An Interview with Dr. Abigail James Phd on Boys’ Education

programs for boysIn this powerful boys’ education interview Jonathan Doyle talks with gender based education expert Dr. Abigail Norfleet James on key issues such as teaching boys and how to develop programs for boys that really succeed. Dr. James is a dynamic and passionate communicator and this interview will help parents, teachers and anyone with an interest in boys’ education make better connections with boys in the classroom and beyond.

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JD:            Well welcome back once again to The Men We Need Podcast.  I’ve got a real treat for you this week.  We’ve been talking off-air and having a few laughs about some of the boys ed suspects that we know[h].  Today I’ve got the privilege of talking with Dr Abigail Norfleet James who is joining us from Virginia and we’re in deep winter here, but I was just noticing the light shining through the window where Abigail is sitting.  You’re heading what, into mid-summer now?

AJ:            We are, about 32 degrees this afternoon.

JD:            32 degrees – that’s Celsius correct?

AJ:            Celsius, yes.

JD:            Virginia…does Virginia have beaches?

AJ:            Ah yes it does, Virginia Beach.

JD:            Oh, okay.  someone told me that the other day actually.  Okay.

AJ:            Yeah, a very lovely beach.

JD:            Well listen, a little bit of background on you first.  Look, I’m really going to put a whole bunch of stuff linking back to your site under the interview here, but Dr James has done some amazing stuff in boys ed around the world and a real focus on gender-based learning, both…you know very much for boys, but also for girls.  She’s the author of four fantastic books although this one just came out December last year, so we have Teaching the Male Brain: How Boys Think, Feel and Learn in School, and her latest book, The Parents Guide to Boys: Helping a Son Get the Most out of School and Life.  So we are going to send that to our ‘Parent List’ too; if you’re a parent listening to this.  But just before we get stuck in the other interesting thing that you discover when you have a look around Dr James’s website is that she grew up, actually, at an all boy’s school, with her father working there and then attended…/

AJ:            And my mother[h].

JD:            And your mother working there.

AJ:            And my mother taught there too[h].

JD:            Wow.  It’s funny how you end up talking to people ‘cos Karen and I when we were first married, the same thing, we ended up as a young couple in a boarding school and then…  But, so you began there and then you ended up being educated at an all girl’s school so you saw both sides of the perspective.  So tell us a little bit more about the journey; why has your life brought you to this particular kind of work?

AJ:            Well, when I graduated with a degree in Science Ed, I went to teach in a girl’s school.  I was a girl, after all [h] and I had gone to a girl’s school…

JD:            [h] Makes sense.

AJ:            And so I worked…that was St Agnes, in the suburbs of Washington DC.  And then my husband took me to a boy’s school, Blue Ridge School which is in the mountains of Virginia and we were there for three years.  I taught Science, I was a House Parent, and then we decided to start our own business and so there are a couple of holes in my vitae – this is one of them – we had our own business for a while and then I was invited to be the head of the Science Department at a different girl’s School, Stuart Hall, and I left there because I had another opportunity to do something outside of school and then I had a son, so not only am I a teacher of boys but I’m also the mother of a boy – who wasn’t a great student.  And then the school where I had grown up invited me to teach Science and I taught there for 12 years.  I taught Science and Advance Placement Psychology and a little bit of Math every now and then.  So, when my son went off to Boarding School I decided that I needed to be a little busier than I was, so I went back to Graduate School to study the education of boys, at the University of Virginia, and I did some research on the attitudes of boys who were graduates of single-sex schools as compared to the graduate – similar boys who had gone to similar co-ed schools.  And when I graduated I had every intention of going back to teaching at the boy’s school – every intention – but of course in four years they had filled my place.  So I took a part-time position at a…well first of all I did a post-doctoral fellowship in neuroscience and when I did that I suddenly realised there were reasons why we do what we do in boys’ schools and there are very good, solid, neuro-scientific reasons.  And with my background in Biology it was easy to do that.  So then I got a part-time job teaching at a local community college.  In the States a community college is sort of a step between high school and university and I have enjoyed doing that, and it has allowed me to go back into the classroom to teach in my local public high school.  I teach for the community college and now I teach a co-ed class of seniors and it has convinced me that single-sex education [h] is the way to go.  It’s very hard for me to teach that class.  But in the meantime I have written a few books, as you mentioned, on teaching boys and teaching girls and then the latest one came about because I work with boys’ schools around the world and when I go I frequently speak to parents and parents have said, you know, don’t you have a book like Teaching the Male Brain for parents and I said, ‘No, but I guess I could make one’ and so that’s where The Parents Guide to Boys is.  And it’s basically a book from a teacher of boys who also happens to be the mother of a boy on things that your teacher wishes your son could do.

JD:            So tell us…at the end of the day, you know, you have done so much work here.  Where…what’s the source of the interest?  What do you find so compelling about either boy’s education or you know the particular you know importance of gender-based education?

AJ:            Well I have the brain of a 14 year-old boy with better verbal skills.  I learn exactly the way a boy learns.  If you tell me something I forget it.  If you let me do it, see it, make charts, graphs, tables, I’ve got it and I don’t have to redo it.  But just to read a book – and I read very well, I have very good verbal skills – but I don’t really remember what I read and I certainly don’t remember a lot of what I am told.

