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Education Trends, Equity Resources, Teaching Tips & Tricks, Podcast Articles   |   Nov 27, 2016

What teachers need to know about the gender gap, disengaged boys, and girls in crisis

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

What teachers need to know about the gender gap, disengaged boys, and girls in crisis

By Angela Watson

I recently heard physician, psychologist, and author Dr. Leonard Sax talking on NPR about how our schools are failing boys. I was absolutely fascinated by his insights, and was thrilled when he agreed to be a guest on my Truth for Teachers podcast. Listen in as I chat with Dr. Sax about the challenges boys are facing in schools, the unique crisis girls are facing, and what teachers need to know about supporting all students.

Click play or download the episode below to listen!
Dr. Leonard Sax’s Truth: What teachers need to know about the gender gap, disengaged boys, and girls in crisis
Dr. Sax, initially I wanted to invite you on the show to talk about boys, so let’s start there. You wrote a powerful book called Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men. I think any teacher will understand immediately what you’re referring to–disengagement particularly with boys is a huge issue for most of us. What do teachers need to understand about how our boys are impacted by the way we “do school”?

Well, one of the points I tried to make in the book is that there’ve been some really profound changes in the way American education works over the last 30 years or so. I’ve been a medical doctor now for more than 30 years, and I attended public schools in northern Ohio. Back then, in the 1970s, the boys typically won most of the awards, and were editor of the school newspaper, and edited the poetry journal, and edited the yearbook, and all that kind of stuff.

Then I’m practicing in Maryland, it’s the early 90s, and I notice that the girls are the great majority of the honor students. Editing the school newspaper, editing the poetry journal, and I was wondering, what is it about Maryland that the boys here don’t seem to be doing very well?

And throughout the 1990s I began to look into this and reached out to colleagues across the United States and discovered that this was not confined to suburban Maryland, that this was true across the United States. That in roughly 20 years’ time, from the mid-70s to the mid-90s, there had been a change, and since that time, that change has actually accelerated.

There’s some good recent work that I cite in the updated edition that shows that this gender gap in achievement is widening, and it’s widening not so much because girls are doing better, they’re not. For example, you look at who’s reading for fun in their spare time looking over the last 30 years. Girls today are a little less likely to read for fun in their spare time than girls were 30 years ago. But American boys have have stopped reading altogether.

So the gender gap has widened very dramatically. Take that parameter, for example–who’s reading for fun in their spare time–it’s not because girls are reading more, they’re not, but because boys are reading much, much less. So one of the things I tried to answer in the book and in the revised edition, which just came out, is Why? What happened? Why are boys today so much less likely than their sisters in the same demographic and the same household to be top students, to be high achievers?

And a bunch of things happened, but one was the change in the way we conduct American education. So, for example, as I said, I grew up in northern Ohio, and during the winter months we used to put on our winter coats and go outside, throw snowballs at each other, and the teachers would come out and join us, students against teachers. I remember Mr. Alberts was a great shot. He’d get you right between the eyes every time. Kids want to throw snowballs, but today if two boys go out on the school blacktop and start throwing snowballs at each other, a teacher is going to come run out and say, “What are you guys doing? You’re not allowed to do that here. You’re not allowed to throw snowballs at each other.”

Boys doing things that boys have always done — whether it’s throwing snowballs at each other or pointing fingers at each other saying, “Bang, bang, you’re dead,” or drawing a picture of a knight chopping a dragon’s head off — things that boys have always done now get you in trouble.

School has become unfriendly to boys, and that was not because of any war against boys. There was never any intention on anyone’s part to disengage boys. It was the unintended consequence.

So a lot of what I try to do in the book is to call attention to these unconscious ways that school has changed in ways that have the unintended consequence of disengaging boys, and what schools can do to make schools more friendly to boys without making them unfriendly to girls.

So many good thoughts there. How would you recommend that a teacher respond when something like that were to happen?

OK, so specifically with regard to throwing snowballs. I learned this many, many years ago at St. Andrews, which is a private school just north of Toronto. They had a very simple rule at St. Andrews: inbounds and out-of-bounds. If you want to throw snowballs, go to the football field. The football field is on school property, but it’s not in the way to anything else, so you’re not inconveniencing anyone who doesn’t want snowballs thrown at them and telling them, don’t go to the football field during the winter months, because that’s not on the way to anything else. But if you want to throw snowballs at your friend, you and your friend go out to the football field, and there you may throw snowballs at one another. The throwing of snowballs is inbounds on the football field and out-of-bounds everywhere else on campus.

I’ve visited no more than 400 schools over the last 15 years, and at my recommendation, we’ve deployed this strategy at some American schools, and a few of those schools have required that parents sign a consent form before kids are allowed to go to the football field or whatever the designated place is, and I don’t have a problem with that.

I mean, I understand liability. That’s what’s driving this change. Schools are concerned about getting sued, and I respect that. I’m a medical doctor, I understand liability concerns. Schools should do whatever they have to do to protect themselves from liability, but don’t criminalize being a boy. Don’t make being a boy and doing things that boys have always done a cause for discipline referral.

