November 17, 2017

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The Boy Problem: Many Boys Think School is Stupid and Reading Stinks

Is there a remedy?

Have you ever attended a Pentecostal service? I have… just once. I found it absolutely terrifying. People standing, waving their arms in the air, shouting unintelligible streams of words. I felt as though I had been locked in an asylum where I couldn’t understand the language the inmates were speaking.

Afterward, my friend Luis, who had invited me, asked me how I liked the service. “It was different,” I said, truthfully enough. “It’s not what I’m used to. How would you like to come to my church sometime?”

Luis shook his head. “I went to one of those services once, at a Methodist church,” he said. “When everybody started singing a hymn, I sang too. Then I raised my hands up in the air as I was singing. You would have thought I had just taken off all my clothes. People looked so embarrassed. They were trying not to look at me. Two teenage girls whispered and giggled and pointed at me. I put my hands back down, and I never went back.”

Everybody’s different. Luis found the Methodist service stifling and dull. But his Pentecostal service, for me, was noisy and distracting to the point of delirium. It would be silly to assert that one format is “better” than the other. Different formats exist because people are different.

I thought of Luis and his Pentecostal service when I visited the Cunningham School for Excellence, a preK–5 school in Waterloo, IA. This public school has adopted all-boys’ classes precisely in order to offer a different format for learning. In its all-boys’ classes, students are not required to sit still and be quiet. They are welcome to stand or sit or curl up under their desks, or jump up and down if they like. Just about anything is allowed, short of punching a classmate. When I first entered the classroom, it didn’t look like any classroom I had seen before. It looked more like a can of worms or a beehive, with boys gyrating, bouncing, and buzzing like bees. But the boys’ dynamic teacher, Jeff Ferguson, assured me that his students were paying attention and, in fact, they were thriving with the more relaxed format.

Storytime at the Cunningham School was more like that Pentecostal service than like any storytime I had seen before. Ferguson wasn’t sitting in a chair, nor was he standing still; he was walking around the room as he read a story. The boys weren’t sitting still either: they were standing or crouching or leaping up and down, interjecting their comments about the story just as people at the Pentecostal service liked to shout “Amen!” when the pastor made a point.

I attended an education conference last October, where I met Jill Renn and Betsy Stahler, who teach first and second grade at Hardey Prep, a K–8 parochial school on the northeast side of Chicago. These teachers, who instruct all-boys’ classes, have had great success with their new rules that “sitting is optional” and “talking is allowed.” They obtained adjustable-height desks for their students. If a boy likes to stand, he can raise his desk so that he can do his work while standing. If a boy prefers to sit on the floor, he can lower his desk to accommodate that preference as well. Stahler told me that the performance of her boys improved “200 percent” when she eliminated the requirement that students sit quietly in the classroom. I can share similar success stories from public schools in Foley, AL; Deland, FL; and Seattle, WA. These schools offer all-boys’ classes where students are welcome to stand, twirl, buzz, or hunker down on the floor; and in each instance, boys have become more engaged with academics and storytime.

You’ll notice that each of these schools offers all-boys’ classes. What’s that about?

In my first book, Why Gender Matters (Doubleday, 2005), I suggested that girls tend to be more aware of what’s going on around them than boys. So if Melissa is trying to pay attention to the teacher, but Justin, on her right, is making faces at her from underneath his desk, while Damien, on her other side, is slowly spinning and making a low-pitched sound, Melissa is likely to object. “How can I possibly concentrate, when Justin is making faces at me and Damien is buzzing?” she might say. But if a boy is sitting between Justin and Damien, that student will be much less likely to be distracted by their behavior. It sometimes amazes me just how oblivious young boys are to what’s going on around them.

The gender issue is relevant to classroom learning in more ways than one. Increasingly in the United States, young boys are saying that school is stupid and they don’t like to read. This phenomenon cuts across all demographic groups: it affects affluent white boys in the suburbs no less than it affects black boys in low-income neighborhoods. I was talking with my neighbor’s 11-year-old son, Jared, just before he went to summer camp. “What books are you going to read while you’re away?” I asked him.