JD:            So what’s the core neurological basis for this?  Like in a previous podcast we’ve talked about you know the Corpus [.? Colose / callosum?.06:07?] and joining the hemispheres and, you know, the obliteration of gender difference is kind of a cultural project at the moment, but you would argue…/

AJ:            Yes it is.

JD:            …well you would argue that there is a fundamental neurological difference here.  So can you give us sort of a lay person’s insight into that neurological difference?

AJ:            Well there are basically four neurological differences that are developmental that pretty much everybody agrees on; even the people who do not agree that single-sex education is the way to go.  One of them is that male brains are bigger than female brains; even though males are bigger than females the male brain is about 10% larger.  We don’t know what advantage it gives men, but we assume at some point we’ll figure out why that’s true.  Number two, as of the day children are born the left side of the brain is developing slightly faster in girls and the right side slightly faster in boys.  What that means is that because the left side of the brain is where the verbal centre begins, that gives girls a slight verbal advantage – as a matter of fact a 20-month old girl has about twice the active vocabulary of a 20-month old boy.  Now when I say average I’m not talking about individual children.  Certainly there are 20-month-old boys who are chatty as they can be, and 20-month-old girls who are silent.  But on…but teachers don’t deal with, we don’t deal with specific children, we deal with average children.  And so what happens is when children enter the school, the girls have a verbal advantage and the boys, who are very competitive – and there is some concern that that is learned, there is some concern that that is an innate thing – but in any case, whatever the cause, boys are competitive and when they can’t compete they give up and they back off and they go off and throw things.

JD:            Yep, yeah.

AJ:            And why do they throw things?  Because the right side of their brain is developing slightly better, faster and that’s where spatial skills begin.  And that’s why a 20-month-old boy can throw a ball better than a 20-month-old girl.  Now, we spend a huge amount of time in school, making up for those verbal-disadvantaged boys.  We spend practically no time making up for the spatial disadvantage for girls and what the consequence is: we have women who claim they can’t do maths but research is very clear the girls can do maths, but they do need special skills.

JD:            Wow.

AJ:            Okay.  So that’s two of ‘em.  The third one is that as of the day children are born the amygdala and the hippocampus are two little tiny bits of tissue in your brain that if you drew lines through your eyes and through your ears, where those lines intersect at the base of your brain you’d find these.  The hippocampus is developing slightly faster in girls.  The hippocampus is the source of our abilities to turn short-term memory into long-term memory.  Does that mean that little girls have better memories than little boys?  We don’t know.  Because all the tests use words.  But there’s some theory that there is a slight advantage that girls have, at least early in school for memory.  Boys on the other hand – the amygdala is developing slightly faster in boys.  The amygdala is what gets excited when we deal with strong emotions.

JD:            Emotions, yeah.

AJ:            Either ours or dealing with somebody else’s strong emotions.  Many people are shocked when I say to them, I tell you that boys are at least as emotional as girls, and I think that little boys are more emotional than girls.  And women say to me, ‘Och, men are not emotional’ and I say no, no, no.  Men are more emotional; they just don’t have the language to tell you.  Because boys want to show you what they are excited about: girls what to tell you.  And there is a huge difference.  School isn’t interested in showing you.  So we have to spend a lot of time helping boys get those verbal skills and in a single-sex school it’s easier because the fact that the boy is not as good as the good sitting next to him is never a deal ‘cos it’s just boys.  The last difference is that the prefrontal lobe, the part of the brain that’s right behind your eyebrows, that part of the brain is the last to develop.  It is the location of what we call the executive decision-maker, it’s what allows us to make reasoned decisions and it can control our impulses.  With girls, it finally begins to come on-line, coalesce about ages 18 to 20.  As a teacher of teenage girls I can tell you that a 15 and 16 year-old girl I can generally see that she’s beginning to make those long-term plans.  With boys, that part of the brain does not come on-line until 20 to 25 and one of the researchers who looks at this says he’s got some men in his study who are 30, whose pre-frontal lobes have not quite finished.

JD:            Correct, yeah.

AJ:            So what that means is that boys tend to be…late in school they are still impulsive, they are still unable to make long-term decisions, their planning is a little rough – that sort of thing.  There is a group of people in the United States who are opposed to single-sex education and they agree that that part of the brain does develop later and they say but of course it has no effect on education; all that tells me is those people have never taught.

JD:            Yeah[h].

AJ:            Because every school teacher now is ‘Oh yeah, it does’ – lots of it.  So those are the four basic differences, one of course the larger brain [.? 11:40 sites.?] doesn’t seem to have any difference, but the other three make a huge difference in the way the world experiences a child and the way a child experiences the world.  And that’s got to make a difference in what happens to him in the classroom.  Then you combine that with the fact that the person standing at the front of the classroom is almost entirely female.  Ninety to ninety-five percent of people who teach in primary schools around the world are women.  And they look at the impulsive, loud, physically active boy as a problem, and they…I constantly am saying you know he doesn’t do this on purpose, this is just the way he behaves.  They say well he could behave if he wanted to, and I’m like yeah, for a short period of time[h].  They spend a huge amount of time telling him to ‘be quiet, sit down, put a lid on it’, rather than teaching them how to manage themselves, which would be so much more helpful.

