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Engagement, Opinion, Pathways, Teaching

6 Secrets for Engaging Males in Learning

We need to unleash motivated engagement and discretionary effort in boys long before they might consider dropping out, beginning in elementary school.

The vast majority of school dropouts are male. It is my profound belief that the core of the problem has to do with student engagement and effort in learning.  Any teacher knows that these are important, but the brain science demonstrated to me that they are more than that – they are indispensible for learning – and staying in school. 

The vast majority of school dropouts are male. It is my profound belief that the core of the problem has to do with student engagement and effort in learning.  Any teacher knows that these are important, but the brain science demonstrated to me that they are more than that – they are indispensible for learning – and staying in school. 

To learn the skills and concepts necessary for success in the 21st century, there must be an emotional connection to learning that is based on Motivated Engagement. Think of the smile on a young boy’s face when he first learns to walk or discovers something new in the grass. Look at the gleam in his eyes when he scores a goal, plays a video game, listens to music he loves, or watches a favourite television program. He’s totally involved in the activity and he wants to be! He learns with ease and joy.

At this point he is ready to use Discretionary Effort. This is the effort used when we do things that we are not required to do. It’s demonstrated when we work that extra bit, go that extra mile, or connect a part of our identity with what we are doing and, by doing so, make it our own. It places us within an activity, actively seeking to influence it. It’s something we do, not something done to us. It leverages the creation of neural pathways in the frontal lobes and brings our creativity to any problem – and it supercharges learning!

We need to unleash motivated engagement and discretionary effort in boys long before they might consider dropping out, beginning in elementary school. The trouble is that many of us do not know what it takes to unleash these powerful emotional forces in our classroom for males. I know I didn’t – until my research and classroom work helped me to highlight six pathways that have leveraged tremendous motivated engagement and discretionary effort from males for millennia. These are the six “secrets” highlighted below. I call them secrets because even though we as teachers are aware of them and may be using them intuitively to motivate our students, when we consciously discover their hidden power, it can profoundly improve the learning in our classroom and the joy experienced by students – and their teachers.

These secrets work because they are in sync with the brain-wiring of boys and evolutionary tendencies that have developed to help males survive, learn and thrive at home, school and in society. Here’s a brief overview of each one.

SECRET 1 – MOVEMENT

1movement

Neuroscience has confirmed that boys develop more brain-wiring for movement than girls at early ages. This is why they love to move, fidget in class, and want to be wherever the “action” is. It also explains why they can sit still for so long playing video games: Those games are saturated with movement!

SECRET 2 – GAME

2game

Boys have profound learning experiences within the context of games because they receive a shot of testosterone when they set goals and achieve them. They love games and competition and if they see learning as something they can compete and “win” at, they achieve higher. However, if they don’t think they can win in school because they aren’t smart enough, they will often refuse to play the game. 

SECRET 3 – HUMOUR

3humour

Boys love “funny” things. They often veer into inappropriate or crude topics, but humour is an important tool for boys learning. It helps them feel comfortable with new concepts, engage in teamwork, and take on new challenges. It is a therefore a very effective way for adults to leverage boys’ interest and commitment to learning.

SECRET 4 – CHALLENGE

4challenge

In their desire to release testosterone by winning, boys are drawn to challenge. It helps boys learn because through challenge they discover things about themselves and their environment. When used by teachers, it can improve the motivation and resilience of boys when faced with difficult learning task. 

SECRET 5 – MASTERY

5mastery

Success for any boy ultimately comes when he takes ownership for his own learning. When looking at anything they have to learn, boys’ brains have evolved to want to know its usefulness. In other words, what’s it good for? If they can find a good answer to this question, it deepens their desire to understand the way something works and learn skills so as to master and control it.

SECRET 6 –  MEANING

6meaning

Because they want to understand the usefulness of what they learn, boys need to see the reason for it. “Why do we have to learn this?” is more than a way for a lazy boy to avoid doing work. It is essential for him to understand the importance and meaning of the task at hand. If a teacher can help him see how his learning fits into the larger picture, a boy will increase his interest and commitment in the classroom.

Each of these pathways to boys learning has tremendous power individually, however the real benefits come when we apply them in a particular way to help those boys who are struggling in our classrooms. The illustration below shows how they relate to each other:

7circlechart

Teachers of males at any age level can use these secrets to help improve engagement and achievement. To find out more about this approach, you can sign up for my Boys Learning Newsletter or access a free, in depth email course.


This blog post is connected to Education Canada Magazine’s Towards Fewer Dropouts theme issue and The Facts on Education fact sheet, How Can We Prevent High School Dropouts? Please contact info@cea-ace.ca  if you would like to contribute a blog post to this series.

Meet the Expert

Edmond Dixon

Dr. Edmond J. Dixon is an educator with 30+ years experience as teacher, principal, researcher, author – and parent of boys! He now works with parents and teachers throughout North America to help boys learn better. More information can be found at www.helpingboyslearn.com

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