“I’d rather be BURNED AT THE STAKE than read a book!” Jared shouted, making sure his mother could hear. Both of his parents are college educated; in fact, both are attorneys, and I happen to know that each of them reads all sorts of books. But Jared would rather play video games. This pattern—affluent, college-educated parents who love books, but whose sons think books are stupid—is not unusual today.

Thirty years ago, it would have been. Thirty years ago, if both parents were avid readers, their sons, as well as their daughters, would likely have been avid readers as well. Two years ago, Mark Bauerlein, the former director of research for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), and his colleague Sandra Stotsky published an important article documenting how much has changed (see “Recommended Reading”). From 1980 to 2004, NEA surveyed a demographically representative sample of our nation’s children and teens: rich and poor kids; urban, suburban, and rural; white, black, Asian, and Hispanic. The researchers discovered that there has always been a gender gap in the propensity of kids to read for fun. Girls have always been more likely to read for pleasure than boys. But the gender gap has now grown so wide that it has become “a marker of gender identity,” these authors concluded. “Girls read; boys don’t.”

The gender gap did not widen because girls are reading more; they’re not. In fact, girls are slightly less likely to read in their spare time today than they were in 1980. But roughly nine out of 10 boys have stopped reading altogether. Why?

Simple question, complex answer. There are actually five distinct and independent factors which have driven boys away from books over the past 30 years—factors which affect boys and not girls. Documenting those five factors is the main message of my latest book, Boys Adrift (Basic Books, 2007). Here’s a list of factors two through five:

2. Video games. Recent scholarly work demonstrates clearly that some of the most popular video games are distracting boys from real-world pursuits.

3. Medications for ADHD. Medications such as Adderall, Ritalin, Concerta, and Metadate, which are overprescribed, may be causing irreversible damage to the motivational centers of boys’ brains.

4. Endocrine disruptors. Environmental estrogens from plastic bottles and other sources may be throwing boys’ endocrine systems out of whack.

5. Devaluation of masculinity. Shifts in popular culture have transformed the role models of manhood. Forty years ago, we had Father Knows Best; today we have The Simpsons.

Let’s look briefly at the first of the five factors, which is:

1. Changes in education over the past three decades. How has kindergarten changed? Thirty years ago, kindergarten was primarily about socialization. Typical activities then would have included finger-painting, singing in rounds, playing duck-duck-goose, etc. Not any more. Today, kindergarten is first and foremost about teaching literacy and learning basic arithmetic. In 2007, the kindergarten curriculum at most American schools, both public and private, looks very much like the first-grade curriculum of 1977. Nowadays, it’s all about learning to read and write.

Why is that a bad thing?

It’s a bad thing because girls’ and boys’ brains develop differently, and for many boys, it’s simply not developmentally appropriate to ask them to learn to read at age five. A distinguished team of 15 neuroscientists, based primarily at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, MD, recently published a remarkable account of the development of the human brain (see “Recommended Reading”). Since the early 1990s, these investigators have been doing MRI scans on young children’s brains. The team’s July 2007 report was its most definitive account yet. Among the most striking findings were the differences in the developmental trajectories of girls and boys. These researchers have found that the various regions of the brain develop in a different sequence and tempo in girls compared with boys.

It now appears that the brain’s language centers in many five-year-old boys look like the language centers in the brains of the average three-and-a-half-year-old girl. Have you ever tried to teach a three-year-old girl to read? It’s frustrating, both for the teacher and the child. It’s simply not developmentally appropriate, to use the jargon of early childhood educators. You’re asking a young girl to do something that her brain is just not yet ready to do.

Trying to teach many five-year-old boys to read and write may be just as inappropriate. These boys aren’t dumb, any more than three-year-old girls are dumb. Timing is everything—in education as in many other fields. It’s not enough to teach well. You have to do the right thing at the right time. Asking five-year-old boys to learn to read—when they’d rather be running around or playing games—may be the worst possible introduction to school, at least for some boys.

