Boys and Classical Christian Education: It Starts Early

Doreen Howell explains some of the reasons why boys learn differently than girls and offers pedagogical advice for teaching boys.
Reading Time: 9 minutes

What are little boys made of, made of? What are little boys made of?”1 This is not only an old nursery rhyme, but also a very current question. Talk with teachers and administrators in all kinds of schools and peruse the internet for countless articles, forums and blogs, and all are bemoaning the state of education for boys and how we are failing to reach them. If you read the statistics, you would have to agree because multiple sources say boys are diagnosed with ADHD and learning disorders seven times more often than girls, the drop-out rate among boys is higher, teachers are more likely to say it’s the boys that can’t sit still or pay attention, boys tend to be more physically aggressive and destructive and, if asked, they will tell you their favorite subjects are PE, recess, and lunch. But what is the best education for boys?

In my personal experience as a female growing up with all male siblings, in a neighborhood where boys outnumbered girls 6:1, I was immersed in the boy culture to the point that my mother, armed with hosiery, high- heels, and a razor, told me I had to stop playing football at age 15. In that environment I observed a few things about boys. For example, pushing someone, hitting, or a playful knock upside the head meant “I like you”. The guys loved competition and could make any experience into a game, the rules of which were dependent on whether or not you or your team, were losing. This competition continued in spite of many injuries. There were declarations of “I’ll show you!” or “If you think that’s bad, try this,” to say nothing
of, “I can go twice as fast as you,” as the home-built go-cart went careening down the hill completely out of control. Based on what I have read and observed in the subsequent years, not much has changed.

In 1928, Thomas Maude from Oxford University pondered this question of appropriate education for boys. This opinion piece, “An Apology for the System of Public and Classical Education”, was a defense of classical education as opposed to home education in respect to instructing boys. In the article he says, “I maintain, moreover, the simple plan of education pursued in our great school is more adapted to a boy’s intellectual advancement…I advocate on the main, that system of classical instruction.”2 But the classical educational system of today seems to be non-boy friendly, so the focus of the remainder of this article is exploring ways to capture the imagination and intellect of very young boys between 4 and 8 years old so that we give them a strong learning foundation, on which to build a classical education.

A human being is a very intricate and complicated creation. Understanding all of the intricacy is beyond knowing completely. We tend to make little boxes and expect every person to fit neatly in those boxes and most never do. As you read the generalizations of this article, remember to look for the unique ways God put together each boy-child you know. Remember too, “…male and female he (God) created them.”3 but He also made them all individuals.

A Boy’s Brain

In his book Boys and Girls Learn Differently, Michael Gurian takes a very detailed and extensive look at the differences between the male and female brain that is worth the read, but here are a few highlights. The brain has three layers with three different functions that constantly interact. The brain stem is the center of the “flight or fight” response and survival system; it is on the bottom. In the middle of the brain is the limbic system where sensory input and emotions are processed. Thinking occurs at the top of the brain, which is divided into two hemispheres (hence, right- brain, left-brain). The left side is associated with verbal skills and the right is associated with spatial skills.4 Blood flow in a boy’s brain runs down the right side of the brain and flows to the brain stem. Gurian says, “When we tell a child to ‘think before you act,’ we are actually saying, ‘Redirect your blood flow from the limbic system and even from the brain stem, to the top of the brain before you act.’”5 Sounds funny, particularly for boys; because of the way blood flows, action will almost always take place before thinking. Male hormones play into this as well. Serotonin, which keeps a person calm, is lower in males resulting in more impulsivity and fidgeting behavior. The aggression hormone, testosterone is higher and that is the reason some boys tend to be more aggressive, muscular, and socially ambitious.6 Those three characteristics are the reasons many little boys will run to the top of the play-scape and before considering how high up he is, he will try to jump off often resulting in broken arms, legs or what have you, but from his perspective it was fun and, yes, he will probably try it again.