Make an accommodation so that boys can do the things that boys have always done without having to leave the school, because the unintended message when you say, “Hey, you’re not allowed to do that here. Go somewhere else.” The unintended message that boys get is school is not the place for boys.

If you want to be a boy, leave the school, and that’s the message a lot of boys are getting loud and clear. And they’re leaving the school whether it’s to throw snowballs or to play “Call of Duty” or “Grand Theft Auto.”

Make the school a boy-friendly place. You can have a snowball-throwing tournament, something some other schools have done at my recommendation, and say, “Hey, after school, we’re going to have a snowball-throwing tournament. Anybody’s welcome. It’s going to be a round robin tournament. You get three chances to hit the target, and it’s going to be this student versus that student. We’re going to go through, every student’s going to have, and we’re going to have a round robin, and we’ll have one grand champion.”

And when you do that, we find that about 80 percent of the kids who sign up will be boys and about 20 percent will be girls. Some girls really like to throw snowballs. Many boys don’t like to throw snowballs.

Gender is complicated. But you can accommodate these differences if you understand the differences.

So clearly we have some things we need to be more mindful of with our boys.

Yeah. And, you know, schools pay a lot of lip service to the idea that we respect diversity, and we celebrate everybody’s differences. But in reality, they don’t respect diversity. They only respect a certain kind of diversity. But boys who want to throw snowballs, and boys who want to write stories about Roman gladiators, soon find out that their diversity is not at all welcome, and no one’s interested in hearing their voice. And again, boys got that message, and they’re like, “OK, fine. I don’t care about your stupid English either. I’m going to go home and play video games.”

Click play or download the episode below to listen to the interview
Let’s talk about our female students now. After you wrote Boys Adrift, you wrote Girls on the Edge: The Four Factors Driving the New Crisis for Girls. And in this book, you addressed how many young girls seem confident and strong on the outside but are fragile within, and they seem to be doing okay in school, but there are deeper issues at play that we might not realized. What can teachers do to support girls in our classrooms?

Well, again, it needs to be about more than just the performance, and when I meet with teachers and I say, “You need to communicate [to students that] I’m interested in hearing what’s going on in your life if you care to confide in me. I’m here for you,” because what you’ll find is a lot of girls have a lot of anxiety simmering just beneath the surface, and that also is a big change.

Girls today are about 400 percent, four times more likely to be anxious compared with girls in the same demographic just 30 years ago. The anxious teenage girl who’s obsessed, who’s having trouble getting to sleep at night, is now very common and was not common 30 years ago.

One reason for that that I explore both in my book “Girls on the Edge” and more recently my book called “The Collapse of Parenting,” is that there has been a change in the culture that kids live in, a change from a culture in which parents’ opinions were the most important to the culture of today in which the opinion of same-age peers are most important.

And that change has put a lot of girls at risk, because for many American girls today, what matters more than anything else is having lots of followers on Instagram. Having lots of kids like your photo that you posted on Snapchat or Instagram.

That’s right. Their entire identity is based on likes and followers and comments, and that’s how they’re getting validated.

Right. And relations with same-age peers are always going to be contingent and ephemeral. Every girl knows a girl who is the most popular girl, went from being the most popular girl to being the odd girl out in one day, in five minutes. And so she’s frantically checking her phone, because God forbid somebody send you a text message and you don’t promptly respond, the other girl might think you’re ignoring her or you don’t like her, and boom. So these girls are just frantic. If the teacher takes their phone away, they will literally have a meltdown, because, “Oh my goodness, if my friend thinks I have my phone and I’m not answering, she’s going to think I’m being mean to her, and that’s the worst thing in the world.”

So I encourage parents and teachers to work together to turn off the screens, to encourage face-to-face time. When I meet with parents, I talk about no screens at the dinner table.

Amanda Ripley has a wonderful book called The Smartest Kids in the World, and one of the questions she addresses is why has there been such a collapse in American academic achievement relative to kids in other countries in just a very short time, just since the year 2000. We used to be way above Poland in the year 2000, but by the year 2012, Poland was way ahead of us, even though we spend three times as much per capita.

And one of the explanations, Amanda Ripley believes, is that in those 12 years, between 2000 and 2012, American schools brought screens into the classroom in a big way, and the screens have the unintended consequence of undermining social skills and undermining academic skills.

And I think there are many good arguments to be made against technology in the classroom, but specifically regarding girls, we need to get kids to turn off the screens and engage one another face-to-face.

Is there anything else that teachers can do to support girls in our classrooms?

Well, the point I’m always making when I meet with teachers is that you must create the teacher-student connection. The girl has to know that you really care about her as an individual, and again, a lot of teachers pay lip service to that.

What that means is if that girl wants to come up to you and talk to you about her parents’ divorce, you need to sit down and listen. You’re not a counselor, you’re a classroom teacher, but she wants to talk to you, and you need to show, “I’m really interested.”

