Educating Boys by Focusing on Their Strengths

By Scott Sterling

It’s not exactly groundbreaking science to reveal that boys are different from girls, especially in the classroom. What is groundbreaking is the research being done into just how differently boys develop, learn, and socialize.

Michael Gurian has become a thought leader in the field of male childhood development, including authoring the books The Mind of Boys: Saving Our Sons from Falling Behind in School and Life, and The Wonder of Boys. Some of his recent work was summarized by in this blog post from 2013. The main points:

  • Boys’ brains develop in the areas of spatial-mechanical thinking first, while girls focus on verbal-emotive processing.
  • Girls are less impulsive, which is why they are better able to sit still and listen during lessons. This is also why they read and write earlier.
  • Boys require more rest time during learning. They tend to zone out more when bored.
  • Boys are developmentally predisposed to be focused on a single task. Girls are better able to multi-task.
  • Boys are much more likely to be misdiagnosed with a learning disability and attention-deficit issues by doctors who do not understand male brain development (or are pressured by parents and teachers).
  • The boys’ predisposition to physically explore and roughhouse is chemical—more oxytocin in the brain. Because of this, boys are much more likely to be kinesthetic in their preferred modality.

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Again, these facts are fairly obvious to anyone with teaching experience (although it’s nice to have some scientific backing to our feelings and instincts). But what this leads to is a discussion about how to best harness these predetermined traits in boys to make them more successful learners and contributors to our classrooms. After all, who wouldn’t want a boundless source of energy in the classroom? It’s infectious.

  • Project-based learning seems to be effective in general, but particularly for boys. They gravitate toward PBL’s hands-on, kinesthetic nature. Their single-minded method of focusing on tasks also lends itself to methodically working through assignments, such as those prescribed in the typical PBL implementation.
  • Competitive learning makes a difference. A combination of the oxytocin and their impulsive nature leads boys to be naturally competitive. Even in this age of cooperative learning, there are ways to integrate competition into your lessons. Debates and games seem particularly engaging.
  • Obviously, classroom movement is valuable. Restrictions on how and when students can move are particularly detrimental for boys. If they are instructed on appropriate behavior, they should be allowed to make their own decisions when moving about the room.
  • Student choice needs to be utilized as much as possible in order to rein in that “zone out” aspect of boys’ learning. In the overall scheme of things, what’s the difference if they read a graphic novel rather than a work of literature? Allowing them such choices in their materials can go a long way toward engagement.


Finally, there is nothing wrong with grouping boys or girls together in tasks requiring cooperation and discussion. For much of their academic careers, they may find themselves on vastly different developmental wavelengths.

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