JD:            Yeah, yeah.  Look, you have raised so many things – just alarm bells went off all over the place.  One of the things you mentioned was you know when boys discover that they can’t compete and you know you talked about whether this competitive drive is innate or socialised, one of the points we make in our programmes is that, you know, boys withdraw.  Pretty soon if they can’t play the game and they can’t…

AJ:            Absolutely.

JD:            ..and they withdraw into this kind of passivity – or aggression – you know, the passive-aggressive response, so I’ve got a whole bunch of questions for you here, but let’s just start with that one.  When boys…how do we stop them withdrawing, or if they do how can we bring ‘em back?

AJ:            [h] I have to tell you, I have been working with a woman on my blog all day today whose son, who is 11, has simply become totally passive.  He won’t do anything, and I’m trying to explain to this woman that he’s overwhelmed by life – he’s 11 – and somewhere along the line he simply couldn’t compete and it’s just easier to back off and say ‘Tell me what to do. Just plan my life for me’.  And the problem with that is it becomes a habit, and the habit of a lifetime and you get young men who at 15 and 16 are playing video-games in their parent’s basement.  They’re not doing anything because nobody made them do it.  And I go into a boy’s school and I rarely see that behaviour – rarely – because competing with buddies, mates, is totally different than trying to compete with a girl, because it’s not fair; she’s got all the skills that he doesn’t have and he is not going to have.  Now if he’s got a wise teacher, who’s gonna say look, tell you what, you do it this way….she’s gonna do it that way, you get to do it this way.  Everybody in the class benefits.  I, myself with my 14 year-old boy brain would have benefited.  I almost flunked out of high school because I was doing what those boys are doing – you know, tell me what to do and if you don’t tell me what to do then I’m not doing anything.  And it’s trying to motivate boys is so, it’s so easy if you know what you are doing and so hard if you don’t.  But a lot of it has to do with…I was just reading some research yesterday as a matter of fact on the way that males deal with competition and it’s, I’ve not finished really er, sort of digesting that article yet, so I’m not willing to sort of go out on a limb, but suffice it to say that what this article is aimed for is telling me that what works for boys is they need to be with a group of boys and they have to be near the thing they are competing with.  It can’t be at a distance.  So it can’t be theoretical, it’s got to be real, it’s got to be right there.  When you see boys out on the grounds with things in their hands, they will compete with girls that way, when there are things that are proximal, near to them.  But when you say sit in your chair, and now the work is at a distance because it’s at the teacher at the front of the room – now he’s not competitive.   He competes in sport because it’s next to him physically.  He’s not competing in school because it’s too far away from him.  But we need to get boys right there, right engaged in what they are doing; that will get them to compete.

JD:            So it’s a question of immediacy isn’t it?  I mean to summarise what you are saying there, if the, you know if someone’s saying to them you know work hard now in grade 9 so you get into university they are like – it’s abstract.

AJ:            Abstract.  No, no, no I would never say that to a Year 9 boy.  I would say to a Year 9 boy, work right now so that you’ll figure out how to solve this problem right now.  <He’s not interested if it’s going to happen in…

JD:            Yeah, I remember years ago…<  I remember when I was teaching I got published in a journal at the Boys Ed Centre at Newcastle University.  I just got my entire class into particular teams and over a term we scored everything; from homework completed to you know stuff in the classroom – everything was competitive, everything was you know…

AJ:            Cool.

JD:            And I don’t remember how we funded this; we may have mugged some old people, but you know we took them go-carting, to motorized go-carts – the winning team – and just, you know, and what they do is they self-regulate and they group regulate, so if somebody’s not pulling their weight in the Team [AJ: Absolutely], the Team gets around them and says hang on – you know?  And I think if I remember we also had some compensation prizes so that there were no, you know, so that the follow-ups, the runners-up also had some sense of success.  But look, the other one I wanted to talk to you about was we talked a bit about emotions and I remember when I was speaking with parents saying that some research, and I wouldn’t have this right in front of me, you know boys will tend to collapse down into four or five main emotions and I used to say well I actually – you know some people say it’s two: boys do anger and fear, anger and fear, whereas…  And the funny thing was I was on stage and I had 400 parents and I did this[h]: I said, you know, boys tend to collapse to these two dominant emotions whereas you know women have this nuance, they can name all these emotions such as…  And I tried to name a bunch of emotions live on stage and I couldn’t do it [h] and they were all just, everybody was just laughing hysterically.  I was like wow[h].  So let’s talk a little bit about that emotionality now.  You know I’ve got a four year-old son and…/

AJ:            Ah.

JD:            Yeah, it’s interesting times; he’s a very gentle, beautiful little boy and this, you know this corpus callosum thing, this inability to articulate verbally what they are feeling in that, at that emotional level…  So talk to me about the emotions of boys.  Are we killing them off in terms of socialization?  Are we still in the era of boys don’t cry?  What’s happening emotionally for boys?

