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No Whitewash Here

mark_twain1If you are male, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is not just a classic piece of literature, but an educational manual on how boys function and learn.   On the other hand, if you are female your perception might be closer to how a boy learned what true love and forgiveness was.  It is true; men and women are wired differently.

I would argue that boys who lived in the 19th Century are not that far removed from boys living in the 21st Century.  True, city boys today don’t have small islands to go off to play pirates, but they still play pirates today using Lego’s or by becoming a character in a video game.

Hidden in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer are life’s lessons that boys grow to learn as well as how they best learn them.  So, allow me to take a few excerpts from this manual that might help you with your son or male student in better understanding how a boy thinks and how to motivate him.

Boys enjoy motivating themselves by scoring the highest points, being the first to reach the next level in a video game, or achieving a Letter in a sport activity.  So, why doesn’t this happen in the classroom with grades as the point maker, or being able to move on to the next chapter of a book, or achieving a certificate, ribbon or button?  Let’s see what Mr. Twain has to say about this.

“Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do… There are wealthy gentlemen in England who drive four-horse passenger-coaches twenty or thirty miles on a daily line, in the summer, because the privilege costs them considerable money; but if they were offered wages for the service, that would turn it into work and then they would resign.”

Boys will spend a considerable amount of time learning the ins and outs of a video game, working long hours to find a noise in a car engine, or reading cheat notes for a game in play.  However, getting a boy to do his homework, turn in his homework on time, or even using the spell checker when typing up a paper involves threats, punishments and sanctions from both parents and teachers.  So, how does one motivate a boy?  Again, Twain supplies another hint.



Tom wheeled suddenly and said:

“Why, it’s you, Ben! I warn’t noticing.”

“Say – I’m going in a-swimming, I am. Don’t you wish you could? But of course you’d druther work – wouldn’t you? Course you would!”

Tom contemplated the boy a bit, and said:

“What do you call work?”

“Why, ain’t that work?”

Tom resumed his whitewashing, and answered carelessly:

“Well, maybe it is, and maybe it ain’t. All I know, is, it suits Tom Sawyer.”

“Oh come, now, you don’t mean to let on that you like it?”

The brush continued to move.

“Like it? Well, I don’t see why I oughtn’t to like it. Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?”

That put the thing in a new light. Ben stopped nibbling his apple. Tom swept his brush daintily back and forth – stepped back to note the effect – added a touch here and there – criticized the effect again – Ben watching every move and getting more and more interested, more and more absorbed. Presently he said:

“Say, Tom, let me whitewash a little.”

“Tom said to himself that it was not such a hollow world, after all. He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it — namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain.”

There are ways to motivate boys, but are not what you either might expect or consider. “Though this be madness, yet there is method in ‘t.”, (Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act II Scene 3).   First, there are dominance hierarchies for both sexes, but the boys’ hierarchy tends to be more stable (that is, the rules are more agreed upon) than the girls hierarchy (Maccoby, E.E., & Jacklin, C. N., 1999), and women need to understand this in order to motivate boys.  A boy is born already hardwired in this. Secondly, boys must have a vested interest in order to work.  Understanding these and other rules that govern a boy’s actions help teachers in planning their classroom lessons.  Twain’s whitewash scenario addresses all of these points, however with that said, it should also be understood that these rules need to be tweaked depending on the boy’s culture, socioeconomic level, and age.  One size doesn’t fit all here.

So, are we back to square one?  No.  There are common denominators that fit all boys that can be discussed and implemented.  I have found, in my 30 years of education, the old adage, “Boys will be boys,” to be quite true whether I was dealing with a boy from a Yaqui reservation, or a boy from the Bronx; a boy from Japan or from Holland.   I have researched, implemented and tweaked  several fields of educational research that worked with boys of different socioeconomic standings,  different cultures, and ages.   I have discovered gems and exposed media hype in topics of brain research to educational marketing tools.   The purpose of this blog is to create and serve the global educational community with what is being done to address the theories, programs and projects that are getting results with how boys best learn.  I am looking forward to the dialogs and exchanges that will help boys, at all ages, to achieve their potentials in education and their futures.


Maccoby, E.E., & Jacklin, C. N. (1999).  The Psychology of Sex Differences.  Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Twain, M. (1876).  The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.  Retrieved from http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~rgs/sawyr-table.html.


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