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Motivating boys to succeed with the Common Core

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It has become apparent to academics, administrators, parents and teachers that, in general, boys are underperforming in school, says Edmond J. Dixon, Ph.D, a veteran educator and international expert who offers enhanced teaching techniques for boys. He says it may get worse with the nationwide roll out of the Common Core Standards.

It will take some creativity to teach some elements of Common Core, the educational initiative set to be implemented throughout most of the United States, in a way that’s conducive to how most boys best learn, Dixon says.
Common Core has been criticized by educators and other experts as demanding standards that are static, arbitrary and generally antithetical to creativity and innovation. Yet initial results in Kentucky, the first state to use the program, have been positive. The state’s graduation rate increased 6 percent from 2010 to 2013, and the percentage of college-ready students increased 20 percent.

“Any parent or teacher who wants a boy to be successful with Common Core must understand two crucial ideas: motivated engagement and discretionary effort,” says Dixon, who has more than three decades experience as a teacher, is a parent of boys, and is the author of “Helping Boys Learn: Six Secrets for Your Son’s Success in School,” (, which features tailored editions for parents and teachers.

Because the new curriculum is designed to improve critical thinking, which requires a deep understanding of the material, boys must be both motivated and deeply engaged to learn, he says. That’s what it will take for them to independently put in the necessary hard work involved in learning – discretionary effort – without nagging, he says.
“Only by doing this will they be able to meet the new learning requirements; we are already seeing the negative consequences of not doing this with boys, and I fear it will just get worse," says Dixon, adding that his approach inspires a boy’s motivated engagement.

He offers two real-life examples that reveal volumes about how the male brain works:

• Boys need a worthy challenge: Both NBA greats, who have long since been great friends, are eager to talk about their former rival. Both say that they simply would not have had the same legendary career without the rivalry; it made them better. When Johnson left the NBA, Bird said he just wasn’t as interested in the game.

The male brain responds to a challenge it deem worthy. A student, who daydreams during algebra class and appears lazy, may also pour attention and effort into mastering a skateboarding trick. Constructing a challenge for the male student will do wonders to engage his learning.

• Boys crave legitimacy. Think about all the colleges in the United States; now imagine trying to craft an NFL playoff-style system that fairly selects the No.1 college football team. Does it seem impossible? Aren’t there too many teams?
The NCAA has been trying to figure out a system for establishing a legitimate No. 1 team for decades, and it’s finally going to implement one next season. Whether or not it’ll work, the effort put into such an endeavor has been considerable. Why so much time and energy for a game?

Because the male brain craves legitimacy; boys will only agree that something is meaningful or valuable if there is a valid process for establishing that value. In the classroom, helping boys understand why and how learning a concept, skill or calculation has value for them will go a long way toward motivating them to learn.

A pioneer in the field of cognitive-kinesthetics for learning, Edmond J. Dixon, Ph.D., is a human development specialist with more than 30 years of experience as a teacher, administrator, writer, researcher – and parent of boys. He is the founder of the KEEN Differentiated Learning Group, an organization dedicated to helping struggling learners, and the creator of KEEN 5X, a series of strategies for classroom engagement and learning that were have been used with more than 50,000 students and teachers. His previous books, “KEEN For Learning” and “Literacy Through Drama,” have been used by educators to improve classroom learning. A dynamic and popular presenter, he has spoken throughout North America on education and human development topics.

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