Sitting Seems Impossible

Many teachers are frustrated with the activity level of little boys. They want this male-child to sit down and pay attention. But that is a lot harder than it looks. Just the act of sitting in a chair, relays multiple messages from many body systems to the brain all at once. The tactile system seeks stimulation while trying to remain seated, the vestibular system gives messages of balance and position, the proprioceptive system sends messages about muscles and joints, so that the body stays in the chair in
the appropriate position, and there are various messages coming from the visual and auditory systems. At the same time these young and immature bodies are being asked to pay attention and perform additional complex skills, like handwriting. The physical and mental are interdependent. You don’t have one without the other. According to Athena Oden P.T., author of Ready Bodies, Learning Minds, “children will continue to develop and grow even if their vestibular or reflex response is inadequate. But with inadequate, faulty backgrounds to build new skills on, their success is limited and their frustration escalates….Pushing children to perform academic tasks, especially pencil and paper tasks, at a young age will increase the likelihood that they will build these skills on immature, faulty backgrounds. Give them time to grow, develop and learn about their bodies. Provide them with experiences to increase the likelihood of their success by developing their sensory and motor systems to their fullest.”7 Unfortunately for little boys, Kindergarten is no longer preparing them for first grade, giving them time to develop those immature bodies,— Kindergarten is too often the old first grade.

To Move or Not to Move, That is the Question!

It is obvious that little boys need movement and they love it. Recess becomes the punishment target for unacceptable active behavior. In PBS’s article on “Understanding and Raising Boys”, Joseph Tobin states, “Eliminating recess only heightens boys’ active and aggressive impulses. The very boys who tend to be punished are the ones who most need physical release from their tension. If we take away their only opportunity to deal with stress, they may become more tense and then find it even more difficult to sit still and focus.”8 A boy’s brain needs movement, breaks, and varying stimuli to help him control what we consider impulsive behavior, but which is truly normal for young boys. Movement also keeps them from becoming bored, because once boys are bored, they disengage and stop trying9.

Change your mind about the old “learning position” — feet flat on the floor, sitting up straight in your chair, with your eyes to the front of the room and your hands folded on your desk; does that position work for you as a learner? The best learning position for some may be standing, or leaning, or better yet stretched out on the floor. Even as a girl, I had difficulty sitting still in chairs in early grades. I not only wanted but needed to move. I still remember the day I discovered I could move my toes inside my shoes and the teacher never knew.

The average attention span for a young boy is less than 15 minutes, less than 10 for preschool or kindergarten and the average attention span of that boy’s body is less than 10 minutes. In addition eye fatigue sets in during the same time period. I observed a Kindergarten teacher who must have understood that. The class was reviewing the sounds of the alphabet and playing a game she called “Jump Up”. This game generated anticipation, excitement and movement while learning pre-reading skills. The children sat in assigned spots on the floor. The teacher wrote a letter or phonogram on the board, then said “(Child’s name) jump up, turn around, tell me this letter’s sounds.” She didn’t go in order and might call on a child more than once, so they eagerly waited to take their turns.

What Kind of Lessons Work Best?

Dr. Michael Reichert and Dr. Richard Hawley conducted a study called “Teaching Boys: A Global Study of Effective Practices.” Based on 2,500 responses they grouped the most effective teaching/learning practices into these categories: Lessons 1) with end products, like drawings, poems, personally built projects, 2) constructed as competitive games, 3) requiring motor activity, 4) requiring a response to open-ended questions, 5) that combined competition with teamwork, 6) containing novelty or surprise to gain attention.10 Keep those in mind while planning lessons.

Give little boys more physical space, opportunities for movement and breaks. They work well with more light and most of the time noise doesn’t bother them. You create the environment for growth and they will bloom.

