This semester I have a class with 8 middle school boys, mostly 6th graders. They are a great bunch of kids: curious, interested in the topic (Technology & Society), willing to try new things (like learning morse code) and always willing to participate. But roughly 80% of them cannot keep track of a handout from one day to the next. I’ve been trying to crack this nut all year (how to help the disorganized ones to be better organized) and I’ve not made much progress.

Today I listened to Ezra Klein’s latest podcast, called “The Men — and Boys — Are Not Alright” and it actually gave me some insight into how I might help them. First I just want to say that the Ezra Klein Podcast is, in general, pretty amazing. My reading list of non-fiction is 90% from Ezra’s invited authors and their book recommendations.

But back to helping my middle schoolers (again, all boys this term). Here’s the exchange that really got me thinking.

From the “Are Not Alright” Podcast:

Ezra: One thing you argue based on this difference in the timing of brain development is that we need to face up to the idea that school is simply structurally designed in a way that disadvantages boys. Tell me what you mean by that.

Richard: Yes, and it’s important just to say, not structurally designed in order to be less favorable to boys. So it’s not intentional. There wasn’t some great secret feminist conspiracy 100 years ago when we were designing the high school system to say, a-ha, it’ll take a century, but eventually we’ll get our way. But now that we’re in a situation where we have, thankfully, taken away most of, if not all, of the barriers to women’s education — girls and women’s educational opportunities and pathways and ambition, we do see this difference opening up.

And what I mean by that is that the education system rewards certain kinds of skills and behaviors which are, everything else equal, more likely to be found in girls than in boys, and more likely to come earlier in girls than in boys, like organization, et cetera. So I find the difference in the GPA gap and the standardized test score gaps really instructive in this regard. There is a quite significant GPA gap in favor of girls, but there isn’t on standardized tests.

Standardized tests now are basically equal. So it’s not that girls are smarter than boys, or of course, the other way around. It’s that girls have just got their act together a bit more. They’ve got their prefrontal cortex kicking in. They’re turning their chemistry homework in. They’re getting their coursework done. Those are what social scientists call like non-cognitive skills, or I do — I refer to them as turning in your chemistry homework skills.

And so to the extent that we reward those kinds of behaviors and that they are more likely to be found in girls, then everything else equal, that means that baked into the education system is something of a tilt towards girls. It’s just that we couldn’t see that before because we were basically not letting girls go on to college, or certainly strongly discouraging them from doing so. So those natural advantages weren’t as obvious.

Back to the Organization Skills of Middle Schoolers

When student come to middle school, they are thrown out of a classroom where their desk and cubbies for storing things are all in the same room and into an situation where there are now 6-8 different classes, a locker to hold things, and the requirement that they organize everything and remember what to bring to every class from their lockers. This happens as an instant transition. But maybe it doesn’t have to be that way.

So here’s what I’m thinking. What if I started the school year giving  6th graders a space within each classroom to store their folder or binder for that class. The students could practice getting the materials from their shelf/cubby/etc before class starts and putting the materials away at the end of each class. Then we could gradually transition the students to locating the materials in their lockers. Each student could decide when they are ready to make the transition, and if they try it for a week and are not ready yet, they can go back to practicing in the classroom for a while. Ultimately, giving some kind of reward for demonstrating their organization and responsibility would sweeten the desire to move from classroom cubby to locker.

Organization is a skill of the prefrontal cortex, and whether boys or girls, this develops at a different rate for each student. On average, the prefrontal cortex of boys matures about a year slower than girls.

Suddenly, the difficulty with both organization of papers into a notebook and the plethora of lost papers makes sense to me. The transition from K-5 to middle school is just too fast for these organization skills to catch up.

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