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Less is More: Reduce Rules and Structure to Free the Minds of Boys

By — Gender Differences Special Edition Contributor
Updated on May 17, 2010
A new school year has begun. Many children are excited to meet the new teacher, buy their school supplies and see their friends again. However, for thousands of parents of boys, September is a month marked by telephone calls from the teacher, discipline issues with the main office, homework not done, incomplete assignments, tears and friction beginning once again, with no seeming improvement from one year to the next. 
 
The grade five teachers at Dr. Ross Tilley Public School in Bowmanville Ontario have just completed a one year pilot study of gender classrooms with some surprising insights into what works for boys. An all boys class consisting of 19 students was created for the 2007/08 school year. The boys generally demonstrated lower behavioral and academic skills than the girls in their peer group. Several had been diagnosed with ADHD.
 
The following text describes some of the “gender-specific” strategies we used to facilitate learning for boys:
  1. Build Daily Physical Activity into the Schedule
Sometimes, due to their overabundance of energy, there would be two and as many as three activity sessions a day. The activities included running, wall touches, and a variety of outdoor sports. It was obvious after several sessions that outdoor activities were much more successful in calming the boys than activities in the gym. It was concluded that the lack of walls and boundaries gave the boys free rein over their environment. This power of choice allowed the boys a sense of freedom thereby allowing them to buy into the rules of games. Once back inside the classroom, given about ten minutes to get settled, the following 45 minutes would prove to be productive.
 
The successful use of physical activity was also found through dance. Using the boys’ common interest in music they chose contemporary music and dance from "youtube", recreated the dance and worked as a group to complete the acrobatic movements. They would work together for several days until growing tired of the repetition and then move onto another activity. At these times the class was noisy to the point of distraction, but the energy spent resulted in some excellent creative dance. In our judgment, it would have been difficult to use dance in a mixed class with the same effect. The boys would have backed off and let the girls take the lead. In the coed classroom, dance is a “girls’ thing.”
  1. Allow for a Less-Structured Classroom
We also found that a less-structured classroom was more successful. The boys were not expected to follow all the rules the same way at the same time. For instance, during the daily playing of the national anthem, some boys would be jittery, some would be moving around quietly, while others would try to "multitask" and complete their bell work while standing. There was no intentional disrespect being displayed. The boys simply found it difficult to stand still for any extended period of time. Interestingly, our boys were often the best-behaved class in the school during assemblies and gatherings, especially if physical activity preceded the gathering.
  1. Explore More “Active” Learning Strategies
This physical energy lends itself well to the development of language skills. The traditional method of learning 25 words a week had not been successful. I had been encouraging the boys to use rough textured surfaces and their fingers to scribe new words until one of the students accidentally showed me what worked for him. "Ryan" was having difficulty with a particular word and I had sent him back to his desk several times to practice. On the final occasion when he approached me at the front of the class claiming he knew the correct spelling, he began to dance and jump as he said each letter. From then on, spelling lessons began with everybody moving back the desks, putting the complete spelling list for the year on an overhead, and having the students, dance, make rhythm patterns, toss balls, drum, or pretend to shoot down enemy aircraft. The boys learned the grade five spelling list, they had fun while learning, and they never took home a list to study. There was no weekly spelling drill, but the number of words spelled correctly in writing assignments dramatically increased. This was however the noisiest spelling class in the school.
 
In social studies, especially in units covering government, boys were taught the structure of the various houses in the legislature, and they were encouraged to debate issues, to develop a better understanding of how ideas become laws. Through active participation, repeated over several weeks, the boys were able to internalize and then describe how government worked and laws are made. Following this the boys had an increased awareness of the world. When we began a current events unit the boys could not stop talking about issues they had found on newscasts and in newspapers. Their knowledge of the world around them and their power of expression exhibited itself through daily presentations. Their interest and knowledge showed a great surge forward, without opening a textbook. 
 
With regard to writing, I chose to encourage the creative expression of learning through the use of journals in all subjects. Large scrapbooks replaced the regular lined notebooks. This allowed the boys to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding of a concept without the inhibition of ruled pages. Drawings and writings were unique to each student; however, the depth of understanding was evident from the detail of the work. Some students chose to write quite a bit while others used diagrams with labels. Once the boys were free from the restrictions of convention their creativity took command of the situation. They also remained on task and dedicated to their work. The journals were used during one-to-one discussions between the students and me.

Summary

 
The boys taught me as much as I taught them. To reduce structure but not instruction, to provide alternate methods of learning and expression, increase activity as a means of increasing brainpower, and provide lessons which permit tactile performance, allowed the boys to show others their capabilities in all the subjects. Mine was the noisiest class in the school. But there was a great deal of learning going on.
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