You may not have anything to offer, but she’s looking for a grown-up to talk to, and she’s chosen you. And if you communicate that, “I am here for you, and I want to hear what’s going on,” then she will work harder in your algebra class, not because she suddenly likes algebra, but because she doesn’t want to disappoint you, she doesn’t want to let you down.

It seems like these gender issues are really more important than ever. Your very first book was Why Gender Matters: What Parents and Teachers Need to Know about the Emerging Science of Sex Differences. You published that 10 years ago and I know you’re working on an update to the book now. What do teachers need to understand about gender in today’s schools?

Well, there’s so much, and indeed, Penguin Random House has invited me to revise the book, and the new edition will come out next year, and there’s a lot in there. But in almost every content area, we now have good research showing that the best way to engage the average girl is really profoundly different from the best way to engage the average boy.

For example, you’re teaching equations and multiple variables, middle school algebra. Turns out the best way to engage the average boy, not the talented boy necessarily, but just the average boy, is to say, “X+2y=60 2x+y=90, here’s how we solve for x and y.” And that actually really engages most boys who are interested in abstract numbers and the characteristics of abstract numbers for the sake of numbers. This is true not only of the talented boy but of the average boy.

It is emphatically not true of the average girl who will say, “This is, like, totally irrelevant to, like, everything. Why should any normal person care about this?” And the result of teachers who don’t have this awareness is that the girl comes to regard math as boring. It turns out the best way to engage the average girl in that same content is to say, “Hey. I’ve got a coupon for the local department store. It says this week only, I can get two blouses and a sweater for 60 bucks, or two sweaters and a blouse for 90 bucks. How much are they really charging for each blouse and each sweater?

And each girl, including the girl who hates to shop, is engaged, because even that girl who hates to shop–and many girls hate to shop–knows girls who likes to shop and can see how the question is relevant to the real world. To the average girl, it is essential to tie algebra and number theory into the concrete, into the real world. For the average boy, that is not only not true, it can actually disengage.

The word problem can be the hardest part of the unit for the average boy, and by beginning the unit with the word problem, you’re losing the boy. So you need to differentiate, you need to customize what you’re doing in the classroom in order to reach every girl and every boy.

As we wrap up, what’s something that you wish every single teacher knew about gender in order to better help our students?

What I wish every teacher understood is that there is not just one way to teach the content. There’s always more than one way to teach the content, and the way that works best for most girls may not work best for both boys and vice versa.

If you don’t understand that, you end up reinforcing gender stereotypes. You end up with boys who think creative writing and poetry is for girls, and girls who think computer coding and physics is for boys.

If you understand the differences, then you can break down the gender stereotypes very easily, and the same girl who loves fashion design will love computer coding, and the same boy who loves American football and video games like “Call of Duty” will love “Jane Eyre” and Emily Dickinson. I’ve seen this. It’s not that difficult. It just requires a little awareness of what the differences are.

Thank you so much, Dr. Sax, for your time and for sharing your wisdom and experiences with us. If teachers want to learn more from you, where should they go?

Well, I hope teachers will take a look at my books Boys Adrift and Girls on the Edge and the new edition of Why Gender Matters. I also am a big fan of Abigail James and her books Teaching the Male Brain and Teaching the Female Brain. Abigail and I have shared a podium on many occasions, and we have many similar perspectives on these issues.

I hope that everyone listening will check out Dr. Sax’s website–he’s got a another book called The Collapse of Parenting How We Hurt Our Kids When We Treat Them Like Grown-Ups. It’s about how the dominant parent styles in our society are produces kids who have no absolute standard of right and wrong, who lack discipline, and who look to their peers and the Internet for direction, instead of looking to their parents. I am SO excited to read that. So I always close out the show with something that I call The Takeaway Truth–a short but powerful sentence or quote that I want teachers to remember in the week ahead. Leonard, can you give us a Takeaway Truth for this week?

Sure. The big differences between girls and boys are not in what they can do but in what they want to do. The big differences between girls and boys are not in ability, but in motivation. Again, 30 years ago, people used to say girls had better verbal ability, boys had better spatial ability. That turns out not to be true. There are very little differences between what girls and boys can do, but there are big differences in girls and boys in what they want to do. If you understand those differences, then you can break down the gender stereotypes as you construct strategies to engage and motivate every girl and every boy.

The big differences between girls and boys are not in ability, but in motivation. -Dr. Leonard Sax Click To Tweet

This post is based on the latest episode of my weekly podcast, Angela Watson’s Truth for Teachers. A podcast is like a free talk radio show you can listen to online, or download and take with you wherever you go. I release a new 10-15 minute episode each Sunday and feature it here on the blog to help you get energized and motivated for the week ahead. I’d love to hear your thoughts below in the comment section!

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Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela created the first version of this site in 2003, when she was a classroom teacher herself. With 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach, Angela oversees and contributes regularly to...
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  1. So my question is, how do we need to teach in the elementary Physical Education environment for this to keep both female and male students engaged and interested in learning?

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