To Help Boys, Should Schools Focus on Masculinity — or on Students’...


To Help Boys, Should Schools Focus on Masculinity — or on Students’ Shared Humanity?

By Daniel Mollenkamp     Apr 2, 2024

To Help Boys, Should Schools Focus on Masculinity — or on Students’ Shared Humanity?

When she works in a classroom, Niobe Way, a professor of developmental psychology at New York University, wants to dive into the deep end.

It’s a technique she’s borrowed from the young children she interviews for her research, who often ask the most arresting, meaningful questions. But that natural proclivity for learning about the thoughts and feelings of others — an essential part of forming friendships or connecting with teachers — seems to get beaten out of many students by the time they’ve fully matured, she says.

The result is that, by the time someone grows up, they are totally incurious about other people. A part of them has been turned off. That’s a reflection that society, including schools, is terrible at nurturing the natural curiosity we have about other people, Way argues.

So in every class she teaches, Way says that she gives students a few minutes to try to turn that part of themselves back on. She has them discuss a question that plumbs what it means to be human:

“Tell me about a time when you felt a sense of belongingness.”

“How do you experience trust?”

“What's home mean for you?”

Way says that people are starving for these questions, a sad consequence of what she sees as a culture and education system that have shut off people’s natural penchant for deep relationships.

Perhaps surprisingly, it’s a phenomenon Way brings up when asked about concerns over boys’ performance in American schools. When the culture doesn’t seem to value relationships or vulnerability or feelings, everyone suffers, she argues. To really help boys, she says, we need to recenter on the natural tendency all people have for connection.

It’s an approach that not everyone will accept. Nevertheless, it responds to a common perception: Boys are struggling. More people have started to pay attention to boys' academic and engagement struggles, renewing interest in gender dynamics when schools have moved beyond basic gender binaries.

While some observers argue that more male role models would help tackle the problem — or point to solutions like starting male students in school at later ages — others think that it’s more important to help all teachers notice gender patterns in the classroom, and to tend to healthy development of the traits all humans share.

A Man’s World?

While data shows that girls and women on the whole are excelling in schools, boys and men have become a point of concern. Women graduate high school on time more often and earn more degrees. In early years, girls outperform boys in reading.

Partly, men’s performance seems wanting because the barriers to women’s education have been removed, argues Jason Ablin, a former K-12 school principal and an author. Eliminating some barriers for women exposed how much men were actually struggling, according to Ablin. Areas where men appeared to be outperforming women almost a half-century ago were the result of a false impression, given primarily because women were being held back rather than that men were necessarily performing well, he says.

For example, the popular conception is that men are better at math than women, he says, “It’s absolute nonsense. It’s mythology.” Even back in the 1950s and 1960s — when women were kept out of advanced math classes and programs — men actually occupied the bottom of the bell curve for math performance, Ablin says. Women, in contrast, were in the middle range — prevented from rising to the top, but never at the bottom.

Yet in some ways, he says, men have stepped backward. Still, he’s optimistic about boosting boys, because he’s noticed more interest in developing male students, particularly from the parents of young children who seem more attuned to these dynamics.

But exactly how to assist boys and men is another matter.

Equal, Not Separate

Ideas abound. For instance, Richard V. Reeves, founding president of the American Institute for Boys and Men, has argued that schools should “redshirt” boys, having them start school a year after girls. That would, he argues, account for boys’ slower neurological development.

Curtis Valentine, one of the founders of Real Men Teach, has worked to help schools attract and retain more male teachers, something he hopes will improve performance, particularly for Black boys who are structurally disadvantaged within the education system. Reeves has proposed that strategy for subjects that male students are typically pushed away from, like English.

But Ablin disagrees that male students necessarily need male educators or male-only spaces.

“That’s an assumption that’s made, and it’s not really accurate,” he says, pointing to research that suggests schools that separate boys’ and girls’ classes have not been shown persuasively to improve education.

But it’s a little complicated. Though they may be thematically related, recruiting more male teachers is not synonymous with same-sex schooling, the focus of the studies summarized in that research note.

Ablin indicated that his own experiences in the classroom have shown him that emotional and human connection is what’s most critical, more than the gender of any given teacher or the composition of students in a classroom.

Ultimately, Ablin argues that school staff who are well trained to notice gender patterns inside classrooms are best able to account for those patterns. That’s where he thinks researchers like Way, of New York University, have lighted the path by showing that boys often learn to detach from relationships.

Way says the innate capacity of boys to be beautifully sensitive and emotional gets lost as they grow up. The culture turns natural human instincts into “gendered” traits, punishing both boys and girls in different directions, she says. For boys, it can mean that their natural emotional sensitivity isn’t valued. One consequence is that boys and men aren’t encouraged to go into professions mislabelled by the culture as “feminine,” and therefore devalued, such as caretaking, Way says. And manhood is often premised on denying aspects of human nature that are viewed as “soft,” she adds.

For Way, that means schools are neglecting healthy development for boys. If instead it was widely understood that men and women alike have all of these traits and impulses — and if those traits were nurtured in schools and homes and workplaces — it would go a long way in creating healthier relationships and learning environments, Way says.

She hopes her work with the Listening Project, which offers lesson units integrated into English and humanities classes in middle and high schools, will facilitate human connections. The lessons teach “transformative interviewing,” emphasizing curiosity about other people. A study from the project’s researchers claims that this tack — “interpersonal curiosity” as a way to guide development — is affiliated with stronger social and emotional skills and well-being. Way claims that it leads to better listening, curiosity and academic engagement, while building a “sense of common humanity.”

Paying some attention to gender dynamics might relieve some of the social isolation, mental health woes and even self-harm plaguing schools, Way suggests.

“The hope is that we actually begin to listen to what young people teach us about who we are as humans, and use that as the basis of how we educate,” she says.

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