Wired to Move


While watching my daughter's dance class, I struck up a conversation with the young dad standing next to me. As we stood gazing through the glass at our hell-raising cherubs, I asked about his story.

He's a local contractor, he explained, but he hadn't started out that way. In fact, he once told his carpenter father -- through gritted teeth -- that he would "never be like him"; he didn't intend to pursue a life in the building trades. He flashed a self-deprecating grin, and recounted how he'd had to eat crow when he came "home" to a life as a contractor. Once he'd swallowed his pride, he reveled in the fact that he's good at it -- something he'd rarely felt in school.

He told me he'd been one of those "fidgety boys" that needed to use his hands and "experience" education through tactile activities. Although interested in school and learning, he struggled. He told me that he'd gotten the message early on from his teachers that he needed to go to college in order to succeed. "I don't remember even one teacher telling me in middle school that it was okay for me to want to work with my hands," he reflected. "Instead, we were told constantly to go to college. So I did. I didn't last long." He explained that he wasn't successful, and it didn't cultivate his talents. But he grinned with pride as he rattled off all the local building projects he's been a part of creating. I could almost see his "thought bubble": "I built that."

Although many studies indicate that, on average, college graduates earn more money than those who don't pursue higher education, the story is more complex. David Leonhardt, writing for the NY Times venture "The Upshot", notes that in a down economy, men's wages do tend to stagnate, and men are more likely to be "idle" than their female counterparts. But Leonhardt asserts that this national problem is an outgrowth of the "boy troubles" that have grown in public schools over the past decade. Many high-energy boys don't feel valued for their differences and unique contributions so they check out of school. In bygone eras they might have received encouragement for their facility, dexterity and energy. But today these boys grow into men who do not seek the additional education that could enhance their career options because they feel unsuccessful at school.

My own son said to me through tears of frustration and utter exasperation the other day, "Girls are just better at everything at school!" He rattled off his observations: they write better, draw more neatly, read better, and can sit quietly in circle. Despite our celebration of his creativity, physicality and his wonderful deep thinking, and regardless of the support of his teachers and their willingness to work with my rocket-fueled son, he still feels generally unsuccessful in school. Many of my friends raising boys hear similar things from their little guys.

Although we've managed to shrink most of the gender gap in girls' math and science achievement, the gap between boys and girls in reading and writing has widened over the past 20 years. And nationally girls have higher report card grades in each subject area, even when boys perform better on standardized tests in certain subjects. Given that a significant portion of their grades include behavior and homework scores, it should not surprise us that boys who are wired to move struggle to sit still long enough to carefully complete their work.

Brain research done in 2013 at the University of Pennsylvania, shows distinct differences between male and female brains and the ways they process information. MRI scans reveal greater neural connectivity from front to back and within one hemisphere in male brains; they appear designed to facilitate connectivity between perception and coordinated action. Female brains, however, have wiring that runs between the left and right hemispheres, suggesting more communication between analysis and intuition. Although it will take years to sort out the many meanings of these results, biological brain differences exist. It makes sense that boys and girls would learn differently and thrive best under different conditions.

One school -- Spark Academy in Lawrence, Mass., -- is reinventing what school looks and feels like. School leaders did not specifically make the changes to meet the needs of boys, but the school's abysmal record demanded radical revision. Students now get 3 physical activity periods each day, totaling 2 hours of gym. Teachers also provide regular movement breaks and try to include some action in each activity. Recent test scores indicate that the school is on the right track. As physical activity has increased, so has student achievement.

Restructuring schools to include a lot more movement is one way to try to meet the needs of boys (and high energy girls). Another is to form book groups for teachers to read "Wired to Move," a book by Ruth Hanford Mohard that explains boys' drive to move and offers strategies to help boys be more successful in school settings. Publicly and frequently valuing any student's aspiration to have a career that involves "hands-on" work is another way to support our smart but fidgety kids. And providing clear educational pathways from middle school through high school will enable students to step into a career upon graduation. We must broaden our definition of success.

As dance class ended, all the girls sat listening attentively, carefully following directions. My new friend jerked his chin towards the glass that literally gave us a window into another world. He shook his head: "That wasn't me. I couldn't sit still. I needed to move."

Rebecca Balint writes about history, education and culture. She welcomes your comments at bbalint37@gmail.com. Read her blog at www.reformer802.com/speakerscorner.


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