Educators Focus on Boys and Motivation


(Tuesday, February 13, 2007 11:58 AM EST)

Are boys less motivated than girls? Dr. Leonard Sax, a local family physician with a doctorate in psychology, thinks so, and recently gave his opinion on the issue at Central Library in Arlington.

Sax's soon-to-be-published book, “What's Wrong With My Son? The Five Truths Behind the Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys,” discusses five possibilities as to why boys are less motivated than girls.

In his talk, Sax focused on “the shift from experience-based learning to academic learning” in the education system, and fingered it as the culprit for boys' drop in motivation.

“There has been a marked acceleration in elementary academic education,” he said. “Thirty years ago, kindergartners were playing duck-duck-goose and finger painting. That is now not the case at all - kindergarten is about learning to read and write.”

Sax believes that this acceleration has negative effects on boys' academic motivation, because “boys' and girls' brains develop in profoundly different ways,” and many boys are not ready to sit still and learn how to read in kindergarten, he said.

As a result of the acceleration, boys sometimes feel like they're in the “dumb group” of students, because they can't learn how to read as easily as the girls, and they lose academic motivation for the rest of their lives, Sax said.

Sax found through his research that four out of five college students earning high honors are women, and that less than half of boys in college graduate with a degree.

“When comparing boys and girls, we're literally comparing brothers and sisters,” Sax said. “A sister goes to college and has a double major and honors, but her brother doesn't graduate. It's not that he can't do the work, he's just not motivated to work.”

Sax views this problem as an epidemic, and recommends a change in early-elementary-school education, or at least to offer options that would make the classroom a less hostile learning environment for boys, such as making sitting optional or having boys enter kindergarten at an older age.

Arlington public school teachers and students had varying opinions on Dr. Sax's conclusions.

Kirsten Gutowski, a kindergarten teacher at Glebe Elementary, agrees that the curriculum for kindergartners has become a lot more academic (her students spend two-and-a-half hours a day centered around language arts, and spend the majority of the rest of the day learning math, science and social studies concepts), but she has not witnessed boys becoming less motivated than the girls when they do academic work together.

Gutowski said she tries to make learning as fun as possible for her students, and incorporates movement into most of their activities, even the academic ones.

Gutowski's teaching methods are not chosen according to students' gender. She likes to address students' needs on an individual basis, she said.

“It's not boy to girl - it's more child to child,” Gutowski said. “You see a lot of growth from each child. ”

At the middle-school level, there is more concern that boys are less motivated in the classroom.

“On the whole, girls are more motivated,” said Loren Beecher a seventh-grade math teacher at Gunston Middle School. “I think boys get more negative feedback from their peers if they do well. I think they like school, but it's not cool to show it.”

“Boys think they're going to be rappers or football stars,” said Dominique Cross, a seventh-grader at Gunston. “Girls want to go further.”

Middle-school boys at Gunston had differing opinions on their levels of motivation.

Seventh-grader Luther Cordova said he believes that boys are more motivated academically because “boys like learning more than girls - girls talk too much about their social life.”

But Justin Glenn, also in seventh grade, had a different opinion.

“I think, overall, girls are more motivated,” Glenn said. “Boys have more distractions.”

Regardless of gender or levels of motivation, college is a goal for almost all these middle-school students, Beecher said.

Beecher recommends that parents “stay abreast of their children's homework and grades, have conversations with them, take them out to do enriching things and to communicate with their teachers,” to help keep motivation levels up, so these students can reach their academic goals.

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