Digging Deeper into Boys' Underachievement
In April 2011, ASCD will publish Teaching Boys Who Struggle in School: Strategies That Turn Underachievers into Successful Learners by Kathleen Cleveland. The author seeks to move beyond the current debate that either links underachievement to boy brains languishing amid a preponderance of girl-friendly pedagogy or dismisses the "crisis" as only a problem among minority boys. The following summarizes Chapter 1: Framing the Issue of Underachievement.
Although there's general agreement that boys are neither doing well in school nor graduating from college in as high a number as girls, the current debate about boys' underachievement seems unsatisfactory, contends Kathleen Cleveland.
One side says that boy-girl brain differences undercut male achievement in classrooms geared for girls. The other side says there is no significant difference in boys' achievement levels over 30 years, pointing out that a genuine crisis exists only for Hispanic, African American, and economically deprived youth in urban areas.
Instead of trying to reconcile those opposing views to find answers to the problem of underachievement among boys, Cleveland suggests that schools focus on struggling boys in particular instead of all boys as a class of learners. If that's done, then educators can respond specifically and flexibly to the needs of their underachieving boys in their own classrooms.
Through a survey, in which Cleveland asked educators to contrast the characteristics of successful and struggling boys in their classrooms, she discerned four clues that could help educators arrive at solutions to engage boys struggling to learn.
Clue 1: The influence of nonacademic factors on academic success. Social confidence, positive attitudes about self and learning, and access to support systems were among the nonacademic factors that successful boys showed. Such characteristics, Cleveland says, may influence the use of key academic skills, such as listening, organizing, focusing, using time well, paying attention to details, reading and writing well, and finishing tasks.
Clue 2: Factors contributing to boys' experience of school. Boys' positive perspective on school revolved around the quality and frequency of interactions with their friends. The teacher-student relationship, instructional methods, and classroom setting seemed to affect struggling boys in negative ways.
Clue 3: How competence can enhance persistence. Struggling boys seemed to have significant problems in literacy, so Cleveland wonders if there are ways to teach reading, writing, grammar, composition, vocabulary, and so on in ways that convince them to persevere in the crucial area of academics.
Clue 4: How self-regulation can affect learning. Could classroom factors such as lighting, seating, and room arrangement contribute to the negative behaviors we associate with underachieving boys?
Based on these survey findings, Cleveland suggests that educators need to address academic underachievement in boys by comprehending how factors such as social confidence, attitudes about self and learning, access to support, connections between competence and persistence, and self-regulation interact to influence a boy as a learner.
As guidelines for the solutions to meet the needs of struggling boys, Cleveland offers four strategies that focus on helping struggling boys reach their potential so that, like their more successful male peers, they too might experience academic success:
Replace their negative attitudes about learning with productive perspectives about the role of risk (and even failure) as a necessary and valued part of the learning process.
Reconnect them with school, with learning, and with belief in themselves as competent learners who are capable, valued, and respected.
Rebuild life skills and learning skills that lead to academic success and lay the groundwork for success in life.
Reduce their need to use unproductive and distracting behaviors as a means of self-protection.
ASCD Express, Vol. 6, No. 4. Copyright 2010 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.