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Boys will be boys

Last week I participated in the Twitter #tmchat moderated by

Aziz Abdur-Ra’off and Connie Hamilton Ed.S. The topic “addressing the needs of boys in our classrooms” is one that is near and dear to my heart as I have a grade-school aged son who defies the classic definition of a “good student”.

The chat was well-attended and participants were eager to discuss the needs of our male students. I was happy to be surrounded by articulate and creative educators who are bound and determined to see that male students are successful.

Right from the get-go some contributing teachers and administrators suggested learning style differences between boys and girls as one explanation for discrepancies between male and female performance in school. Connie Hamilton quickly cited the work of John Hattie in Visible Learning which shows a negligible effect size (d= 0.15) of male/female learning difference and this nominal effect actually favors boys.

On pages 89-90 of Visible Learning, Hattie references a study done by Psychology Professor, Janet Hyde. Hyde summarizes 124 meta-analyses of millions of students. The results of this study showed that boys and girls do not inherently learn differently. Rather, as a whole, boys and girls receive a higher effect from different characteristics and skills. Boys had a slight edge in the categories of achievement, social/personality, negotiation, helpfulness, and outcome. Girls had an edge in the categories of communication, effort, attention, and ability to manage impulses.  As Hattie writes, “the differences in how students learn is not related to their boy or girl attributes, and while the labeling of ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ may appease some, it is not based on actual differences.”

I was pleased that Connie pointed this fact out as I think that many educators falsely assume that there is a physiological difference between how boys and girls learn. There is not.  However, this information gives educators yet another reason to rethink “one size fits all” teaching and learning.

This all being said, almost a week later, one of the chat questions is still so prominent in my mind that I felt compelled to write more than my original 14o character answer:

My goal is not to offend anyone with this answer. Furthermore, I am not accusing anyone of intentionally crushing male students’ motivation. But, because of outdated teaching practices and the confusion of student skills vs. academic performance, inevitably, the crushing of boys motivation occurs.


We crush boys motivation by implementing behavioral systems and consequences that disproportionately target them. We crush boys by fearing and managing their propensity toward restlessness and exuberance. We crush boys by not tapping into their natural curiosity. We crush boys by requiring them to read novels with female protagonists when they want to read non-fiction or assuming they want to read about “boy” topics.

As I was preparing to write this blog post, I looked up the definition of “motivate”. While I was not surprised by the definition, I was caught off-guard by the sentence example:

motivate snagit

I took this example as a sign that this post was meant to be. I then asked myself: “Is it the job of a teacher to motivate children?

After much thought and reflection, I stand firm in my opinion that it is not the job of teachers to motivate children…it is the teacher’s job to discover what intrinsically motivates children and tap into that natural inclination.

George Mason University Psychologists, Martha Carlton and Adam Winsler in volume 25 of The Early Childhood Education Journal describe how children are born with an innate curiosity to learn. This motivation is intrinsic, and the child requires no outside rewards for its continuation. However, as children start formal schooling (even preschool), much of their motivation has been lost or replaced with extrinsically motivated learning strategies. Here within lies the problem.

So, why, with no physiological difference in the way boys and girls learn, and no need to use external motivators to appeal children, do we as educators think we need to motivate boys?

I go back to my original answer:


We need to celebrate the skills and interests boys arrive at school with on the first day of kindergarten. We need to implement instructional strategies that don’t favor students with strong impulse control. We need to celebrate boys’ inclination to negotiate and offer them learning opportunities where negotiation is mandatory rather than penalized. We need to harness boys’ intrinsic motivation. We need to stop trying to change boys’ display of enthusiasm only to later try and rebuild it with extrinsic forces.

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