AJ:            I truly worry about that.  And it comes because females mediate their emotions verbally, and so when I go into a co-ed classroom, or even sometimes when I go into a boy’s school with a female at the head who has not been there for a long time, you’ll see a boy getting very upset and she’ll say, now use your words.  I’m like, I’m really sorry lady, he didn’t have any words to use.  What I am wanting him to do is I want him to draw a picture, [JD: Yeah], I may get him to take a beanbag, you know little beanbags and throw them against the wall until he can manage himself a little better, I may tell him…I frequently tell my Grade 9 boys go ahead and run around the building three times until you are breathing hard and then come back in.  Because they don’t have the words and that’s one of the things that school needs to do.  And I’m always saying to boys’ schools ‘that’s what you all do best, is you give boys an emotional vocabulary [JD: Wow].  There is some research from the UK that said that kindergarten and Grade 1 boys got into more trouble in school than girls did; not because they were doing more things, no, in fact they weren’t, the girls were just as bad as the little boys but the difference was that when the girls were caught by the teacher they could come back and say ‘Oh it really wasn’t me, she made me do it’; they had ways to intercede for themselves and the little boys just came and stood there when asked if they had done this and didn’t say anything – so the teacher assumed they were guilty.  And it was this business of giving a boy vocabulary to defend himself – and all of a sudden school’s not so bad.  One of the things I am constantly telling teachers is you have no idea…when you ask a question of children count how many seconds you wait before you expect an answer.  I think you’ll find it’s real short, and boys need a little more time, which is one of the reasons I’m always saying, what you want to do is you want to make children probably, from maybe Grade 4 up, er, when I ask a child a questions in class I ask them to stand up: I’ll say Mr Smith, Miss Jones, stand up.  First of all it alerts the kid that they are being asked a question and second of all it gives ‘em a little time to sort of orient to the fact that there are words coming at them.

JD:            Yep.

AJ:            But when we’re talking about emotions…a lot of schools these days seem to be afraid of dealing with emotions.  We want everybody to be pleasant, we want everything to be nice, and in fact the world isn’t that way.  We need to be a little more honest about our emotions.  But the girls are able to talk about them; I’m upset with you, I’m mad, you know she doesn’t, she said something bad to me, that kind of thing and the boy just threw something – because he doesn’t have the language.  And we’ve got to get across to people that it’s not that the boy is more emotional, that’s he’s having a bigger time, and we need to give him that emotional vocabulary.  And one of the ways to do it is he needs to see men modeling that, and that’s another problem is we don’t have very many men[h] in primary schools.  As I used to say the only place you’re going to find a man in a primary school is in the front office, on the sport field or in the janitor’s closet.  [JD: Yeah, yeah]  You don’t see them in the classroom.  And we need…/

JD:            So on that, I mean this is a very broad question but you know, I think it was David Bakenhorn’s famous book Fatherless America [AJ: Yes].  What are your insights into this?  I mean even here in Australia and this isn’t passing value judgments on people’s relationship breakdowns but it’s, you know, the absence of men in the lives of boys is enormous.  Two things: what do you see is the impact and secondly anything we can do, anything other men can do stepping in?

AJ:            Well the place that I see this most vividly is the inner city schools that I work with, particularly for boys of colour – those boys…and also the schools of the very, very wealthy.  Both of those, strangely enough are places where these boys don’t have fathers in the home, the boys of colour because the fathers are unemployed, may not even be present in the family life and in the very wealthy it’s because dads always gone making money and he’s not home very often.  And these are the children who are the most in trouble; the ones for whom education means the least, because they don’t see men in school.  Now when I go to one of these schools that’s designed for the boys of colour in the inner city and I see men all over the place, the whole attitude of these little boys is so much better.  They see that school is a place for men.  They don’t have a model for what it looks like to be a man reading a book, for example.  So one of the things that I am always saying to schools who say well, we’ve got a problem, there are no men out there to hire to be schoolteachers, and I say fine, there are other ways to get men in your school.  Remember that Denis the Menace spends more time with his elderly next-door neighbour than he does with his father, so get some granddads in, uncles – you can also use…a lot of big businesses will lend their executives out [JD: Wow] to do community service.  You get these guys in a three-piece suit coming in to read to the kindergarten class [h].  It works, it works.  Better that they should see it that way.  You’ve also got older boys, scouts, boys in single-sex schools who have to do community service: get them to come in and work with the little boys.

JD:            Just on that, I remember the university of Newcastle years ago, who do a lot of boys ed stuff were saying that one of the problems for men is that schools for men are quite scary, confronting place because men like certainty, control, you know they used to say…you know, Steve Biddulph used to say when men walk in a room they want to know three things; who’s in charge, what are the rules, will the rules be enforced, and I often say talking to teachers or parents, I go look, you know the problem is we say get dads in but if you put a letter out there saying come in and, you know,…fathers are like this is an alien environment for me, I don’t know who’s in charge.  And I say to our audiences, to teachers, what you have to do is you’ve got to trick men, so in Australia what we do is we say look we don’t want you to come in and do much, we’re going to cook a bbq for a parent breakfast and we just need the men to help out there.  And you’ve got to ease them in because men go ah, okay, well then I’m not having to do anything really, you know where I can fail, I’m just coming in to do this.  So I love what you’re saying about getting men in there; it’s really important.

