John Jensen: Setting the Conditions for Boys – and Everyone – to Learn

by John Jensen, PhD

In his article “Solving the ‘Boy Crisis’ in Schools,” (Huffington Post, May 1, 2013), Michael Kimmel notes statistics indicating boys’ worse achievement in school than girls. He suggests boys’ perceptions of masculinity as the determining variable; what, in boys’ eyes, is respectable as “real work.”

While boys and girls may indeed view classroom work alternately, a different elephant stands in the room. Its nature became clear to me in 1992 while watching my son play soccer in a light rain with his middle-school friends.  They were motivated, by all visible measures, dashing about and encouraged constantly to the effort of the moment by their equally motivated coach (“Nicely Done, Nicely Done!).  Standing on the sidelines I reflected on what I knew about the boys—across the board mediocre students, but here, “motivated.”

The reason for the difference between the boys’ behavior from playground to classroom struck me. It wasn’t the boys, it was the conditions!  They were not unmotivated individuals.  Instead they were subjected to unmotivating conditions! On the playfield they experienced practice, growth in competence, teamwork, clear direction, accurate accounting of their progress, and public recognition for it. In the design of soccer, effort gets you somewhere. But change places, focus on a different task, and their motivation changes instantly.

The point is critical: they instantly absorb every difference in glance, tone, concept, task, and relationship they perceive directed at them, and instantly adapt to it.

The point underlies teachers’ common experience of being required to try out some new approach the district buys. They know the first day whether it is reaching the kids.  Maybe a couple weeks are used to tell for sure, but surely no more than that. In two weeks, any new teaching method reveals its portents. If it doesn’t work in two weeks, it probably won’t work at all.

Wondering how to generate the same enthusiasm in the classroom as on the soccer field set me on a twenty-year voyage of observation, development, testing, and application — of methods that generate in students the same energy they experience on the playfield.

A central stream unites factors coherently, not as isolated characteristics forced into an aggregation. Around a common channel of energy, different emphases draw it onward. Follow the thread:

Players practice together in order to become more individually and collectively competent, enabling them to perform skillfully to peers and significant others.  Objective scoring enables them to plot their advancing skill with tangible evidence of progress they can take pride in.  Because each one’s success contributes to the whole, they give good feelings to each other and communicate effectively about the issues involved with displaying their competence.

Note the intrinsic harmony of this picture that is reproduced in one sport and activity after another: practice, competence, performance, scoring, pride, good feelings, and communication. In view of the bizarre events displayed on TV that draw eager participants and crowds of spectators, we might guess that any activity that reproduces these conditions generates enthusiasm!

If climbing a slide flowing with whipped cream can generate enthusiasm, why not classroom learning?  Really, it’s simple.  All we need is a better understanding of a few things mainstream education misunderstands.

1.  Practice is calling up and demonstrating an internal model of an activity.  For learning, this just means calling up the knowledge that went in before, and making it understandable to someone else. Two features are integral to the practice of learning: memory and sense-making. You have to call up factual parts with sheer retention, but then you integrate them so they make sense to someone else.  And what do we call this two-step process? We call it explaining.  Students need to explain every part of every course back to its beginning, and do so often and thoroughly enough that by the end of the course a “final exam” is superfluous. Everyone knows that everyone else knows it back to the start of the course. This is the “real work” boys can respect.

2. Competence.  Competence is achieved only by practice.  There is no shortcut.  The hints and aids and review questions and test-taking methods and scaffolds serve mainly to suggest to students that there is a defensible alternative to actually knowing the material. Competent with the material, you can start thinking about it from any angle and work your way into everything else.  You can explain it to anyone of any age or sophistication. This is “real work” boys can appreciate.

3.  Perform.  Barely a few minutes a day can flavor a whole day’s work.  Performing is the moment of demonstrating what was practiced and revealing the competence achieved. All a teacher need do is keep track of every question learned by the class as a whole, write it on a slip of paper, and drop it in a bag that eventually incorporates everything taught for the entire term.  At the end of each day, save five minutes to draw a slip, draw a student’s name, read the question, and let the student rise and answer (competently, again, because all the questions were already practiced peer to peer).  The teacher leads the class in applause.  To stimulate everyone’s investment in everyone else’s performance, reward the class based on the performance of individuals.

4.  Objective scoring. To score all learning objectively, notice the step of advance that occurs on the basis of student effort. In what you teach, where does effort go, and how do you identify an increment of progress? That’s the part to score unit by unit: more vocabulary words, key terms, rules of grammar, parts of speech, steps of a process, factors in a formula, meaning of technical terms.  Ask yourself “If this were on a final exam and they got it wrong, what score would I mark off?” but then give them that positive score for knowing it instead of focusing on the mistake. Ask yourself “How many distinct pieces of knowledge would I expect from this question when it is performed?” Allot those distinctions as the score for a given process.  Post a wall chart with everyone’s names, and a column for every section of a course treated.  Add numbers steadily to each column identifying the cumulative, objective count of what each student continues to know.

5.  Communications and good feelings.  The same principles hold for teaching these two skill areas quickly and effectively.  Part can be learned thoroughly as academic knowledge—about friendship, managing feelings, mutual problem-solving, personal goal-setting, grasping values, and so on.  Other parts are learned readily by practice–getting an idea, applying it, and giving oneself and others a tally in recognition of having done so.  The process is not complicated.

To return to our initial concern of boys not doing well, how does the analysis above tweak the picture?

It suggests going straight to the conditions that we know galvanize boys’ energy and notice that they motivate girls as well.  Let them all practice to become competent.  Let them perform what they know, be applauded for it, and receive objective scoring of what their effort achieves, and let them practice (and be recognized for) good communications and generating good feelings. Take two weeks to prove out this approach and you’ll discover that worries you had about your students evaporate.  You will be able to see the knowledge being reproduced hour by hour and day by day, leaving you no doubt about the depth and breadth students achieve.

John Jensen is a licensed clinical psychologist and author of the three-volume Practice Makes Permanent series (Rowman and Littlefield). He will send a proof copy of the volumes to anyone on request: jjensen@gci.net

John Jensen, Ph.D.
John Jensen is a licensed clinical psychologist and education consultant. His three volume Practice Makes Perfect Series is in publication with Rowman and Littlefield, education publishers. The first of the series due in January is Teaching So Students Work Harder and Enjoy It: Practice Makes Perfect. He welcomes comments sent to him directly at jjensen@gci.net.