South Kent and Hotchkiss: Boys Education Comes Into Focus

I’ve written before about the question posed by one of my colleagues — the father of two boys — 25+ years ago when girls education and achievement was on the front burner, on high heat.

He asked (paraphrased), “Has, or is, anyone considering, what our full, almost exclusive attention to helping girls close the achievement gap, means for boys?”

Two and a half decades later, we have our answer. Traditional schools have changed and, as gross groups, girls have surged ahead of boys in educational achievement.

Now, we’re asking what do we need to do for boys?

A couple of readings that I’ve found in the last few days provide some interesting reading on the subject. I like the complexity that both pieces bring to the discussion:

The first, David Leonhardt’s NYT piece, A Link Between Fidgety Boys and a Sputtering Economy provides brief sysnopsis coming out of the social science on the causes and possible solutions with a nice quick set-up on the directions from which the two primary research camps approach the issues.

The second, Passport to education: Project-Based Learning is practical, looking at how two Connecticut boarding schools — South Kent School and Hotchkiss School — incorporate boys specific approaches into their teaching and curricula.

Leonhardt’s NYT piece:

‘We know we’ve got a crisis, and the crisis is with boys,’ said Elaine Kamarck, a resident scholar at Third Way and a former Clinton administration official. ‘We’re not quite sure why it’s happening.’

Two of the leading theories involve single-parent families and schools.

The experts who study the subject disagree on the solutions. Some, like Ms. Buchmann and Mr. DiPrete, point out that boys still do quite well in the best-performing schools. When good grades bring high status, boys respond. To the researchers in this camp, the answer involves improving schools, which will have a disproportionate effect on boys, rather than changing schools to be more attuned to boys’ needs.

Others, like Christina Hoff Sommers, argue that today’s education system fails to acknowledge the profound differences between boys and girls. It asks boys to sit still for hours every day and provides them with few role models in front of the classroom. Just as the dearth of female science professors hampers would-be female science majors in college, the dearth of male fourth-grade teachers creates problems for 10-year-old boys.

My own sense is that both sides have a point — and that their ideas aren’t mutually exclusive. Experimenting with all kinds of solutions will offer better answers than we now have.

Adapting to boys learning is a no-brainer for all boys South Kent: boys education is what South Kent does. The most interesting angle in Passport to education: Project-Based Learning is Hotchkiss working to strengthen its work with boys. The pendulum has truly swung when you see a coed boarding school adapting to serve its male population more effectively.

Litchfield County Times writer Gayla Cawley:

…with new emphasis being placed on a boy-friendly curriculum, researchers such as Dr. William Pollack, a socio-clinical professor and author of ‘Real Boys,’ have found that males do not excel in passive learning environments, a fact demonstrated by the gap between male and female academic results. Instead they require a more active learning environment, where they can participate in experience-based learning with a more flexible curriculum, a model where they might be able to have a say in what they learn.

This type of gender-based curriculum has been embraced in all-boys schools, usually boarding schools, such as South Kent School in Kent, Conn., and, to some extent, in coeducational institutions such as the prestigious Hotchkiss School in Salisbury. There the curriculum is referred to not as being boy-friendly, per se, but rather as an active curriculum where both boys and girls can succeed at the same time.

Mr. Pollack said that part of a boy-friendly learning environment is focused on developing boys as whole human beings, allowing them to get in touch with their emotions and to talk about when something is bothering them, rather than forcing themselves to behave in accordance with society’s male stereotype. Mr. Pollack refers to this as the ‘boy code,’ and, he asserts, it affects academics as well general behavior because boys are taught it is not “manly” to ask for help when they don’t understand something in class. As they start to fall behind, they begin to act out against a system that is failing them.

“Boys are taught to be more stoic, to not show their pain or even to talk about their difficulties,” Dr. Pollack said in a phone interview.

Boys are less likely to show their dissatisfaction except through actions that are usually seen as misbehavior. They’re very sensitive, just as much as girls are—they’re very easily shamed. What starts to happen is that boys start to feel embarrassed and when you interview them, they start to feel stupid and then they become very quiet.

Dr. Pollack said that the traditional learning structure doesn’t work for males because the average boy develops 12 to 18 months later than does the average girl. Despite those neurological differences and a slower maturation—girls tend to fully mature at the end of high school or beginning of college while boys do not fully mature until the end of college—the same curriculum is taught at the pace to both genders. Boys, forced into learning at the same pace and in the same way as girls, often are unable to do so and turn off to learning…”(LCT)

The calm thoughtfulness of both pieces is welcome in a conversation that can often become shrill. What both pieces make clear, and to what just about any of us in the into can attest, is that we’ve got a complex problem on our hands that requires our attention, but that will also defy an easy solution.

Parts of our social and economic fabrics may rely on our success making sure that our educational processes fit boys and girls. That’s a funny thing to say, given that’s always been our goal.

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Brian Fisher

A product of both private and public education, Brian Fisher served as a teacher, coach, dorm parent, and administrator at three different boarding schools. Brian also fills the role of Director of Development at Wolfeboro, The Summer Boarding School, in NH along with being a partner at AdmissionsQuest.

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