of us who have worked with boys know that motivating them to high levels of
engagement and achievement can be a struggle. My own 18 years as teacher
revealed to me that there wasn’t any lack of energy or passion in my boys—it
was just directing it that that I found a problem.
I became school principal, I saw the a bigger "boy problem", meeting boys
daily who were intelligent, clever and
passionate, but who were in my office because they were not using any of those
attributes to reach their potential in the classroom. It became so frustrating to me that I took a rather drastic step: I left my school position and went on a 5
year journey of neuroscience research and
work with many thousands of students, parents and teachers to find out what could
make a difference for them.
What I discovered is outlined below, but the foundation of male success in school has to be founded on engagement and effort. As parents we know this, but the brain science demonstrated to me that they are more than that—they are indispensible!
To learn the skills and concepts necessary for success in the 21st century—there must be an emotional connection to learning which is based on Motivated Engagement . Think of the smile on a young boy’s face when he first learns to walk or discovers something new in the grass. Look at the gleam in his eyes when he scores a goal, plays a video game, listens to music he loves, or watches a favorite television program. He is totally involved in the activity and he wants to be! He learns with ease and joy.
At this point he is ready to use Discretionary Effort. This is the effort used when we do things that we are not required to do. It’s demonstrated when we work that extra bit, go that extra mile, or connect a part of our identity with what we are doing and make it our own. It’s something we do, not something done to us. It leverages the creation of neural pathways in the frontal lobes and brings our creativity to any problem—and it supercharges learning!
The trouble is that many of us do not know what it takes to unleash these powerful emotional forces in our classroom for boys. I know I didn’t—until my research and classroom work helped me to highlight 6 pathways that have motivated males for millennia. I call them "secrets" because even though we as parents and teachers are aware of them and may be using them intuitively
to motivate our boys, when we discover their hidden power consciously, it
can profoundly improve the learning in our classroom and the joy experienced by
students –as well as parents and teachers!
work because they are in sync with the brain-wiring of boys and evolutionary
tendencies that have developed to help males survive, learn and thrive at home,
school and in society. Here’s a brief overview of each one:
Neuroscience has confirmed that boys develop more brain-wiring for movement than girls at
early ages. This is why they love to move, fidget in class, and want to be
wherever the “action” is. It also explains why they can sit still for so long
playing video games: Those games are saturated with movement!
Boys have profound learning experiences within the context of games because they
receive a shot of testosterone when they set goals and achieve them. They love
games and competition and if they see learning as something they can compete
and “win” at, they achieve higher. However, if they don’t think they can win in
school because they aren’t smart enough, they will often refuse to play the
Boys love “funny” things. They often can veer into inappropriate or crude topics,
but humor is an important tool for boys learning. It helps them feel
comfortable with new concepts, engage in teamwork, and take on new challenges.
It is a therefore a very effective way for adults to leverage boys’ interest
and commitment to learning.
In their desire to release testosterone by winning boys are drawn to challenge. It helps boys learn because through
challenge they discover things about themselves and their
environment. When used by teachers, it can improve the motivation and
resilience of boys when faced with difficult learning tasks.
Success for any boy ultimately comes when he takes ownership for his own
learning. When looking at anything they have to learn, boys’ brains have
evolved to want to know its usefulness. In other words, what is it good
for? If they can find a good answer to this question, it deepens their desire
to understand the way something works and learn skills so as to master and
Because they want to understand the usefulness of what they learn, boys need to see the
reason for it. “Why do we have to learn this?” is more than a way for a
lazy boy to avoid doing work. It is essential for him to understand the
importance and meaning of the task at hand. If a teacher can help him see how
his learning fits into the larger picture a boy will increase his interest and
commitment in the classroom.
Each of these pathways to boys learning has tremendous power individually, however the real benefits come
when we apply them in a particular way to help those boys who are struggling in
our classrooms. The illustration below shows how they relate to each other:
Those on the outer circle (movement, game, humor) are excellent ways to engage any boy with learning. They work subconsciously for
many boys and almost every parent or teacher actually has used them, albeit unconsciously to
improve how males learn. They are easy to implement but often
short-term in their effects. However, what they do very effectively is to give
boys a physiological and emotional attachment to learning
and trigger a feeling in a boy that tells
him “I can do this school stuff…and it’s
kind of cool too…”.
This produces motivated engagement to go deeper into
learning with those secrets that require discretionary effort: challenge and
mastery. When he takes up the challenges of learning and begins to set his own
goals for mastering learning he ultimately begins to attach profound meaning to
his time in school because it demonstrates to him his significance and
the power of learning, achievement and classroom success to help to reach his
heroic individual potential (an outcome he secretly longs for, but fears he is
not worthy for).