The statistics are alarming: Boys are more likely than girls to be suspended or expelled from school, to need special education, to repeat a grade, to become incarcerated or unemployed. Girls graduate from high school at higher rates than boys, and women now outnumber men in American colleges by a ratio of nearly three to two.
But the news may not be altogether grim for boys. When we consider the skills needed for success in the rapidly changing global workplace and compare them with the most effective methods for teaching boys, there is a great deal of alignment. The trick is to implement these methods. The challenge lies in persuading teachers to change the way they engage and educate boys.
World markets continue to shift away from industrial economies based on production of goods toward "knowledge economies" that trade in information. This means the next generation of college graduates must be independent problem-solvers and decision-makers.
Harvard University's Howard Gardner, in his book "Five Minds for the Future," says we'll need people with technical expertise who can synthesize complex ideas and creatively solve programs while providing moral courage and ethical leadership.
Dan Pink echoes many of the same themes in "A Whole New Mind," arguing that a "seismic shift" is under way that will move us from a society built on logical, linear thinking to one that depends on invention, creativity and collaboration.
The Partnership for 21st Century Learning, a nonprofit think tank, has identified three categories of essential elements: creativity and innovation, critical thinking and problem solving, and communication and collaboration.
The way these skills are being popularly characterized seems to imply they've never been taught before. But creative and critical thinking are not skills uniquely needed in the 21st century; they've been taught since the days of Socrates. They are just newly important for a wider swath of society.
Most schools can point to trailblazing instructors who were decades ahead of their time. Often popular and sometimes misunderstood, many are examples of "21st-century thinkers" from a different era.
Jake Zeigler, a member of our faculty from 1936 until 1979, was one such teacher. Jake taught the principles of science by showing his students how to take apart a car engine and put it back together. He taught them to feel -- literally -- the difference between wiring a circuit in series or in parallel by having them join hands as he connected them to a low-voltage current. Jake and his students built practical devices, including a ski tow rope atop a large hill on campus that was fashioned from an old Volkswagen engine.
Jake is just one example of a teacher who understood the importance of helping students develop habits of practical reasoning, inventive thinking and collaborative problem solving in real-life settings. Increasingly, educators are recognizing that this type of teaching is particularly suited to the learning styles of boys. For their new book, "Reaching Boys, Teaching Boys," authors Richard Hawley and Michael Reichert surveyed thousands of teachers from around the world to distill the best ways to connect with boys. They pretty much described Jake: make products, work in teams, compete and explore with open minds.
Providing boys with opportunities to engage in collaborative projects that require them to design and produce something is more than a way to get restless boys out of their seats and dirty their hands. It helps connect them with the material they are studying.
A classroom in which risk-taking and experimentation are welcome allows students to experience the rewards of exploration and innovation in an environment safe from humiliation and the need to impress. They are most engaged when lessons and projects are driven by their own interests, provided this can be done without compromising academic rigor.
In 21st-century classrooms, students learn the value of teamwork as they collaborate to solve problems and draw conclusions without being bound by rule-based thinking. The setting should foster "relational learning" -- a methodology known to be especially effective for boys that lets students help teach each other. We know boys thrive in environments where they are given permission to take risks. The 21st-century classroom supports an academic and social environment where failure is accepted and viewed as an opportunity to learn. Students must know that answering incorrectly will not be met with shame or disparagement. This allows for open inquiry and helps them grow into curious and confident life-long learners.
Technological literacy is important, too, and studies show that teenage boys are the most active consumers of technology. Many schools have embraced web learning and virtual worlds. These new technological platforms -- ones our students will encounter in the workplace -- have captured boys' imagination. As the use of technology becomes more seamlessly joined with math and science education -- traditional areas of strength for boys -- teachers can examine with their students the growing fields of nanotechnology, robotics, environmental sciences and biotechnology.
There is an understandable sense of urgency developing among American educators these days. Our children, especially our boys, are falling behind the rest of the world by nearly all measures of scholastic achievement. Many schools still cling to rote memorization and "drill and kill" methods that quash creativity and independent thought early in the educational process.
The world in which we live is far more competitive and far more demanding than ever before. If we intend to continue to thrive as a nation, we must devote more time, energy and resources to the overwhelming number of boys who are struggling in our schools. We must give them the skills they need to succeed in the 21st century. The first step is to understand how.