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Richard Hawley and Michael Reichert
In response to the mounting concern that boys are not thriving in many U.S. schools, it occurred to us that it might be possible to document the elements of successfully teaching boys in schools where the process was most clearly observable: in schools for boys. We did not presume, nor do we now, that effectively teaching boys was possible only in boys' schools. Rather, we wanted to document common characteristics of effective practices and, if we found them, to consider their applicability to schools generally.
In partnership with The International Boys' Schools Coalition, we designed an international study called Teaching Boys: A Global Study of Effective Practices (2009) in which teachers and boys from 18 schools representing the United States, Canada, Great Britain, New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa submitted narratives of specific lessons and practices that they deemed especially effective—in other words, that worked.
Faculty of 7th through 12th grade boys—middle school and high school—submitted narratives, as did a sampling of the boys in each school. From approximately 1,000 faculty narratives and 1,500 student narratives, we set out to identify common patterns in the effective practices reported.
We did not begin with any assumption of what such reports would reveal or, more critically, whether there would indeed be any common factors in what was reported. We did not want to hear only from or about proven faculty "stars;" we wanted to hear from whole school faculties—beginning, mid-career, and veteran teachers; men and women; teachers of all types in all disciplines; teachers who had taught in both single-sex and coed schools. The schools ranged in enrollment from a few hundred boys to more than a thousand. Some were highly selective, others not at all. Many were primarily fee-based; a few were mostly government-supported.
The narratives were composed with considerable care. Without much prompting, the lessons teachers submitted were clearly articulated, revealing considerable enthusiasm, an impressive command of the material composing their selected lessons, and a sharp eye for their students' responsiveness.
What Works with Boys
After considerable analysis, we determined that the successful lessons fell into the following eight general categories, each of which expresses a dominant feature of the lesson's reported success:
Nearly every reported lesson included multiple elements, as when a teacher devises a game in which boys form teams to create a product that will be judged competitively. It appeared increasingly clear to us as we reviewed the teacher responses that these lessons had a distinct for-boys cast, a finding roundly confirmed by the boys themselves.
As we began designing the study, we were concerned that schoolboys, under conditions of promised anonymity, might not respond seriously to the survey. Yet nearly all of them did. We noted with interest that, despite our injunction against naming names, many respondents ignored this and proceeded, often with touching emotion, to relate stories of particular teachers. Lightheartedness and good humor were mentioned frequently as qualities that contributed positively to the boys' learning. Just as often, however, boys related stories of teachers' patience, commitment, and confidence in them.
Honing a Lesson
It is perhaps unsurprising that the practices faculty reported as especially effective also were found to be so by the boys. One of our central findings is that boys tend to elicit the pedagogy they need. In other words, teachers present material, and if either the substance or conveyance isn't right, boys will disengage and will engage in either passive inattention or diverting disruption. A committed teacher, however, will not accept these responses and will adjust content, manner of presentation, or relational style. Effective adjustments will result in better engagement, sustained effort, and mastery on the boys' part. The boys' positive responses in turn reinforce and lock into place the better pedagogy.
In this manner, teachers committed to boys' success will reinforce the boys' adjustments in a continuous, self-correcting cycle—unless it is blocked by external mandates (proficiency testing, prescribed lesson plans), teachers' adherence to standards or values that preclude adjusting to unwelcome student feedback, or social and physical conditions (lack of safety, unmanageable stress, illness) that make engaging in school business impossible.
Connecting with a Teacher
Another central finding of our study is that boys are relational learners. Andrew Martin (2003), whose research has focused on school motivation, has discovered clear differences in the degree of motivation to achieve manifested by boys and girls and has identified a variety of classroom practices that work especially well with boys. But, he concludes, "Particularly critical to students' engagement and motivation in a particular subject was their relationship with their teacher" (p. 54).
In the presence of attentive teachers and their refined lessons, boys in our study seemed to find it difficult to resist engaging in learning. They shared stories of being uplifted by their teachers' humor, passion, and personal care. Many wrote of responding productively to a highly structured, demanding, "no-nonsense" teacher, especially when they found that teacher to be "fair."
A Practice in Progress
Teachers frequently reported their especially effective approach grew out of adjustments made to unsuccessful efforts. In none of the teachers' narratives was there any hint of wise and all-knowing practitioners applying time-honored and proven techniques. To the contrary, many teachers acknowledged earlier frustration and even outright failure. Successful adjustments more often revealed a feedback dynamic in which ineffective practice disengaged boys, which caused teachers to adjust pedagogy until student responsiveness and mastery improved.
Consciously or not, teachers of boys tend to modify what they teach and the way they teach in response to what engages the boys in front of them. Intentionally or not, those teachers find themselves "experts" at teaching boys.
The Elements of Engagement
Finally, we discovered a quality of transitivity running through the effective practices reported in our study. By transitivity, we mean the capacity of some element of instruction—an element perhaps not normally associated with the lesson at hand—to arouse and hold student interest. So the motor activity, the adrenal boost of competition, or the power of an unexpected surprise in the classroom serves not merely to engage or delight; each is transitive because it informs and carries along a specific learning outcome.
One example of this transitivity comes from an English teacher's narrative of teaching Romeo and Juliet to his early adolescent students. In this lesson, he introduced his students to the discipline of stage swordplay, and the boys practiced and mastered some of the conventions of swordsmanship. The activity was highly engaging because it was physically rigorous; it was dramatic, holding the faint promise of danger; and it was novel. But, as the teacher's account reveals, it was also transitive to a deeper, more enlivened reading of those scenes in which Tybalt kills Mercutio and Romeo kills Tybalt—and to the play as a whole. The active exertions of swordplay for the stage infuse the experience of tackling a dense, rich text with an altogether different kind of energy, appreciation, and attention.
In a scholastic climate where too many boys are not thriving, the common features of lessons successfully taught to boys of all types in all subjects and in a wide variety of schools offer a promising blueprint for better practice. These findings are not airy abstractions. Teachers willing to rethink current methods and respond to the behavioral feedback their students offer daily are in a good position to increase the engagement and ultimate mastery of all of their students—including seemingly unreachable boys.
Hawley, R., & Reichert, M. (2009). Teaching boys: A global study of effective practices. Pawling, NY: The International Boys' School Coalition.
Martin, A. J. (2003). Boys and motivation. Australian Educational Researcher, 30(3), 43–65.
Richard Hawley is the retired headmaster of the University School in Cleveland, Ohio; founding president of The International Boys' School Coalition; and author of more than 20 books about children, schools, and learning. Michael Reichert, a clinical psychologist and consultant to schools, is cofounder and director of The Center for the Study of Boys' and Girls' Lives. Reichert and Hawley are coauthors of Reaching Boys/Teaching Boys: Strategies that Work and Why (2010) based on their study.
ASCD Express, Vol. 6, No. 4. Copyright 2010 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.
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