It would be nice if we could change the primary school curriculum nationwide, to make it more developmentally appropriate by restoring recess to its rightful place and reintroducing field trips to the park, so that five-year-olds could splash in a pond and chase tadpoles, instead of sitting still and being quiet most of the day. But that’s not likely to happen anytime soon.

A more practical alternative that librarians and other educators can put into place right now is to offer a choice of storytime formats: Noisy-Time Storytime and Quiet-Time Storytime.

Here are the rules for the former:

  • You may stand, sit, or lie down. But please don’t bump your neighbor.
  • You may make noise if you want.
  • Tapping, rapping, and clicking are permitted.

Some familiar books that work great for this type of storytime include Shel Silverstein’s Runny Babbit (HarperCollins, 2005), Suzy Kline’s Horrible Harry and the Locked Closet (Viking, 2004), Kevin O’Malley’s Captain Raptor and the Moon Mystery (Walker, 2005), and Steve Jenkins and Robin Page’s What Do You Do with a Tail Like This? (Houghton, 2003).

School administrators who have introduced the “noisy time” format have found that it tends to work best in an all-boys setting. But that doesn’t mean Noisy–Time Storytime is exclusively for boys. If kids are free to choose which format they prefer, some girls may pick Noisy Time, and some boys may opt for Quiet-Time. Here are the rules for Quiet-Time Storytime:

  • Please sit still. Fidgeting distracts your neighbor.
  • Please be quiet. Noise may disturb your classmate.
  • No tapping, rapping, or clicking. Please keep your hands in your lap.

Insisting that every child attend a Quiet-Time Storytime is like insisting that everybody attend a Methodist service, and prohibiting the Pentecostal service. The end result is that you have fewer people attending. Offering a wider range of formats for storytime is one way of increasing the likelihood that all your students will learn to love books—and school.

And we can all shout, “Amen!” to that.

Recommended Reading

Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men.

Sax, Leonard. Basic Books, 2007.

This book includes many suggestions for getting boys hooked on books and learning. Its Web site (www.boysadrift.com) includes a rebuttal of a recent Time magazine cover story, “The Myth About Boys” (www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1647452,00.html), which claims that today’s boys are doing just fine.

Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-deficit Disorder.

Louv, Richard. Algonquin Books, 2005.

The author charts the 30-year shift in American education from experiential outdoor learning to didactic classroom learning—and makes a passionate case for restoring more of a balance between the two.

“Reclaiming Kindergarten: Making Kindergarten Less Harmful to Boys.”

Sax, Leonard. Psychology of Men and Masculinity, 2001, vol. 2, pp. 3–12. www.boysadrift.com.

A close look at the acceleration of the kindergarten curriculum and recommended remedies, including spending more time outdoors and delaying boys’ entrance into kindergarten.

“Sexual Dimorphism of Brain Developmental Trajectories Curing Childhood and Adolescence.”

Lenroot, Rhoshel, Nitin Gogtay, Deanna Greenstein, et al., NeuroImage, 2007, vol. 36, pp. 1065–1073.

The latest report on brain development from the National Institute of Mental Health’s study group.

Teaching the Male Brain: How Boys Think, Feel, and Learn in School.

James, Abigail. Corwin Press, 2007.

A practical nuts-and-bolts guide from an educator with more than 20 years’ experience in all-boys’ classrooms.

Why Gender Matters: What Parents and Teachers Need to Know about the Emerging Science of Sex Differences.

Sax, Leonard. Doubleday, 2005.

The title says it all. For more information, visit www.whygendermatters.com.

“Why Johnny Won’t Read.”

Bauerlein, Mark, and Sandra Stotsky. Washington Post, January 25, 2005. www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A33956-2005Jan24.html.

An overview of a study by the National Endowment for the Arts, which found that today’s boys are less likely to read for pleasure.


Author Information
Family physician and psychologist Leonard Sax is the founder and executive director of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education (www.singlesexschools.org).
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