For years now, parents have been told that the education system favours girls, rewarding them for their generally better behaviour and maturity, while boys struggle with discipline and truancy.

But according to Canadian author and educator Edmund Dixon, the problem isn’t a gender issue; it’s an academic one. The ways young boys and girls learn are quite different, Dixon believes, and our current approaches to education don’t reflect that.

That may be why school-aged boys are diagnosed with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) twice as often as girls and are much more likely to drop out of high school. It may also be why boys make up the vast majority of students placed in special education classes, who are sent to the office for discipline, suspended/expelled and who underachieve in literacy and on standardized tests.

Dixon, the author of a new book called “Helping Boys Learn,” says much of the reason boys don’t do as well in classroom setting as girls is that they are simply not connecting with what they are being taught.

“The majority of boys don’t even bring their full game to school; they don’t really work as hard as they could in many cases. And part of that is because they are not as engaged,” Dixon told CTV’s Canada AM Monday.

Brain research shows that unless someone is actively engaged with what they are being taught, they won’t make the neural connections needed to cement the lesson and learn it, he says.

Dixon has used his 30 years of experience as a teacher, parent and researcher to come up with six secrets that he says are crucial to helping boys learn – both in the classroom and at home as well.

Those six secrets are:

  • Movement
  • Games
  • Humour
  • Challenge
  • Mastery
  • Meaning

The first trick -- movement -- is highly important for boys, Dixon says, because their brains are wired at a young age to want to move; in fact, he says, they have more wiring in their brains than girls for movement. So he says finding ways of incorporating movement into the context of learning is crucial.

That doesn’t have to mean calisthenics; it could be simply mean encouraging boys to use their hands to visualize what they’re learning, such as marking out the three sides and the three vertices of a triangle when learning geometry, for example.

“They love these things,” Dixon says. “You just have to put a little bit of it into their learning both at home and at school and it supercharges their learning and encourages them to learn.”

Another “trick” is to use games to help with learning.

“Boys love games because they get a jolt of testosterone when they set a goal and achieve it. That’s why they love video games or sports,” Dixon says.

So one way to help boys learn spelling, for example, is to set up a back-and-forth game in a group in which everybody is asked to say one letter of the word to spell it out. This technique requires much more focus and concentration and helps the lesson to stick better, Dixon says.

“You do that with boys and they will be totally focused because they want to win the game. But at the same time, they’re making strong neural connections that help them to learn better in the classroom,” he says.

Another technique is to use humour to get boys’ attention -- keeping in mind boys tend to have a different sense of humour than girls that tends to lean toward the ridiculous, puerile or gross.

“We know from brain research that humour focuses their minds,” Dixon said. “So if you need a boy to focus and you ask him to think about the funny side of something or you bring up a joke related to what they’re learning, it creates a stronger neural connection.”

Dixon says it’s important that every boy believes the system is working for him and that he is a good learner. That’s key, he says, because studies show boys who believe they are good at learning will do better overall. It’s also what will make boys embrace the strategy of “mastery,” he says.

“Mastery is what boys need to achieve if they’re going to be really good at something. And it what keep them in school long term – because they want to become good at it,” he says. “To achieve that, you need to allow them a certain amount of control in their own learning.”