Teaching Boys: the STEM Solution
I strongly advocate for more STEM success and preparation for girls. I’ve written blog posts on girls and STEM, and I’ve scattered references to the need for more attention to STEM girls in other posts. However – I have to tell you – I’m the mother of three boys (young men now) and I harbor passionate feelings about our boys and their educational difficulties as well.
During my 16 years as a middle school teacher, my heart went out to all of those squirmy, impulsive young men who brought so much life and energy (and occasional distractions) to my science classes.
The fact of the matter is: many boys are not thriving in school. Our boys are at an educational disadvantage from the time they enter kindergarten. They come to us hardwired with traits that don’t fit into traditional views of how “model” students should behave and perform in class.
Andrea Schneider, a mother of 2 boys and a psychotherapist, puts it this way:
Our culture at large needs to do more to support boys and their unique hardwiring in educational settings. Although my sons have the advantage of great teachers and a nationally respected school district, the structure of our educational system does not favor boys’ unique learning styles . . . We, as a nation, are failing our young men in the area of educational support. And we need to change that.”
Are we failing our boys? Let’s look at a couple of those educationally disadvantageous traits with which our boys are “gifted.” (Note: these traits and needs are often characteristic of girls as well. However, for the purpose of this post, I’m keeping the focus on our young men.)
The hardwire problem for boys:
• Boys show more areas in the brain dedicated to spatial-mechanical strengths, and fewer dedicated to verbal areas. They generally start slower in the areas of reading and writing. Since typical elementary classrooms are primarily language-based and lots of boys lack the fluency to be as successful as girls, many develop identity problems with regard to school.
• Boys are more active and have trouble sitting still for long periods of time. They are more alert when they are standing and moving. Pull up a mental image of our traditional middle school classes where students may be expected to sit quietly in ruler-straight rows hour after hour during the day. Heck, that scares me, and I like to sit quietly. Possibly the most frustrating words a boy can hear is “Sit down!”
• Boys are generally hardwired to be kinesthetic learners. They learn best through hands-on experiences – through touching and moving. They are less able to focus when forced to sit still and learn through static activities.
• Boys are more aggressive and competitive, and tend to be less collaborative than girls are. They have more difficulty with impulse control.
• Boys are relational. Findings show that boys learn best when engaged in a positive, trusting relationship with their teachers.
• Boys learn best when the have a real reason for learning something. In fact, boys need a reason to engage in a learning task that goes beyond, “Because I said so.”
The STEM learning solution:
So what’s a teacher to do? Or a school? Or a school system? Frankly, the recommendations for strategies to meet the educational needs of boys practically scream, STEM! STEM! STEM! Take a look at what the research says.
Provide a high-energy classroom where boys can be energized and motivated by movement. Ditch the teacher-centered approach with lots of teacher talk, note-taking, and quiet studying. Instead, imagine STEM lessons in which students learn about forms of energy and motion by building and testing catapults, rocket cars, and rollercoasters. A good fit for boys? Oh, yes.
Design lessons that provide students with real world applications. Establish an authentic purpose and a meaningful, real-life connection for what you ask students to learn. Boys tend to ask, “Why do I need to know this?” They need clear linkages between what they are learning and their lives outside of school. That’s one of the requirements for an authentic STEM lesson – solving a real-world problem.
Involve students in teamwork. Teamwork is especially important for boys as they learn to cooperate and develop camaraderie. (Tip: single-gender team groupings may sometimes be beneficial.) Recall that boys tend to have a thirst for competition as well. STEM lessons that require a combination of competition and teamwork tend to be most engaging for boys.
Add to those recommendations these 8 categories of lessons that succeed in teaching boys (featured in The Atlantic). Notice the close correlation between these lessons and STEM lessons.
1. Lessons that result in an end product
2. Lessons that are structured as competitive games
3. Lessons requiring motor activity
4. Lessons requiring boys to assume responsibility for the learning of others
5. Lessons that require boys to address open questions or unsolved problems
6. Lessons that require a combination of competition and teamwork
7. Lessons that focus on independent, personal discovery and realization
8. Lessons that introduce novelty or surprise
That looks like a checklist for STEM lesson design to me. What might a great learning activity for boys look like? A STEM lesson!
STEM takes advantage of boys’ high-energy, movement-driven learning styles. STEM allows choice, problem-solving, authentic applications, and teamwork. STEM lessons allow teachers to move around and interact with students, and offer more opportunity for building relationships.
I offer to you the suggestion that STEM is the perfect fit for the educational needs of our boys. STEM lessons are the ideal learning solution. Let’s advocate for effective STEM programs with increasing fervor.
You can read more about boys’ learning needs in these articles. Much of my information came from these sites.