6 Secrets to Help Boys Learn

helping boys learn

Those of us who have worked with boys know that motivating them to high levels of engagement and achievement can be a struggle. My own 18 years as teacher revealed to me that there wasn’t any lack of energy or passion in my boys—it was just directing it that that I found a problem.

When I became  school principal, I saw the a bigger “boy problem”, meeting boys daily who were intelligent, clever  and passionate, but who were in my office because they were not using any of those attributes to reach their potential in the classroom. It became so frustrating to me that I took a rather drastic step:  I left my school position and went on a 5 year journey of neuroscience research and  work with many thousands of students, parents and teachers to find out what could make a difference for them.

What I  discovered is outlined below, but  the foundation of male success in school has to be founded on engagement and effort.  As parents we know this, but the brain science demonstrated to me that they are  more than that—they are indispensible!

To learn the skills and concepts necessary for success in the 21st century—there must be an emotional connection to learning which is based on Motivated Engagement . Think of the smile on a young boy’s face when he first learns to walk or discovers something new in the grass. Look at the gleam in his eyes when he scores a goal, plays a video game, listens to music he loves, or watches a favorite television program. He is totally involved in the activity and he wants  to be! He learns with ease and joy.

At this point he is ready to use Discretionary Effort. This is the effort used when we do things that we are not required to do. It’s demonstrated when we work that extra bit, go that extra mile, or connect a part of our identity with what we are doing and make it our own. It’s something we do, not something done to us. It leverages the creation of neural pathways in the frontal lobes and brings our creativity to any problem—and it supercharges learning!

The trouble is that many of us do not know what it takes to unleash these powerful emotional forces in our classroom for boys. I know I didn’t—until my research and classroom work helped me to highlight 6 pathways that have motivated males for millennia. I call them “secrets” because even though we as parents and teachers are aware of them and may be using them intuitively to motivate our boys, when we discover their hidden power consciously, it can profoundly improve the learning in our classroom and the joy experienced by students –as well as parents and teachers!

They work because they are in sync with the brain-wiring of boys and evolutionary tendencies that have developed to help males survive, learn and thrive at home, school and in society. Here’s a brief overview of each one:

Secret 1:  MOVEMENT

Neuroscience has confirmed that boys develop more brain-wiring for movement than girls at early ages. This is why they love to move, fidget in class, and want to be wherever the “action” is. It also explains why they can sit still for so long playing video games: Those games are saturated with movement!

Secret 2:  GAMES

Boys have profound learning experiences within the context of games because they receive a shot of testosterone when they set goals and achieve them. They love games and competition and if they see learning as something they can compete and “win” at, they achieve higher. However, if they don’t think they can win in school because they aren’t smart enough, they will often refuse to play the game.

Secret 3:  HUMOR

Boys love “funny” things. They often can veer into inappropriate or crude topics, but humor is an important tool for boys learning. It helps them feel comfortable with new concepts, engage in teamwork, and take on new challenges. It is a therefore a very effective way for adults to leverage boys’ interest and commitment to learning.

Secret 4:  CHALLENGE

In their desire to release testosterone by winning boys are drawn to challenge. It helps boys learn because through challenge they discover things about themselves and their environment. When used by teachers, it can improve the motivation and resilience of boys when faced with difficult learning tasks.

Secret 5:  MASTERY

Success for any  boy  ultimately comes when he takes ownership for his own learning. When looking at anything they have to learn, boys’ brains have evolved to want to know its usefulness.  In other words, what is it good for? If they can find a good answer to this question, it deepens their desire to understand the way something works and learn skills so as to master and control it.

Secret 6:  MEANING

Because they want to understand the usefulness of what they learn, boys need to see the reason for it. “Why do we have to learn this?” is more than a way for a lazy boy to avoid doing work. It is essential for him to understand the importance and meaning of the task at hand. If a teacher can help him see how his learning fits into the larger picture a boy will increase his interest and commitment in the classroom.

Each of these pathways to boys learning has tremendous power individually, however the real benefits come when we apply them in a particular way to help those boys who are struggling in our classrooms. The illustration below shows how they relate to each other:

Those on the outer circle (movement, game, humor) are excellent ways to engage any boy with learning.  They work subconsciously for many boys and almost every parent or teacher actually has used them, albeit unconsciously to improve how males learn. They are easy to implement but often short-term in their effects. However, what they do very effectively is to give boys a physiological and emotional attachment to  learning and trigger a feeling in a boy that tells him “I can do this school stuff…and it’s kind of cool too…”.

This produces  motivated engagement to go deeper into learning with those secrets that require discretionary effort: challenge and mastery. When he takes up the challenges of learning and begins to set his own goals for mastering learning he ultimately begins to attach profound meaning to his time in school because it demonstrates to him his significance and the power of learning, achievement and classroom success to help to reach his heroic individual potential (an outcome he secretly longs for, but fears he is not worthy for).

For more information and resources from Dr. Dixon, visit Dr. Dixon’s Blog.

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Posted in Featured Post Education
Ed Dixon

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Dr. Edmond J. Dixon, PhD is a boys learning expert with 30+ years of experience as a teacher, administrator, writer, university researcher–and parent of boys! He is the author of a new e-book Motivating Your Son to School Success. A pioneer in the field of Cognitive-Kinesthetics for learning he is the founder of the KEEN Differentiated Learning Group , an organization dedicated to helping parents and teachers better engage students. His previous books, Helping Boys Learn, KEEN For Learning and Literacy Through Drama have been used throughout North America to improve learning. A dynamic and popular international speaker, he presents regularly to parent and teacher groups with a focus on helping providing insights and strategies for learning that are both fun and effective. He can be contacted at Dr.Dixon@helpingboyslearn.com