Literacy and the Male Brain

From the Gurian Institute:

Literacy and the Male Brain: The Path to Success

 I received this powerful email from Dr. Norman Johnson.  I hope you will find its perspective a helpful one as you advocate in your communities and in policy debates for our boys and girls both.  Thank you, Dr. Johnson.


-Michael Gurian

 Dear Michael,

I saw an article in the media regarding how much boys have become victims, especially Black boys, in regard to being so far behind girls in literacy.  I was glad to see that the Gurian Institute is helping to move the dialogue forward, into areas of NEED rather than victimology.  Of course, boys in general tend to be behind in literacy (one and one half  years behind girls on average, with the Black boys’ average deficit tending to be wider), but how we talk about it does really matter, I believe.

As a Black man in his seventies, a professor, a child advocate, and a Gurian Institute Trainer, my perspective is this:  when boys/men had no or few school competitors, boys tacit language and literacy issues went unnoticed therefore unattended to.  You may remember that in the not so distant past, boys and girls may have both gone to school, but girls were tracked into home economics, secretarial science, teaching, nursing and social work. They weren’t even sent into administration for these areas. Consequently, very few girls were in the academic fast track with boys.  When educational quarantines on girls got lifted (circa 1960), girls started to bloom in school. By the late seventies, boy/girl disparities in literacy started showing up.  Now, decades later, educators, parents and others are asking:  “What is going on?  Why are boys so far behind?  Did boys all of a sudden become dumb?”  This is especially asked about school failure rates for boys of color.

Boys did not become dumb.  Competition revealed, however, that the language and literacy platform on which schooling is and always has been built actually favors girls.  Competition revealed this, and helpfully so.  Fortunately, we now can understand many of the natural differences through an emerging body of work in neuroscience.  It’s crucial that educators and the educational system take advantage of this science. Your work and the work of the Institute in training teachers in how boys and girls learn differently is important here.  Teachers need to know how a boys’ brain and a girls’ brain acquire language, math, science, and other subjects both similarly, and differently.

Nobody is a victim, and I’m glad you don’t teach that.  But we are in a new era.  Teachers and educational systems that don’t understand the needs of boys and girls will fail large numbers of their students.  I’m glad the Gurian work is leading to increased training in both boy/girl issues, and issues facing students of color.  When teachers understand the brains of the boys and girls they teach, every kid can be a winner in school and subsequently in life.  No boys and no girls need be considered victims.

Thank you,

Dr. Norman Johnson

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