AJ:            Well one of the things that really helps is to have a ‘Granddads Day’ at school where boys bring their granddads, all the children bring their granddads or grandparents in, and you’re very much more likely to get a granddad in than you are a dad, because the granddad doesn’t have quite so much to prove. [JD: Sure]  So once you get a few in then you can say hey, sir, you came, would you mind coming next week and reading to a group of boys, they really need – you know?  Pick your book, I’ll help you, and here’s the place.  You know structure it so that all you’ve got to do is come in and spend 20 minutes reading you know some children’s book to these little kids.  And it won’t be long before…you’re not going to get a lot of them, but it doesn’t take a lot.  You just need a couple of guys who are coming in regularly.  I was in a school not long ago and I was observing what was going on in the classroom and this older gentleman walked in, sat down and started working with this kid in the corner and I said to the teacher I haven’t seen him before, is he a teacher and she said, ‘No, no, no, he’s just a volunteer, his kids have already graduated from here, but he likes to come in and work with the kids’.  Cool.

JD:            Wow.  Well it’s like, listening to you it doesn’t matter whether [it’s] a boy of six or a man of 60, they just need a little bit of success don’t they?  Just a small win and a small sense of you know competence and mastery and they can go from there.


AJ:            One of the things that helps with getting these guys in to help is you’ve got to find the right woman to ask.  Because[h] many women overwhelm with words.  [JD: Okay]  They say, oh this is what you’re going to do, dadadadada-dadadada, and this is…. And he’s already overwhelmed.  What he wants is somebody to come and say hey do you mind coming in and reading for an hour, or reading for 20 minutes, I’ve got a place for you to be, you got a book you’d like?  That’s really all he needs.  Don’t want to overwhelm him with too many words.  Don’t be too nice about it.  So you need to find a woman who’s got a man’s brain.

JD:            [h] Who’s got a man’s brain.  The…I was just, as we were talking before about the absence of men I have often wondered you know, if we join two dots here, is, I wonder if in boys in the absence of fathers and men, there’s a kind of existential grief; that they can’t articulate and then channels out into rage and anger.

AJ:            I see it a lot in a boarding school with, I can almost tell you which boys have the most absent fathers.  They’re the ones who push the most people away and they are also the ones who when they finally realise that the men in this school are there, they are always going to be there, they are the ones who adopt the school as home.  [JD: Yeah, gotya].  Because they really, really need it.  And I have seen that happen in boys who are 18 years old, who come to us for a year, and they spend half the years pushing us away and saying you know, I don’t want to have anything to do with  you guys, I’m just here for one year and then all of a sudden they realise that these men are there; they are there for them, they will always be there for them, they can be trusted.  That’s one of the problems is it’s really hard to trust, when nobody’s been trust-worthy.

JD:            Yeah.  In the men’s work I do we talk about this core need for affirmation, that the boy…you know in previous podcasts we’ve talked a great deal about initiation and all that stuff that’s missing.  [AJ: Yes.]  But there must be, I mean I mentioned kind of an existential grief, but there must be wounds of rejection too, it’s, you know they don’t have the verbal linguistic capacity to… and you know the pre-frontal cortex isn’t done ‘til 25, [AJ: Right], so they’re not there at ten able to go: I’m experiencing deep wounds of rejection from my father… They can’t process that so, it must…

AJ:            They really can’t.

JD:            So, look tell me, someone listening to this in a command and control-style school, you know must be listening there…  You know what do you say to the people that are like well this is all very nice, it’s all very interesting, but we live with the reality and we have to have classrooms that function… How do you talk initially to those command and control types that are just used to the way things are?

AJ:            I really don’t have any problem with command and control.  Um, if you come into some of my science classrooms you’re going to find me in the front being very directive.  But in fact, that particular kind of approach doesn’t work very well in getting information across to either boys or girls.  The girls will smile and say yes ma’am and no sir and I get it but they really don’t and you don’t find out ‘til much later.  The boys – the advantage with boys is they’ll tell you right up front that you are not getting across to them.  Teaching is really an interactive event and I always say the first thing you do when you face a group of kids is ask them what they know.  don’t tell them what they need to know.  You need to ask them so that you can…’cos you may be surprised, you may not have to teach as much as you think you do and you can move on.  But the command and control… I work with Military schools in the United States and they are very much that way, and for a certain group of boys they are extremely effective.  This is exactly what these boys need.  They need the trust that comes from saying, ‘This is what you’ve got to do and you’re doing it every day’ absolutely.

JD:            And predictability isn’t it?  Predictability.

AJ:            Yeah.  The predictability because they come from such a chaotic background.  [JD: Yeah]  I don’t think it’s useful for most kids and it’s not useful for most kids…it never was.  People say [.? Oh well you’re new and in modern teaching.? 31:47.?]  Let’s get it straight: I’m 65 years-old, I am not a new person.  I have been teaching this way for 40 years and I have, long ago my parents taught this way.  I mean my father would start his French class, every year, his first year French class and say, ‘Which French words do you know?’ and it was surprising, you know they knew a few.  And that, it gives them a chance to be a part of it, to start developing those…give and take.  It doesn’t mean that your class is going to devolve into chaos.  And the command and control types, some of them seem to think that if you’re not in total control your room is in chaos and my point is, um, no, if you’ve got children who are engaged in the learning process that is what you want.  If children are not engaged in the learning process then you will have chaos in your classroom whether it looks like it or not.

