Voices in Education

The “Boy Crisis”: Beyond Reading to Relationships
Michael Sadowski makes some extremely thoughtful points about what growing numbers of scholars and the popular press have come to refer to as a “crisis” in boys’ ongoing academic failure in American public schools. Sadowski argues that we must go “beyond gender” to the highly potent embedded contexts of social class, ethnicity, and race.

While agreeing with many of his significant and cogent arguments, I believe that one can maintain an understanding of the severe lack of “boy-friendly” practices within our schools without scanting the fact that many of our girls are suffering as well. By placing the very real issues of academic boy failure within the context of relationships—emotionally secure connections between adults and children—we can begin to remediate this very deep and real boy-based pain, while maintaining “girl-affirmative” attitudes in our coeducational classrooms.

Kids themselves and many forthright and honest teachers painfully observe that there is a powerful disconnect between young males in our school systems and the adult teacher/mentors they are yearning to find. What do we hear from the girls in these boys’ classes, or from many of their struggling and frustrated teachers (who may genuinely love teaching their male students)? That boys “break the rules,” “mess up the classroom,” “create chaos,” become so “disruptive,” “don’t seem to care about learning or respecting their classmates.” Meanwhile, boys tell us teachers “really don’t like them,” precisely because they are boys!

How are we to understand and remediate this “disconnection syndrome?”

Both scientific knowledge and practical experience increasingly point to the centrality of an emotionally connected relationship between each male student and at least one authoritative adult in their school as the scaffolding for turning academic failure into success, a sense of being misunderstood into hopes for great leaps of learning, and a sense of feeling like a “misfit” into a boy’s deep abiding sense of being known and loved, yes, loved, for who he really is.

Overlapping studies in public health, brain research, and cognitive science are especially helpful in showing us that our young male students, just like our female students (although perhaps in subtly different ways), are “hardwired to connect.” Their brains require a mirrored sense of a positive view of who they are as learners and seekers; and when they receive that in their school environment, a genuine learning/caring connection is created. Boys’ sense of anomie, their dour and expressed states of disconnection, and their “failure to launch and thrive in school” which leads to failure to launch in life, all begin to melt away once we realize that such connections are the core of academic curriculum and achievement.

This is “no race to the top,” but rather an ongoing embrace of caring, concern and learning which so many boys long for but cannot directly express and therefore do not receive in an increasingly lean and mean, test-based academic environment that does not cherish positive, resilience-inducing learning climates as much as help boys to self-critically lose faith and drop out of school and then life.

If the data is so clear; if pedagogical studies of teachers’ positive relationships with their kindergarten students are some of the best predictors of later academic success and negative connections are the most potent predictors for school failures; and boys are the most likely students to have negative relationships with their teachers, if they have a relationship at all—why don’t we ‘get it’ and fix it?

Put most simply, we have found in our work on Boy’s Voices that an atavistic socializing code, a “boy code” which begins long before school but too often receives reinforcement there, indoctrinates boys into believing that to be a “real boy” they must eschew any open expression of caring and love, and when most in need or in pain, must struggle not to show it. That is coupled with the “feminine” templates we adults carry in our heads of what empathy and love are really like, which require tears, expressions of vulnerability, and open connection. So when elementary school girls seek connection with their teachers, they may run for a hug, receive a hug back, and establish a learning connection. For a boy, bouncing a ball too high and disrupting a group activity is seen as misbehavior rather than as reaching out for emotional safety and the kind of connection that can foster learning.

As we struggle together to re-interpret and re-analyze our procrustean notions of education, we can create a connection-based climate in which boys can learn and thrive, while supporting the girls around them in their ongoing journeys toward educational achievement and societal recognition.

About the Author: Dr. William S. Pollack is Associate Clinical Professor, Department of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School and author of the Real Boys® book series. For more information and resources, visit www.williampollack.com.