Of all the animals, the boy is the most unmanageable. Plato
by Scott McBride Smith
I was complaining to a female colleague about one of my adolescent male students: “You know what teenage boys are like,” I whined, but she had little sympathy. “I certainly do,” she snapped, “they don’t change until they are 60.”
I should probably call her now that I am comfortably on the other side of that dubious milestone of 60. I think I am much the same as I was in my 30s. Now with greyer hair, more aches and pains, my temperament and interests are more or less unchanged. Something makes me think that she may not see this as a good thing.
There is ample data, research-derived and anecdotal, which shows that men and women see the world in fundamentally different ways. This difference has a profound effect on the teacher-student relationship. In my fifty years of teaching, I certainly have found boys and girls to be different. The following non-scientific observations and generalisations are based on my personal experience of teaching boys:
- They are harder to direct and often have shorter attention spans when compared to girls; their agendas that may not coincide with mine;
- Boys usually try to take shortcuts. It is not uncommon for boys to avoid completing the amount of work necessary for success;
- Boys need the motivation of being “hungry” for a reward, and one that is personally meaningful to them.
There has been a wealth of research in the last 30 years that indicates that my experience isn’t wrong: there are many physiological and psychological differences between the genders.i The data about gender differences from U.S. schools is startling with girls academically out-achieving the boys:
- By 12th Grade, 44% of girls are proficient in reading compared to 28% of boys;
- Boys are 1½ years behind girls in reading in all grade levels;
- The percentage of boys on Ritalinii [methylphenidate] is much higher than that of girls;
- The percentage of boys diagnosed with dyslexia is four times greater than that of girls;
- Boys represent two-thirds of learning disability diagnoses;
- Boys earn 70% of Ds and Fs, and less than half of the A gradings;
- Girls, in general, are better behaved than boys;
- Boys represent 90% of discipline referrals.
Why? The answers are not entirely clear. There are certainly significant differences between girls’ and boys’ brains. Girls’ brains are possibly better adapted to word-based learning whereas boys’ brains allot greater space for spatial-mechanical functions and less space for emotional ones. This may be why they experience words differently to girls.
Boy’s brains have less oxytocin, the primary human bonding hormone. Although the impact of this is unclear, it may lead to more impulsive behavior and lessened desire to please the teacher and to follow rules. Boys’ brains operate with less blood flow than girls’ and they tend to compartmentalise learning; this means the boys often multi-task less well than girls.
The greater presence of oxytocin in girls’ brains may allow them to comply with teachers’ directions and obtain higher scores on tests, but the hormone is not an unmitigated boon. U.S. women apologize more than men, but also find themselves offended more often. Men are significantly less likely to feel slighted in many situations than women. And there may be one very sad side effect of oxytocin. Women in the U.S. suffer from depression at a ratio of 2:1 compared to men.
In the United States, 85% of school teachers are women. Could some of these problems stem from female teachers not understanding or recognising boy-appropriate behavior? As a “recovering boy” myself, I’d like to tell my female colleagues (and three sisters) that I’m not deliberately creating problems. I leave projects unfinished to move on to something else; check my cell phone during long stories or, imperfectly follow directions. I am simply true to my nature.
Like many “boys” of all ages, I prefer active learning to listening to lectures. I like to discover things for myself and find competition motivating. I am organised, but in a way that might seem chaotic to others. I have a need for strong peer connections but can express “doing” more than “feeling”. And, if I am not completely centered, my assessment skills can be very weak and my long-term planning nonexistent.
Do I sound like any young men in your teaching studio? Don’t despair: the basic principles of good teaching apply to us.
Teach, and (perhaps even more importantly!) organise boys’ practice with a clear structure that proceeds incrementally:
- Let us know what they will be doing and what is the expected outcome before we start;
- Do this for long-term goals (“we’re getting these pieces ready for the spring recital”) and short-term goals (“here’s how to learn your left hand for these measures”);
- Provide unambiguous feedback for each step. We need to know how we’re doing, literally;
- Provide frequent but genuine praise;
- Build a feeling of accomplishment by keeping beginning tasks easy;
- Stress respect and self-respect in your comments. “I know your Mom is going to be so proud,” or, “You’ll feel so great when you accomplish this.”
Like me, boys often are competitive. Don’t be afraid to use this in a positive way, such as, “Not all students can do this as well as you.”
This can work in reverse, too. A comment like, “I think this is going to be too hard for you,” will sometimes get good results with boys as they rise to a challenge to prove you wrong.
The content and manner of your presentation is crucial
- Focus on experiential and kinesthetic learning;
- Keep explanations short and to the point;
- Personalise things to increase a sense of attachment;
- Boys need to think that the teacher is “cool”, and that they gain in “coolness” by associating with you. Find out what their interests are and see how you can relate to them;
- Boys admire competency and accomplishment and crave a sense of inclusion;
- Offer opportunities for helper or leadership roles. We often rise to the occasion;
- Always include play and high-interest topics;
- Give a moment’s “down-time” while changing task;
- Use vivid imagery/high energy level/interesting detail;
- Humor and challenges play an important element—boys are attracted to energy;
- Use preferred activities as incentives.
Do boys require a different teaching style to girls? The research on this is unclear, even conflicting. Some studies do seem to indicate that boys being taught in a single-gender environment show improved test scores.
My personal view is that the teaching practices I suggest for boys form a basis of sound instruction for both genders, assuming that each teacher makes appropriate adjustments for individual learning styles, cultural variations and temperament. Knowledge-based practices and attention to the unique talents of each student, whatever gender they are, is at the heart of the Art of Teaching.
Dr. Scott McBride Smith is the Cordelia Brown Murphy Professor of Piano Pedagogy at the University of Kansas
Republished with permission.
This version appeared in Music and the Teacher, Journal of the Victorian Music Teachers’ Association Autumn, 2015.