JD:            Well it’s interesting isn’t it?  The whole, the Latin etymology of education from educare, meaning to draw forth, was already there, and listening to you it’s a sense of, education is something you do with young people, you don’t do it to them.

AJ:            Well as a science teacher one of the things I am always saying to people is if your way of teaching science is to stand up and give them facts, you’re not teaching science you’re teaching history, because you’re telling them what happened.  Science is an active living thing; it is what is happening in the world.  So children have to be engaged in it.  My classes are almost entirely lab-based, because we’re constantly doing stuff and the teachers say to me ‘How can you do that?  When are you ever going to get the facts across?’ and I said by doing the labs, that’s when they’re getting the facts; they are learning through this process.  And it works really well.

JD:            Yeah.  There you go, sneak up on them[h].

AJ:            Sneak up on ‘em[h].  And there are ways, and I have developed ways to do this in every class there is: there are ways to make the learning process an interactive event.  Because when that happens, then you get children whose faces tell you they want to be there, they are engaged, they are part of the process. And when they are part of the process basically a lot of this other stuff disappears.

JD:            So a couple of quick ones for you.  One is my father-in-law, does amazing work counseling men with drug and alcohol problems and he talks about, one of the mantras they have is ‘unrelenting positive regard’, is that no matter what this person tells you, no matter what their background is, no matter what they have done, the general disposition of the counselor is unrelenting positive regard.  So listening to you, you know, it must be part of your passion and where your energy comes from, is that you just see possibility and inherent goodness in boys and young people in general.

AJ:            It was really funny.  Years ago when I was teaching at the boy’s school where I grew up, we had a young man who came to work for us for two years, he was paying back his school loans before he went to medical school.  And er, he was terrible; he was an awful[h] teacher.  I think he became a pretty good doctor, but he was a terrible teacher[h].  The Head of our department who is probably one of the most gifted teachers I have ever run into, I heard him walking down the hall with this fellow one day and he was trying to get across to him some of the things that he needed to work on.  And the kid finally turns around and says to Jo Reed, who is my, who’s this fellow, this great teacher and he says, “Look”, he says, “I’m not positive like you and Abigail are.  You two seem to find the best in every kid.”  He said. “I only see the worst.”  And Jim and I talked later and I said, no, he’s never gonna make it as a teacher [JD: [h] Yes].  Teachers have to believe that tomorrow the worst kid in your class is going to magically become the best kid.  Because children’s development changes that rapidly.  And if you don’t give them the impression that you believe that to be true, there’s something called self-fulfilling prophecy; guess what, they will not change.

JD:            Yeah.  So here’s a tough one then.  Do you think great teachers are born or made?

AJ:            Both.

JD:            Both [h].  Option C, yeah [h].

AJ:            People will always tell you that I’m…I have a friend of mine who’s a great education teacher and she says I am an intuitive teacher, I don’t really think about what I am doing, I just do it. And I said yeah, and both my, neither of my parents were trained teachers but they were both very good teachers.  Both of them had other jobs before they came to teaching and they’re just great explainers.  And so I grew up in a household of explainers.  But I have seen, I had an intern one time in summer school who came at the beginning of the school year and she was just awful, just awful, but wanted to do it and over several years of working with me and doing her internships in other schools she has developed into a really good teacher, she really has, but it takes…I don’t know how long she’s going to be able to do it.  I don’t think about what I do, I just walk in the classroom and it happens; it’s not quite true but it’s a lot true.  She has to think about almost everything she does.  [JD: Yeah]  So I think there are just some of us who just, it comes to us naturally whether we are taught or not, and the ideas, all those things that I was taught when I got my degrees in education – some [h] – but some of them I do and I don’t think about it.

JD:            Yeah, I remember saying, when I did a four-year teaching degree and I mean this with no arrogance, I may have learnt one or two things, vaguely, but I think I probably could have walked out at the end of day one into a classroom and probably nailed it, you know, without – and I don’t mean that with any arrogance – it was just some of our teaching courses…

AJ:            That’s [just/not there/fair 37:46]…

JD:            Yeah, it was just there and…

AJ:            I had a teacher in one of my graduate education classes that I was teaching on the problems of boys in school and this is a fellow who has won national awards for being a teacher in the States.  He was in my class simply because he had to collect another couple of hours to upgrade his teaching certificate and when he left my class he turned around, Ted turned to me and he said, “This is the only class I have ever had, in education, that actually gave me some strategies I can use in the classroom.”  [JD: Yeah, fantastic]  And I said that’s just because I’m a science teacher.  It’s not that I’m a great teacher, educator, I’m a science teacher and I am just teaching you the science of teaching.