Snips and Snails and Puppy Dog Tails

Curiosity is to be cultivated. This is where the “snips and snails”11 come in. Young boys are notorious collectors. Their pockets are full of “snips”, little pieces of things and, yes, sometimes they may have snails. These collectibles could be playground pebbles, bark off the trees, playing pieces from games, and sometimes special treasures from home that should have stayed home. Their pockets are great pictures of their curiosity. One teacher saw pocket contents as treasure and provided a little box for each boy to keep his “find”. She said many times contents lead to great conversations with first grade boys. She found that her interest in their collections improved their interest in her lessons. Another teacher made a game of searching
for different kinds of pebbles then made pebble hearts on Mother’s Day cards.

Some teachers complain that students, particularly the boys, don’t seem to be curious about anything. Solution–a nature walk with the theme of “I wonder…”, the perfect opportunity to show students how to “wonder”. A nature table in the classroom is a great way to spawn curiosity. Just be prepared to accept things that might make you a little uncomfortable, like the huge hairy tarantula or the green snake that was a part of my nature table, both of which were brought by boys.

Encourage boys’ creativity: don’t feed the “And the answer is….” In the early years when we are using imitation there is the temptation to say that it has to be this way or it is not right. Creativity can be lost when restrictions are too rigid. Allow exploration to take place in their thinking and as John Milton Gregory said, “…and as a rule tell him nothing that he can learn himself.”12 Encourage them to try their ideas. Maybe the creation doesn’t look like the picture on the box or maybe he solved a math problem in a new way; celebrate creativity. The first grade was learning about Benjamin Franklin and had an invention day; that’s a dream for little boys. One young inventor made a spanking machine, with a plastic spoon connected to a two-direction motor that went in a circle and spanked his little stuffed puppy. I was impressed, but that wasn’t
all; he reversed the direction and the spoon fed the puppy instead of spanking it—who would have thought?

It is important to teach little boys about appropriate time and place for ideas, but sometimes the most creative or profound thoughts are blurted out before they think about appropriateness. Correct them, but don’t squelch the exuberance. The teacher was telling the Bible story of Jesus feeding the 5,000. She said, “And Andrew said, ‘But, Jesus, how can we feed so many with just five loaves and two fishes?’” Immediately, without hesitation, a first grade boy, blurts out, “Come on guy, just trust Jesus. He can do it.”

Making Guns out of Pretzels Does Not Create Serial Killers

Normal little boys and big boys draw pictures of war, play war games and make weapons out of various things. They express violence in many different ways, and mothers’ shudder. One young boy ate his sandwich into the shape of a gun and was expelled from school. In PBS’s article “Understanding and Raising Boys”, Jane Katch is quoted, “If a boy is playing a game about super heroes, you might see it as violent. But the way he sees it, he’s making the world safe from the bad guys. This is normal and doesn’t indicate that anything is wrong unless he repeatedly hurts or tries to dominate the friends he plays with.”13 The problem is not the playing, it is our overreaction to the seeming violence. Yes, there are students who are aggressive and violent and they need to be helped, but the majority of our little boys are learning to be strong husbands and fathers. Prohibition often makes the urge to play violently more enticing and it escalates. We must use common sense in working through the issues of war, violence, guns, as well as the themes of war and killing in the Bible. These things can be addressed as we teach children about relationships, friendships, and the harmfulness of bullying. The younger those conversations begin the more impact there is later.

The Key is Relationships

A teacher can have the perfect lesson plan with the snazzy attention-getting opener, use every technique that is meant to work with boys, have impeccable classroom management skills, and be the envy of every other teacher in the building but without a solid “I care about you and will still like you, no matter what” attitude, all the other will be for naught. The key to teaching is exactly what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 13:5 (ESV) “…but [if I] have not love, I gain nothing.”14 This is the kind of love that doesn’t have to control or manipulate in order to reach these future men. This kind of love is honest and says, “This is going
to be hard, but I am going through this with you and I know you can do it.” It is not your personality that makes a difference, it is your love and every boy needs someone to love him to manhood. Let’s start with the youngest among us.