoyed the family togetherness of reading.
“It was a successful strategy. By continuing to read to him, we kept up his fluency and vocabulary. He also understood how a story hung together.”
Sixth grade was a major turning point. By then, Brennan was boarding at the American Boychoir School Princeton and pursuing his love of singing. “When he came home, he couldn’t keep a book out of his hands,” says James. What happened? “Before, it was all the girls in his class who were the good readers. Now he was in a community of boys where many of them loved to read, and now it was cool to read. By then, too, the left side of his brain had caught up, and all that reading aloud had helped him keep up.” With everything now in sync, Brennan became a motivated learner. He went to high school at the Ashville School in North Carolina and just graduated from Guilford College, also in North Carolina, with a degree in drama and music.
James’s experience with Brennan offers a starting point for tips for parents to motivate their boys to learn, regardless of whether they are in an all-boys or co-ed school:
No matter what their age, read out loud to them and up the ante on the level of difficulty. “My husband and I also alternated reading. With chapter books, he would read one book to him, and I read another. What that did to Brennan’s auditory memory was phenomenal. Reading out loud also helps maintain a connection between parent and child in a way that is lost in this country.”
Look at what sports coaches do because they are successful in motivating young men. Boys will work really hard to improve themselves in a sport, says James, but won’t do the same academically. Point out to your son that learning is a different kind of sport and he should start looking for personal bests. If he’s willing to spend time training to improve his soccer skills, try to figure out the same kind of thing in school.
Teach your son that losing is part of the process of becoming a winner. “Focus on the fact that by losing, you have learned something about yourself and the opponent that will help you the next time you face that opponent. Good athletes are good because they understand that winning is immaterial; doing your best is the most important part. The coach says okay, guys, we lost, but what did we learn today? Parents need to do more of that.”
Don’t praise in global terms. “Be specific with praise and criticism. When a boy does a lab report for me, he knows that it is a really good report because I give him specifics, for example, ‘you got the order right, and you got all the steps correct. You have a great analysis, but now you have to work on your conclusion.’”
Be very clear about the rules. “With boys, don’t say, ‘how would that make you feel if somebody did that to you?’ That may work for girls, but boys simply want to know 1.) Does that follow the rules? 2.) Are those always the rules? and 3.) Are you going to hold me to them? Once a boy trusts you always to follow through, you will not have behavioral problems. Don’t ever threaten them. By doing so, you are encouraging misbehavior, because now they want to figure out how much they can get away with.”
Be clear about the consequences. “A boy needs to see the physical consequences of his actions. We don’t teach boys to identify with consequences and their actions. Boys raised on farms have no problems understanding this. They know that if you leave the gate open, the cows will get out. With many boys today there is a blurring of ethics because too many parents are willing to take on their children’s failures. You will never grow up if your parents shoulder the blame.”
James says that while single-sex schools might be the right answer for some children, they are certainly not the right answer for everyone. “The world is co-ed. We are not going to go single sex. Parents need to determine the education of their children based on their individual needs and learning styles. I do try to point out to both parents and teachers that knowledge of these cognitive gender differences will make them more effective as educators because it will expand the way they offer their lessons. And that means every child, not just boys, will benefit.”
Author Event, Princeton Academy of the Sacred Heart, 1128 Great Road, Princeton. Monday, November 24, 7:30 p.m. Abigail Norfleet James, author of “Teaching the Male Brain,” speaks on developmental and educational psychology as applied to how boys learn. Free and open to the public. 609-924-8143 or www.princetonacademy.org.