JD:            Yeah.  So last couple of questions for you: one is…how do I frame this one; you know I’ve always taught boys and I thought I would um, I mean I’ve delivered many seminars with co-ed but you know to teach at an all girls school would possibly be a bridge too far for me; I grew up with four brothers, I’ve, you know…I grew up with four brothers, I went to an all-boys school…  So let’s flip it the other way, let’s imagine we have a female teacher listening to this and, you know, we’ve all known those teachers that boys will just try and steam roll and… give me some tips for helping female educators who are listening to this: how can they really, you know, reach boys and develop really positive classrooms of boys?  What do they need to know?


AJ:            Well the first thing they need to understand is that most of the behaviours that they are seeing are not directed at them, personally [h].  [JD: Yep, yeah].  If they don’t believe me, follow that boy through his classes, and see if he’s not doing similar stuff in other people’s classrooms.  So it’s not personal first of all.  That their behaviour is not to be judged as if it were a girl.  So for example I had a student, one of my favourite students has a habit of grinning when he is being called to task and the female, one of his female teachers at the boy’s school told me that he was laughing at her.  And I kept saying to her, no he’s not, that’s what he does when he’s nervous.  She said well, I’ve never known anybody do that before.  And I thought, you’ve been here in a boy’s school for 20 years and you’ve never seen a kid grin when he’s nervous; it’s a common problem for boys.  [JD: Yeah, absolutely.]  So one of the things that you need to do is, if you’ve got a problem with a kid, check with somebody, find out who that kid likes and check with that teacher, and find out what that teacher is doing in that class that the kid likes better.  One of the other things is: listen to boys.  And I say this and teachers say well they don’t say anything and I say well you don’t ‘cos you talk too fast.  Don’t sit a boy down in front of you and say okay, you know, you’re having trouble in my class, look me in the face now and tell me what your problem is.  That makes a boy really nervous.  What you do is you say, come help me put this stuff away, and talk to him about whatever you know he is interested in.  And eventually the problems will come out.  But he can’t look at you.   Don’t assume that because a boy is not looking at you he is not listening.  Boys don’t…there is some evidence that men don’t look well at things that are not moving and when a teacher who…you know you can see me through this video-thing and you’ll notice that my hands are constantly, really obviously bobbing a little bit – that’s typical for me, so I’m kind of a moving target; I don’t stand and I don’t sit still well – so I’m constantly providing just a little bit for a boy to look at, but even then I assume he’s not going to.  And what you need to do is sometimes you may need to let a boy stand up and walk back and forth in the back of the classroom.  You’d be surprised at home much he can pay attention when he is doing that.  If a boy constantly is manipulating something, he’s doodling, he’s bouncing a pencil or something, get him a squeezy toy; there’s research that says that a boy who’s got something to manipulate in his hand may well be paying better attention.  I use little foam stars because they’re the right shape and I get them in all kinds of places, science museums primarily.  But most importantly, if you’re a teacher…first of all please note that research is really, really, really clear on the fact that it does not matter to a boy whether the teacher is male or female, as long as the teacher understands him, he is gonna work.  On the other hand, if he believes that you do not like him, or do not care about him, he will not work for you.  Absolutely will not.  So find a teacher he does work for and find out what’s going on there.

JD:            Wow, there’s a lot of humility in that isn’t there?  You know the ability to go and ask for that kind of insight and help.

AJ:            [.?  But, every kid.? 42:54]

JD:            Yeah, yeah.  Well last major question for you: I want to give you a hypothetical and I know your brain will want[h] more data, but I’m thinking, you go into a school and it’s a train-wreck, and it’s an all-boys school and they say to you, you know, Abigail we can only afford two ideas, we want your two best ideas on how we can start to turn this school around[h].  What would you tell ‘em?

AJ:            Oh.  Well it depends on the age of the students.

JD:            [h] Ah, okay, alright.

AJ:            It really does.

JD:            Well many of our listeners to this will be high-school based.  So it’s a high-school, they’re swinging off the chandeliers, they’re setting fire to things…  What are the top two things you think you could suggest to turn a boy’s school around?

AJ:            Um, the first thing you probably need to do is start getting them engaged in something outdoors which is so much easier in Australia than it is anywhere else.  I’m always saying that the reason that Australia has so few kids identified with ADHD is they send them outdoors [h].  [JD: h]  But outdoors is a great place.  And even if you are just having them outdoors and doing something physical.  But the second thing is I would start with a physical approach to learning.  So if I am going to have maths class I’m going to have them standing at the board doing maths on the board.  Everybody in the whole class is standing at a standing board and working on maths together, because they can’t see each other and the teacher can stand and look over their shoulders.  So you know, you do that.  I would have them stand to read, I have them…everything physical.  I’m gonna get them to, I’m going to try to find out where they’re comfortable; it’s that old thing of going back in the information until they are comfortable, because if you start… I don’t care that this is the information that they are supposed to be covering in this class, if they’re not there, they’re not ready for it, you’re not…I don’t care what you do you are going to get bad behaviour.

JD:            So physical-based learning and number two?

