The Lost Boys

Part II


The gap in gender inequality in education worldwide is widening, but not in the direction many might think.


Part I of this blog explored recent findings that boys are increasingly trapped in a cycle of poor performance, low motivation, and are often disengaged during school. The latest report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development says man young men are in no shape to succeed in a job market that requires increasing skill levels.


-“Across the board, girls tend to score higher than boys in reading, which the O.E.C.D. considers the most important skill, essential for future learning.”


-“At the bottom, the gap is enormous: The worst-performing American girls — who did worse in reading tests than 94 out of every 100 of their peers — scored 49 points more than bottom-ranked boys, a 15 percent gap.”

This leaves us with the question: what can be done about it?


For starters, experts suggest, we need to dramatically increase the amount of time boys spend exerting physical energy. Advancements in brain science and evolutionary biology are providing strong evidence that low motivation and poor performance are tied, at least in part, to a lack of physical activity. They suggest that boys spend more time exercising during the school day, using their hands and standing or moving around while learning, and schools should increase recess time (even for older boys).


Into the Wild


Leonard Sax M.D., Ph.D has been studying the differences in how boys and girls learn for more than a decade. He recently wrote a book called, “Why Gender Matters: What Parents and Teachers Need to Know About the Emerging Science of Sex Differences.” In Chapter 4, “Aggression”, he wrote about a 14-year-old boy named Jeffrey who was moody, irritable, depressed and struggling in school. That is, until he went on a “wilderness retreat”.


“The psychiatrist had prescribed an antidepressant plus Ritalin for attention deficit disorder. Even with the medication, Jeffrey was still withdrawn and despondent. Getting through the school day was a struggle, even though his parents had enrolled him in a private academy where the classes were small and the teachers were caring and attentive. That summer, Jeffrey’s father arranged for him to spend two months in Zimbabwe.”


Jeffrey’s parents packed enough medication to last him all summer. But after three days in the African bush Jeffrey stopped taking the pills. Unlike in the classroom, Jeffrey could sit still for hours. On the hunt he would be completely motionless, waiting for the prey. Years later, his mother, Jane, credited that wilderness camp as the turning point for her son.


“His whole attitude had changed and his depression lifted. He no longer saw himself as a failure. Now suppose Jeffrey’s parents had not sent him to Zimbabwe. Suppose they had sent him instead to “Camp ADD,” a summer camp where boys diagnosed with attention deficit disorder spend their summer working on reading and writing skills. There are many such camps today. They’re springing up like weeds. Six weeks indoors in July and August. Then you go right back to school in September for more of the same. If Jeffrey’s parents had done that, I doubt that he would have grown up to be the outgoing and amiable man he now is.”


“The same hidden intensity and impulsiveness that had been liabilities for Jeffrey at school in Maryland became advantages when he was hunting in the wilds of Zimbabwe. The experience of feeling himself to be a genuinely gifted and talented hunter changed his whole outlook on life.”



It isn’t that every boy has to go out and kill something, Sax cautions, it’s that “the hunt” is biologically programmed in boys, whereas being in a classroom all day trying to sit still creates pent up, anxious energy for many young men. Sax isn’t the only one advocating for more time combining activity and learning.


Here are a few more links to articles about the benefits of combining education and wilderness programs: Wilderness programs for the struggling child.


Deep Springs College/NPR


Recess Lost


The need for kids to play has never been more important, yet kids are playing less now than anytime in history. According to Peter Gray, professor at Boston College and author of the book, “Free to Learn”, the “continuous, gradual, but ultimately dramatic decline in children’s opportunities to play freely,” is contributing to an increase in childhood mental disorders, especially emotional disorders.


“Such findings have contributed to the emotion regulation theory of playa��the theory that one of play’s major functions is to teach young mammals how to regulate fear and anger.[4] In risky play, youngsters dose themselves with manageable quantities of fear and practice keeping their heads and behaving adaptively while experiencing that fear. They learn that they can manage their fear, overcome it, and come out alive. In rough and tumble play they may also experience anger, as one player may accidentally hurt another. But to continue playing, to continue the fun, they must overcome that anger.”


Sax includes similar findings in “Why Gender Matters“.


Another article on the importance of recess: Recess Endangered.


Along with recess, physical education was on the chopping block in the “No Child Left Behind” law. There is no question that physical education needed (and still needs) improvements, but some of the warnings by experts and teachers alike about cutting physical activity from schools has come to fruition.


Next time, I’ll explore ways that physical education/health can be rebranded in order to tackle some of the most important issues facing education today.

By Jake Nordbye, Guest Blogger