Recognizing Boys’ Learning Differences in the Montessori Environment

December 09, 2015
NAMC montessori recognizing boys learning differences. group of boys

In our previous blog, we looked the ways neurological and hormonal differences affect the learning and behavior of boys and girls. Knowing that these biological differences are central to children’s development, we must strive to prepare the Montessori environment to both foster equal opportunities for all children and to recognize the fundamental biological differences between boys and girls.

Teaching Boys in the Montessori Environment: Part Two
Recognizing Boys’ Learning Differences in the Montessori Environment

Boys Are More Physical

In general, young boys are much more physical than young girls. While it may seem counterintuitive to some teachers, boys actually need movement to help them focus and pay attention. Current research suggests that when a boy is at rest, as much as 70% of his brain shuts down. In contrast, 90% of the female brain remains active. (Morhard, 2015) This means that girls can pay attention when sitting still in a classroom, but when boys sit still, their brains shut down.

NAMC montessori recognizing boys learning differences. boys are more physical

One of the worst things we can do to boys is to take away or restrict their movement. For that reason, recess should never be taken away as a punishment for unwarranted behavior. Sadly, bad behavior is often brought on by a child’s inability to move. Taking recess or play time away does nothing but exacerbate the problem.

In order to get boys to fully engage in their learning, we must incorporate movement throughout the day. Boys learn better when they are “doing” instead of listening. Fortunately, the Montessori environment already embraces this idea. Children in the Montessori environment are not required to be still.

They are free to move about the classroom, gathering materials, setting up their work area, using and manipulating the Montessori materials, and putting them away — in fact, these are all essential parts of the Montessori work cycle.

Dr. Montessori, an early advocate for the value of movement to a child’s growth, purposely designed activities that center on developing and refining the child’s gross and fine motor control. For example, the first practical life activities involve large muscles: unrolling and rolling mats, moving furniture, tucking in chairs, and walking around workspaces. The child also practices smaller, more refined movements by pouring, spooning, transferring, washing tables. As the child’s movement is refined, his focus and attention span grows.

Boys Excel at Spatial and Mechanical Tasks

As mentioned in our previous blog, the right hemisphere of the brain that controls spatial and mechanical abilities is more active in boys. This means that, in general, boys see and track moving objects better than girls. They can imagine three-dimensional objects in space. They can construct complex structures and can even have superior eye-hand coordination. (Morhard, 2015)

As teachers, we can engage this strength by providing boys with lots of building materials and blocks, along with large spaces indoors and outdoors for creating and constructing. In the Montessori environment, the work with the sensorial materials offers many opportunities for spatial tasks. For example, the first five sensorial materials children work with are the Cylinder Blocks, the Pink Tower, the Brown Stair, the Red Rods, and the Knobless Cylinders, some of which are big materials that can be used in a variety of constructions. Working with these materials children learn in a hands-on manner about characteristics relating to dimensions, including diameter, height, length, and width.

NAMC montessori recognizing boys learning differences. spatial awareness

Boys Develop Verbal Abilities Later Than Girls

The left hemisphere of the brain, which controls verbal abilities, tends to be less active in young boys than it is in girls. Because of this, boys tend to speak later than girls. In fact, boys’ speech may not be fully comprehensible before they are 4 years old — a full year later than girls. In general, girls also have larger vocabularies, better grammar, and use more complicated sentence structure. (Morhard, 2015)

Again, the Montessori environment addresses these learning differences. Through their design, the Montessori language materials help boys develop verbal skills in a tactile, visual, and kinesthetic manner that suits their learning needs.

The Montessori Sandpaper Letters, Movable Alphabet, phonetic objects, Miniature Environment, and Grammar Symbols encourage movement and incorporate muscle memory, which assists with verbal retention.

Boys also need additional support when it comes to listening. Since Montessori lessons are demonstrated rather than explained, verbal instructions are short, clear, and concise. This allows boys to focus on the important information without getting lost in a lot of words.

Important concepts to keep in mind about how boys learn:

  • Concentrate better on single projects rather than multi-tasking
  • Learn visually
  • Hear better through the right ear
  • Make eye contact less readily than girls
  • Look for patterns, remember logical sequences
  • Are more assertive and competitive than girls due to brain structure and testosterone
  • Difficulty understanding multi-step directions
  • See details better than girls
  • Respond best to bright colors
  • Forced eye contact takes away from verbal processing
  • Prefer information to be well organized
  • Spend 65% of their time in competitive play while girls spend about 35%
  • Transition more slowly between activities
  • Hear animal noises and loud sounds better
  • Have a hard time filtering background noises and soft, repetitious sounds
  • Memory centers (hippocampus) are smaller than girls’
  • Prefer physical play and activity rather than words and facial expressions
  • Risk takers, even after repeated warnings, due to less activity in cerebral cortex
(Morhard, 2015)

As we have discussed, Montessori teachers are already implementing many strategies that benefit the manner in which boys learn. This comes directly from trusting in the method and the materials of the Montessori environment.

Equipped with further knowledge about how boys learn, teachers have the opportunity to consciously evaluate their practices and consider changes that may further engage boys and enhance their experience at school.

Works Cited
Brizendine, Louann. The Male Brain. New York: Crown Publishing, 2010.
Morhard, Ruth H. “Boys, boys, boys! Why they're falling behind and what to do about it.” Webinar. October 8, 2015.

Michelle Irinyi — NAMC Tutor & Graduate
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