AJ:            Alright, so number two would be develop a sense of humour.  Boys are hysterically funny.  [JD: [h]]  And if you don’t get boy’s humour, then go teach girls.  Boys make me laugh every day and I do not hesitate to laugh in class.  [JD: Yeah]  I have had teachers say oh you can’t let them know that you are laughing at them.  I go why not?  They’re funny and they know they are; hysterically funny.  And if you cannot, if you do not develop a sense of humour to work with boys, you know… You’ve got to do that, it’s just…

JD:            You’ve just triggered two classics.  I mean I remember being in Year 10 maths as a student myself and we had a teacher who didn’t have a lot of control and it was a male teacher, he was an older man and he used to grab his math’s textbook, this big heavy book and when the class started to go crazy he would slam it down on the desk really loudly.  So one day we were all just running amok and we’d all passed the word around and we all simultaneously lifted our books and slammed them at exactly the same moment he slammed them [h].  And it was perfect and in the same class about a week later it was bucketing down, raining outside and we were about two storeys up and one boy was misbehaving and the teacher said, ‘Ben do you want to go outside and play?’ and the boy said ‘Oh that’d be fantastic sir, thank you’ [h].  So he goes outside and he runs out in front of you know, hundreds of students at the windows, bucketing down rain and he’s just doing cartwheels on this [.? Oval.? 46:33.?] in the rain.  And he got legend status; the teacher was completely undone.

AJ:            Victorious [h].

JD:            And um, so yeah, you’re right, the capacity for humour is wonderful.  So I’ll give you a supplementary question; let’s talk just to finish on co-ed environments, what can we do in a co-ed environment that, you know, honours and respects girls rights and how they learn, but also what can we do for boys in that environment?

AJ:            Well, it’s actually a topic that I have been thinking about a lot, is how do you meet the needs of both boys and girls in the same classroom?  And a lot of it has to do with the fact that girls, that the female teacher appeals to the verbally-based learner, who are mostly girls, but not all girls and some boys.  And what you need to do is to help them understand that those verbally-based learners are losing out because you are focusing on one kind of learning; so what you have got to do is give a wide variety of approaches.  Yes, verbal but also some of the hands on, the writing.  The girls will sit there and tell you, ‘I can’t do that Miss’.  Oh yes you can.  But the problem is that so many teachers are not comfortable with doing it that way themselves.  So they need to become more comfortable in doing, approaching learning from a wide variety, you’ve got to widen up the things that you do.  If all you are doing in class is having children read the book, talk about it, write about it, you are limiting what they are learning and you are limiting their experience.

JD:            Yeah.  Look, I’ll break my own rule: one last one for you is imagine the perfect success story, I want you to imagine a boy that leaves a school where there has been a lot of best practice.  Tell us a bit about that young man – what’s he like?

AJ:            Ach, well it’s so much fun to see them when they come to university.  Or they go to work.  And because they are motivated, they’re competent, they know what they want.  And I was looking at my own son the other day, he’s now 28 of all things, and he’s started his own business.  And it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with what he studied in university, so he explained to me that it really does Mom honest, and… but the most important thing is that all the people who are working with him are depending on him to be the responsible one.  And I thought, yeah, and where did you learn that?  You learned that by going to a boy’s school.  My son sang with the American Boy Choir between 12 and 14, and there he was responsible for things.  And you get to see a young man who really gets life.

JD:            Yeah.  Well, tell us how…I’m going to put a lot of links under this podcast and the transcript – we’ll have a full transcript of it for people that like to read through it – I’m going to put all your website details up and the book details…/

AJ:            Great, thank you.

JD:            We’ll have your website there but how else can we find you?  Are you on Twitter, are you on Social?  Where do we find you there?

AJ:            I’m on Facebook.  I’m not on Twitter and I’m only on Facebook because I have somebody who puts it up there [h], but I do answer questions to the Facebook.  So if you have questions there’s one for the boys, there’s a Facebook accounts for the boys, The Parents Guide to Boys, and so you can…there are several streams that are in that one and you can check with those, or you can email me.

JD:            Okay, well we’ll put all those details up and finally what’s coming up for you?  What events, conferences?  What’s in the pipeline?  You don’t seem like the kind of person that’s thinking [h] Florida, you know sitting in an easy chair?[h]

AJ:            [h]  Well, no, I’ve got the National Association for Middle School Principals coming up in the United States and then the International Boys’ Schools Coalition Annual Meeting, which this year will be in the United States, last year it was in Melbourne so I was in your lovely country – a year ago – but this year it will be in the States and I just was talking to somebody in Geneva, so I’m going to go work with a co-ed school in Geneva, talking about teaching boys and girls together.

JD:            Fantastic.  Well listen, on behalf of us all this has been great.  Every time I do a podcast you never know what’s going to happen and I just want to thank you for your passion, for your energy, for your…you know your huge commitment over many, many years to young people.  And I often say when we get to heaven there’s going to be a huge HD screen, God sits you down with a bucket of popcorn the size of Texas and says, ‘Sit back and watch all the little conversations and influences that you had, and you’re going to see how they played out in people’s lives’, so it may sound a bit funny to say this to you but thank you so much for your work for young people.

AJ:            Well thank you so much because you are making this available to people who otherwise wouldn’t know much about it.  And you obviously have so much to offer as well.

JD:            Thank you heaps.  So Dr Abigail Norfleet James thank you for talking with us at The Men We Need Podcast.

AJ:            Thank you very much Jonathan Doyle.


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