Most any parent of both a boy and girl will say, “My son and daughter are so different,” and then go on to describe how dissimilar their personalities, preferences, play styles, tendencies, and developmental patterns are. Brain research in recent years has confirmed what good teachers have known intuitively for years: the male and female brains have differing structures and process information and events in different ways, and therefore some types of teaching and learning resonate with boys, while others are more effective and engaging for girls. Given these differences, it seems logical that single sex schools can offer a learning environment specialized to either boys or to girls in a way that coed schools simply cannot.
• visual, hands-on learners
• freedom to move around
• structure and rules
• guided competition
• more time to process emotions
• safe places for showing vulnerability encouragement to take on a variety of roles
• a definition of manhood
• themes of heroism and adventure
• male role models
• challenges and quests “The problem for boys, especially at the elementary level, is that schools are nearly always rigged against them,” says PDS Headmaster Lee Burns. “Most elementary schools were designed by women and are taught by them, and most schools reward the ability to be quiet, sit still, pay attention for long periods of time, and regurgitate information, most of which drives boys crazy. God didn’t design boys to do any of that very well.”
Given the way most schools reward those things, it is perhaps not surprising that boys are dropping out and disengaging from schools in record numbers, that girls are significantly outperforming boys, and that by 2014, only 40% of all college students are projected to be males.
Permission to Be Boys
Boys need something different—and better—from their schools. They need permission to be boys, with all of the energy, exuberance, games, and motion contained therein. They need schools where they can wiggle and move, manipulate objects, have information presented visually, and form teams and play games.
They need to read books with themes that excite them (like adventure and heroism). They need technology-rich schools because technology especially engages them. They need the big picture presented first because they are usually deductive learners. They need clear structure and rules, and they need PE every single day. Mostly, they need teachers who are expert at understanding them, and who love them for all of their adventuresome and playful (and sometimes mischievous) spirit.
“After two years of research and reading, we developed a rubric of 67 boy-specific things we can be doing as a school and in our classrooms that will help assure that our boys’ learning is most effective, efficient, and exciting,” says Assistant Headmaster for Teaching and Learning Susan Droke, who chaired the school’s Committee on Boys for two years.
“Teaching methodology is just one part of our uniqueness as a boys’ school,” says Burns. Boys are generally a year or more behind girls in reading and verbal skills during the elementary years, so the school hired five reading specialists and developed a unique reading program in which almost half of all reading comprehension is taught in very small groups in which the discussion is intense and the focus is on higher level thinking skills. “We want our boys to be outstanding readers because it is a skill that cuts across every subject. We have turned a relative weakness of boys into a strength,” says Droke. The reading and verbal gap between boys and girls, of course, enables single sex schools to meet both boys and girls exactly where they are as opposed to a compromised place.
Freedom of Expression
The benefits of boys’ schools aren’t just in the core subjects. At PDS, every boy sings in the choir, takes art, and learns to play the violin. Boys are soloists and actors; they hold all of the leadership positions. “It’s normal and natural for all the boys to participate in a wide range of activities that, in coed schools, boys often shy away from or expect the girls to assume,” says veteran teacher Teresa Scott.
“At PDS, it is as big of a deal to be selected to sing a solo in the Christmas Pageant as it is to be the quarterback of the football team. In both cases, the boys really cheer each other on.”
“I think the boys stay sweet longer because they are just with boys,” says Susan Droke. “There isn’t as much pressure or confusion about girls, so the boys can just be natural in an environment that is tailored to be especially safe and comfortable for them.”
What It Means to Be a Man
At PDS, it’s normal and natural for all the boys to participate in a wide range of activities that, in coed schools, boys often shy away from or expect the girls to assume
They express a tenderness and a vulnerability that boys so often suppress,” says Chaplain Braxton Brady. “There are a whole lot of heart-to-heart talks at PDS, and I think that they can more fully examine who they are as children of God in a single-sex environment at this age than if we had girls here with them. In the long term, they will be better men, husbands, and fathers because they have been able to more deeply answer the question about the sort of man God intends them to be.”
A signature program of PDS focuses on this question of what it means to be a man. “As a very large elementary boys' school, we have a unique opportunity to give our boys a vision and definition of manhood before they get there and in a way anchored in the Scriptures and informed by leading thinkers and researchers on male issues,” says Burns. PDS hopes that this program fortifies its boys and helps guide the sort of choices they make in their years after graduation. This Building Boys, Making Men program answers the question of what it means to be a man with seven virtues, and it includes curricular integration, 6th grade Bible studies on male teenage issues, Upper School retreats, parent sessions, and father-son events. The program has received accolades from schools and educators around the world.
“I love PDS and the fact that we are a boys’ school,” says alumnus Michael Cross ‘02. “There is a camaraderie among boys unlike anything else I have ever experienced. Everything about the school is designed for a boy. How can it get any better for a boy than that?”
Watching the joy and poise and laughter of the PDS boys, it doesn’t seem that it could be any better.