Boys and Learning: The PBL Solution

By Anne Jolly

Girls’ education has been a major focus for researchers for decades. I strongly advocate for more STEM success and preparation for girls. I write blog posts on girls and STEM on Defined STEM and other blog sites. I scatter references to the need for more attention to STEM girls in additional articles and social media. However, in the interest of transparency, I’m the mother of three fine sons (now men) and I naturally harbor passionate feelings about boys and their educational challenges.

During my 16 years as a middle school teacher, my heart went out to those squirmy, impulsive young men who brought so much life and energy (and occasional distractions) to my science classes. And here’s the reality: many boys are not thriving in school, and some statistics indicate boys are in greater danger of failing than girls. (Boys earn 70% of Ds and Fs and make up 80% of high school dropouts.) Our boys are at an educational disadvantage from the time they enter kindergarten. They come to us hardwired with traits that simply don’t fit with traditional teaching practices.

Let’s look at a couple of those educationally disadvantageous traits with which our boys are “gifted.” (Note: some of these traits and needs may be characteristic of girls as well. However, for the purpose of this post, I’m keeping the focus on our boys.)

The Hardwired Problem for Boys

An Ed Leadership article titled Teaching to the Mindset of Boys sums up some of the research in this area. For example:

• Boy’s brains show more areas dedicated to spatial-mechanical strengths, and fewer dedicated to verbal areas than girls. They generally start slower in the areas of reading and writing. Since typical elementary classrooms are primarily language-based, lots of boys lack the fluency to be as successful as girls, and many develop identity problems with school early on.

• Boys are more active and have trouble sitting still for long periods of time. They are more alert when they are standing and moving. Pull up a mental image of a traditional class where students may be expected to sit quietly in ruler-straight rows for long periods of time during the day. Heck, that scares me, and I like to sit quietly. Possibly the most frustrating words a boy can hear is “Sit down!”

• Boys are usually hardwired to be kinesthetic learners. They learn best through hands-on experiences – through touching and moving. Because of greater blood flow in the cerebellum—the “doing” center of the brain—boys more easily verbalize what they are doing rather than what they are feeling. They communicate more fluently when they are engaged in doing a task of some sort.

• Boys are generally more aggressive and competitive than girls and tend to be less collaborative. Their brain chemistry makes it more likely that they will be physically inclined and have more difficulty with impulse control, particularly in childhood.

• Boys learn best when they have a real reason for learning something. They need a reason to engage in a learning task that goes beyond, “Because I said so.”

The PBL Solution

So what’s a teacher to do? Are we going to continue viewing the natural assets that boys bring —impulsivity, single-task focus, spatial-kinesthetic learning, and physical aggression—as problems? By altering our teaching strategies to accommodate these typically male assets, we can help boys succeed. Frankly, recommendations for strategies to meet the educational needs of boys practically scream, PBL! PBL! PBL!

Here’s what research says about leveling the playing field for boys:

Provide a high-energy classroom where kids are in motion. Ditch the teacher-centered approach with lots of teacher talk, note-taking, and quiet studying. Instead, imagine STEM lessons using a project-based learning (PBL) approach. Students might learn about forms of energy and motion by building and testing catapults, rocket cars, and rollercoasters. A good fit for boys? Oh, yes.

Design lessons that provide students with real-world applications. Establish an authentic purpose and a meaningful, real-life connection for what you ask students to learn. Boys tend to ask, “Why do I need to know this?” They need a clear link between what they are learning and their lives outside of school. That’s one of the requirements for an authentic STEM lesson – solving a real-world problem. Use a PBL approach to help them work on solving that problem.

Involve students in teamwork. Teamwork is especially important for boys as they learn to cooperate and develop camaraderie. (Tip: single-gender team groupings may sometimes be beneficial.) Recall that boys tend to have a thirst for competition as well. STEM lessons that require a combination of competition and teamwork tend to be most engaging for boys.

Add to those recommendations these 8 categories of lessons that succeed in teaching boys (featured in The Atlantic). Notice the close correlation between these suggestions and PBL lessons.

  1. Lessons that result in an end product.
  2. Lessons that are structured as competitive games
  3. Lessons requiring motor activity
  4. Lessons requiring boys to assume responsibility for the learning of others
  5. Lessons that require boys to address open questions or unsolved problems
  6. Lessons that require a combination of competition and teamwork
  7. Lessons that focus on independent, personal discovery and realization
  8. Lessons that introduce novelty or surprise

That looks like a checklist for a PBL classroom to me. What might a great PBL learning activity for boys look like? A STEM lesson! (In reality, PBL is the engine that drives STEM lessons.)

A PBL-STEM combo takes advantage of boys’ high-energy, movement-driven learning styles. STEM provides the content for choice, problem-solving, authentic applications, and teamwork. STEM lessons allow teachers to move around and interact with students and offer more opportunity for building relationships.

I offer to you the suggestion that the PBL is the perfect fit for the educational needs of our boys. In fact, PBL is a great solution for all students. Let’s advocate for effective PBL programs with increasing fervor.


About the A uthor

Anne Jolly is a STEM consultant, MiddleWeb blogger, and online community organizer for the Center for Teaching Quality. She began her career as a middle school science teacher in Mobile County Schools in Alabama and is a former Alabama State Teacher of the Year. Anne has recently co-developed  nationally  recognized STEM curriculum with support from the National Science Foundation. She writes for a variety of publications. Her most recent book, STEM by Design, is published by Routledge Press. Find her regularly on Twitter @ajollygal, on her blog at MiddleWeb, and on her STEM by Design website.


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